Just before we left Cornwall the week before last, and after we’d loaded the car and returned the key, I had a quiet couple of minutes leaning on the gate looking out to sea while the birds were singing their hearts out in anticipation of spring. A Mistle Thrush rehearsed his repetitive chorus; Robins sang their plaintive songs, Great Tits, Blue Tits and gulls of several persuasions added their descant; crows and Magpies rattled on about nothing much – all adding to the rhythm of waves beating on the pebble beach below; and I realized how little I wanted to leave. I struggle to quantify or even understand the healing power of nature, but I completely and gratefully accept it.
However, there were things to do back in Bath, not least a Bath Natural History Society lecture on regenerative farming given by local farmer, Jeremy Padfield. It was an excellent talk on a subject I’ve often explored in the Potwell Inn and I made so many notes that I felt inspired to write an account for the Bath Nats website and the annual report. A quick enquiry about length solicited a noncommittal response and so I set to and wrote just over 1000 words just as an email from the editor of the annual report arrived to suggest 350 words. So a postcard then! Much anguished editing and sacrifice of my little darlings boiled the stock down to a thick jus and off it went.
Simultaneously a report in the Falmouth Packet, (local Cornish newspaper which I like to keep an eye on), printed a story about the lovely strip of coastal land running up from St Just to St Ives. It’s a place we know well and have often walked, and the newspaper was working itself up into a froth because the area has just been designated a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) due to the rich biodiversity of the land which has a tremendously wide variety of habitats rare flora and fauna and even a breeding colony of Dartford Warblers. Sadly and predictably one or two farmers were describing the move as a “land grab” – comparable to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – well Natural England weren’t exactly bombing the area in order to protect it, and at first sight this seemed like a bit of a Luddite knee jerk reaction. Nonetheless I was interested to see whether their fear of being driven off their land was justified.
The outcome was that I was reading the (54 page) Natural England report on the West Penwith SSSI at the same time as I was reading about the new ELMS scheme for Farming subsidies; trying to discover what actual subsidies would be available to Cornish farmers in the SSSI, whilst writing my piece on Regenerative Agriculture.
The lecture itself was illuminating . Since 2009 when two Duchy farms reached an agreement to work together it seems that tremendous progress has been made: here’s my shortened report.
Regenerative Farming has become a bit of a buzzword recently but it’s an idea whose time has come, not least because of the new Government policy – the ELMS scheme – which aims to move farm subsidies completely from the old system based on farm acreage to “public funding for public goods” – rewarding farmers for carrying out important environmental work. Compensation for lost output will now be based on income foregone. LEAF has two functions, firstly as a charity promoting Integrated Farm Management and secondly as a marque for food produced under LEAF standards.
Jeremy Padfield and his business partner Rob Addicott, farm about 1000 acres of the land under Higher Level Stewardship Agreements of which 80 acres are specifically conservation managed for wildlife. Their combined Duchy farms became LEAF demonstration farms in 2006. Over subsequent years soil organic matter averages out at around 5%; no insecticides have been used within the last 5 years; weed killing is targeted only reactively; antibiotic use has been reduced by 58% and plastic use is down by 60%. Minimum tillage leads to a 68% drop in fuel consumption; water is intensively managed and stored, and solar energy meets much of the needs of the farm buildings. As well as wider wildlife field margins, Stratton Farms have been experimenting with skylark plots and wide strips of wildflowers and companion plants through the crops. Additionally, 20 acres of trees and 2000 metres of hedgerow have been planted.
This may sound like a revival of traditional farming, but what makes it profitable is the use of very hi-tech equipment like drones with three yearly intensive soil testing and highly technical GPS delivery systems which have dramatically reduced the amount of artificial fertilizer applied to the soil.
The most memorable illustration of the evening was when he took an apple to represent the earth and then cut successive slices away to represent otherwise unprofitable land. The proportion left on which food crops could be grown turned out to be breathtakingly tiny. A well attended talk which drew together the threads of shared interest that unite farmers, environmentalists and consumers.Dave Pole – report to Bath Natural History Society.
Impressive stuff, we thought – as seemingly most of the members present agreed. However when I checked on the DEFRA website, some of the subsidies looked pretty minimal – the best example being the skylark nesting patches for which they would receive just £10. Lapwings come in quite a bit higher. Just how much admin time it would take to replicate the old EU subsidies, or whether it’s even possible is a moot point. If these measures are not properly funded then the government will be expecting farmers to fund environmental improvement of the land from their own pockets. That would be a good deal easier for a farmer on 2000 hectares of prime land than for a small mixed farmer with just a couple of hectares of grassland in the middle of a SSSI.
Then, shockingly, the Observer this weekend featured a piece on the present state of the replacement farm subsidies being managed by DEFRA. It’s almost unbelievable, but only .44% – less than half a percent of the sum set aside has actually been paid! There was no detail on which farms and farmers had actually received their payments, but one regenerative farmer reported a 48% fall in government payments.
I’m beginning to wonder whether the undeclared policy of the government is to do precisely what those West Penwith Farmers fear most – drive them off their land in order to achieve heaven knows what objectives. After a recent edition of Countryfile on the BBC featuring the mining of lithium and selecting Cornwall as a prime area for reviving the (all kneel please) economy , I wrote to the BBC complaining that there had been no spokesperson opposing the extension of this wasteful and polluting process. If joining the dots is the only way to figure out what this government actually wants to do with the countryside I’d say that on present evidence their policy amounts to greenwashing the continuation of an extractive economy which has brought the environment to the brink of destruction.