When I saw a piece in Farmers Weekly declaring Jeremy Clarkson as the 2021 champion of farmers I thought to myself – well the lunatics really have taken over the asylum! I tried to kid myself it was a bit of postmodern irony but – well no. I guess if you wanted to appoint an ambassador who could rise above the facts and blame everyone except himself for making a miniscule profit in spite of the subsidies – and do it while pouring insults and bile over tree huggers and vegans he’s definitely be your man. I know it’s only entertainment, but out here in the real world there does seem to be something of a cultural sea change going on in the more thoughtful parts of the farming community. The talk on the street is that public money will, in the future be attached to public goods, and that means paying more than lip service to the soil and the environment.
So Madame and me have been looking around at some of the local farmers who are heading in the same direction as us and today we revisited this farm which ticks most of the boxes, that’s to say they’re doing the things on the signboard – broadly regenerative farming – and they’re marketing direct to the local community. Less food miles, more emphasis on building up good soil. They don’t appear to call themselves organic but there are many farmers – particularly in the US – who want to go beyond the rather lax standards of “official” organics. Too many loopholes and exceptions which you can see for yourself if you search on the internet for the official organic specifications. Best of all they seem to be making a living which, if you’re a farmer who’s interested in dipping a toe in the regenerative waters, is going to be important. After all, if you’re at all interested in building your soil you’re surely not going to be inundating it with persistent chemicals.
So that was a cheerful early start to the day; and then we turned to the allotment and while Madame sowed spinach and lettuce for the winter I mixed a barrow load of potting compost, filled fifty pots (all recycled from previous lives) and planted out the overwintering garlic using the best cloves from last season. They’ve all gone into what was supposed to be the new strawberry bed, which was conceived and built before we thought about getting a polytunnel, but we’ve used it this year to grow the some of the alliums because it’s so easy to hoop and net. If you like, it’s an overlong cold frame. Garlic needs a period of cold before it will start into growth and so this is the perfect place for it to begin its journey. Later on in the spring the young plants will be planted out into a much larger bed. The strawberries are in their luxury quarters in the polytunnel as the young offsets develop ready for their first season. This time we’ll devise some kind of narrow hanging bed that can be suspended in such a way it doesn’t rob too much light from the base level which is half full already with winter delights.
We’re so busy at the moment we seem to be living on bread and soup; but we talked about the pleasures of this season today and we agreed that it’s lovely that we’ve made a strong start to next year’s season already with time in hand before the bad weather sets in.
As it happens the travelling fishmonger was outside the farm shop and he’d got masses of fish straight up from Newlyn. We bought enough fish to feed a small army, including some locally (just up the River Severn) smoked kippers – I assumed the herrings must have made a longer journey. Anyway we had a late breakfast of kippers and fresh sourdough bread with mugs of tea. Very traditional!
Having allowed my imagination to run free in the last couple of posts, it’s time to get back down to some allotment basics – after all, one of my principal aims for this holiday was to get stuck into some serious reading about regenerative farming. I certainly got stuck at first but switched course and now I’m beginning to think that I ought to make a proper list of the books I’ve been reading so readers can join me in the journey. I’ve now just about finished reading Gabe Brown’s “Dirt into soil” and although it’s hardly aimed at our 200 square metres of allotment and is really slanted towards mixed farming with grazing animals, it cleared up a few mysteries for me and turned my thoughts about soil improvement completely upside down. It’s also given me a much clearer perspective on what is, and what isn’t regenerative farming and since our UK government is talking the talk about changing agricultural practices it’s up to us to make sure they’re also walking the walk. After all for a government that announces it’s going to move towards carbon zero and then announces it’s considering opening a new coal mine – followed by the assertion that we’ll need more nuclear power stations – this isn’t an encouraging start.
Until now I’ve always thought of soil improvement as largely a matter of adding lots and lots of compost. We started off committed to organic gardening and then, a couple of years ago we went no-dig as well. This last season we grew a variety of insect pollinators and companion plants alongside the vegetables in all our beds, and it’s gone well – and with the pond we’ve had vastly more visiting insects. Of course we’ve changed so many variables and the weather has been so random, we’ve only got anecdotal evidence that our changes have worked but we’re pretty sure that the following strategies worked:
Netting all the alliums from sowing to harvest with fine insect net
Using nasturtium to draw blackfly away from food crops
Sowing Calendula and Tagetes on most beds
Butterfly and bird netting all the brassicas
Sadly the expensive treatment with nematodes had little impact on the slugs, and the beer traps sheltered more slugs underneath than drowned in the beer.
The asparagus was spared the heavy beetle attacks that we’ve had in the past, and given that our near neighbour had his plants devastated it looks as if the border of calendula and the increased parasitic insect population may have helped. I’ve written a lot about our liability to waterlog in the winter – partly due to underground streams. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort digging woodchip filled paths between the beds to drain the water away and the two worst affected beds came through the winter very well. We’ve also added grit and sand in the worst places along with masses of compost and leaf mould. The upshot has been that our need to water in dry spells has greatly decreased. We escaped the blight with resistant varieties and early cropping of the container potatoes so, looking back it’s been a pretty successful season most of which was spent battling against a headwind of adverse weather.
If you’re still with me, you’ll have noticed that every single effort to improve our earth has been via applications to the top surface. What the Gabe Brown book – and all the others I’ve been reading – brought to the top of my thoughts was to see what’s going on under the surface, and the usefulness of ground cover crops during the winter, so that the plants go on feeding the soil through their roots all year round. And there’s the revolution, because most of us instinctively think of plants as a kind of one way street for water and nutrients when in fact they’re completely biologically interlocked with billions of soil organisms which, in return for carbon in the form of photosynthesised sugars, provide the plants with many of the micronutrients they need to grow and thrive. All this mutual aid is conducted through the truly huge mycorrhizal networks that wrap the roots and occasionally even grow inside them. Plants send signals seeking specific nutrients and the fungal networks ship them in. The astonishing discoveries of science now tell us that the creation of soil can be much faster than we originally thought and that in contrast to the received wisdom that everything goes on from above, soil creation is as much concerned with the recovery of nutrients from the subsoil. Soil can actually grow from below. This is a vast simplification but it has big implications for the way we grow plants, because these networks – having evolved over millions of years – mean that we can no longer think of what goes on underground as separate from the plant we harvest. Soil microbes have the astonishing ability to break down subsoil and rock and dissolve the essential nutrients in a way that’s barely understood. We need to start seeing our crops as giant solar energy farms, converting carbon dioxide into food through the process of photosynthesis.
So when we add artificial fertilisers to a crop the plants just grab up the 25% of the fertiliser they can use and the rest goes into the soil and gets washed into our polluted rivers. Worse still, the plants get lazy and just go for the industrialised fast food and the sugar/carbon trading mechanisms get broken. When we drench the soil with insecticides and herbicides exactly the same thing happens. Industrial farmers and gardeners then start to try to make up the deficiencies with more additives and chemicals. The other way we break those mycorrhizal connections is by digging and turning the soil, and these relationships are precisely the mechanism by which carbon gets stored in the earth.
So farmers, gardeners and allotmenteers, not to mention every other human being on earth have a common cause in not ploughing, tilling and digging; not using artificial fertilisers and not using chemicals. What ought to be the good news for farmers in particular is that chemicals and diesel oil are increasingly expensive and eat into profit margins – plus, the premium value of the produce from regenerative farms means better profits. What’s not to like?
Here’s the downside. It looks as if the agrochemical business and their captive bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture are greenwashing as usual in pushing no-till, direct drilling supplemented by – you’ve guessed it – herbicides to kill weeds, plus the usual pesticides and fungicides which will do nothing to solve our problems. There is another way, for instance, to suppress weeds and reduce rainwater runoff, and that’s carefully calibrated cover crops.
But it’s not all good news for vegetarians and especially vegans because the very best and most efficient way of improving the soil is by doing (or not doing) all of the above plus carefully controlled grazing – sometimes known as mob grazing. This kind of approach can capture carbon in the soil far more efficiently and more quickly than by planting trees alone. Further – and I know what question will be next – controlled grazing on healthy soil means that dung, a potent source of methane when stored in lagoons and sprayed on the soil later – is quickly broken down by prodigious numbers of insects and soil organisms and feeding the soil. Not only that, by feeding cattle on their evolved diet of grass and forbs rather than industrial grain, their digestive systems function far better and the need for constant worming and antibiotics almost disappears. Meat will, of course, become much more expensive, (perhaps more realistically priced) which should please everyone with a concern for animal welfare.
Of course this won’t make catastrophic climate change go away – we’ll still have to break our addiction to oil in every other department of life – but farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners can at least do something to help, and everyone can help by supporting change, buying better rather than blaming farmers and growers and calling out politicians when they try to pull the wool over our eyes.
I don’t normally suffer from insomnia, but sometimes I’m reading a book that’s so mind changing I can’t wait to wake and start reading again. Charles Massy’s “Call of the reed warbler” is one such book that straddles half a dozen fields of interest that, until now, I’d pursued separately. I’ll write at much greater length later, but meanwhile here’s a quotation from the last chapter – Towards an emergent future – that, even before dawn at five o’clock this morning, filled me with excitement and hope for the future. This book is a wonder. At around 500 pages it’s not a breeze, but it will stand as a bulwark against the phoney greenwashing schemes of the (literally) unholy alliance of the politicians and the multinational companies who are reducing the earth to dust and our lives to exhaustion and sickness.
“Significantly, the new regenerative agriculture is not just being practiced on small backyard plots or half-acre (quarter-hectare) allotments (for these too are part of the solution, and some of the practices apply and are indeed being practised there). No, the approach is also being applied on tens of millions of acres, while elements of it have the potential to be applied equally broadly worldwide, as I have described in this book. These include holistic grazing management, grassland grains, pasture cropping and natural intelligence agriculture, a new agroforestry, farmer-managed natural regeneration, biological agriculture and many others.
Therefore, this revolution has the potential to make massive inroads into addressing the key Anthropocene challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, distortions to the nitrogen, phosphorus and other biogeochemical cycles, land degradation, malfunctioning of the water cycle, and so on. In addition, regenerative agriculture has astounding potential to address human ill health; to therefore address the huge burden of modern health costs on society; to make farmers more profitable and free of the clutches of banks and large multinational chemical and energy suppliers; and to free farmers and urban cousins alike from capture by the merciless behemoths of agribusiness, commodity trading, financing, retailing, food processing and the like. Consequently, we need to be aware that a new regenerative agriculture is subversive: but in a truly constructive way. That is why I call it an ‘underground insurgency’, for it is a bottom-up revolution instigated by a new mind.”
A piece on regenerative farming in today’s Guardian caught my eye this morning, and it all started rather well with a description of a farmer called Richard Thomas and his journey towards less intensive farming. So far so good I thought to myself until the National Farmers Union plans hove into view like a cruise liner in Venice; rather dwarfing the good sense of the first couple of paragraphs. It seems that the NFU’s cunning plan to save the world, taking into account – I might say – members responses to a questionnaire; is for farmers to offset three quarters of Britain’s agricultural emissions by growing crops to be turned into power station fuel. No intensive beef farmers will be harmed by this plan because there are no plans to cut beef production. They don’t, however, seemed to have factored in the enormous contribution to global warming that will be made by tens of thousands of lorries driving up hill and down dale to move the product from farm to power station. Maybe all that pollution will be included in the overall amount that will be captured by as yet not invented technologies and stored as liquid CO2 – or maybe it will be pumped into disused tin mines and fairy grottos beneath Heathrow airport.
Then, just to spread the good sense even more thinly, the retired (thank goodness) Chief Scientist at DEFRA suggests an alternative to re-forest half of Britain’s farmland, kindly suggesting that Britain’s farmers were sitting on a potential subsidy goldmine.
The uncharacteristically cynical thought occurred to me that the re-forested bit would amount to all the hill country and the land that’s unsuitable for industrial farming (that’s the bit we enjoy) in order to leave the best arable land free to be even more intensively farmed. I shouldn’t be surprised if Monsanto were already conducting field studies into intensively farmed, fertilized and chemically bombed industrial tree farms.
86% of farmers interviewed thought that subsidies were a jolly good thing . As Mandy Rice Davies memorably said – “Well they would, wouldn’t they”. I don’t hate farmers, by the way; but I think they deserve better from the government and from their union. There’s abundant evidence that most farmers know the industrial and heavily subsidised destruction has to end, and quickly. But where’s the vision? Where’s the leadership?
I believe that some green activists are inadvertently playing into the hands of the agrochemical and junk food industries by refusing to countenance anything except the end of all meat production and the reforesting of huge tracts of potentially food producing land. We have to feed ourselves in the most sustainable and healthy way possible, and a world full of imported food, lorries, carbon capturing megafactories and industrial forestry would be the worst of all possible ways of doing that. Even as I was reading the Guardian article the top of the screen was offering a variety of industrially produced supergloops; the fruits of a dangerously reductive view of nutrition, and offering vitality and almost eternal life by the teaspoon. Let’s not eat into our most productive moments by chewing stuff! – they suggest. Work, buy, consume, die – we cry as we fall into the pit we’ve been digging since the late eighteenth century. Or, as I used to remind myself sometimes – there are no pockets in a shroud.
I ought to agree with George Monbiot more than I do. To all intents we’re on the same side of the argument when it comes to the climate catastrophe that’s bearing down on us; and yet there’s one theme that keeps on coming up in his columns, films and writing that’s typified in his column in today’s Guardian.
He reiterates his argument that governments are acting far too slowly to the crisis but then, in a throwaway line without any attempt to stand it up he writes this:
But net zero commitments by other sectors work only if farmland goes sharply net negative. That means an end to livestock farming and the restoration of forests, peat bogs and other natural carbon sinks.
George Monbiot in his Guardian column.
I’ve just finished reading Nicolette Kahn Hyman’s “In defence of beef” and I’m now reading Charles Massy’s book “Call of the warbler” which is a brilliant and passionate book about the Australian farmers who are trying to rectify the terrible damage done to their soils by decades of intensive farming and heavy chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, justified by the mindset he terms “the mechanical mind”.
Amongst a pile of challenging and hopeful ideas, one in particular comes to the fore – it’s to do with rewilding and reforesting. Thinking just about water runoff, one of the ideas that keeps getting pushed is tree planting. I don’t know enough about soil hydrology to put numbers to this but it seems possible that the amount of water capture achieved by tree planting would be very much smaller than the capture that could be achieved by the combination of tree planting and soil improvement. What emerges from Alan Savory’s methodology is that undergrazing is as dangerous as overgrazing in promoting desertification. Bringing back beavers to slow runoff is obviously a good idea, but it’s a stage too late by the time runoff reaches the streams and rivers. Here’s where there’s a possibility of working with farmers to improve upland areas which are often overgrazed, by subsidising tree planting (right kind of long-lived mixed woodland that could be possible in lower regions) and holistic grazing management that would rebuild soil structure and increase water holding capacity. What is clear is that if we just put a fence around upland areas and do nothing, the results would be unpredictable and possibly adverse; quite aside from driving out an established culture of small farms that manage the landscape on our behalf. Farmers – hill farmers particularly – are a conservative bunch and would need persuading that a different way of managing flocks and landscape could still provide a (likely subsidised) income and guaranteed future. To quote from “In defence of beef” – it’s not the cow but the how!
The takeaway point from these and many other studies – I think immediately of Simon Fairlie’s “Meat, a benign extravagance” – but I could as easily cite Sir Albert Howard’s “An Agricultural Testament” or a dozen other writers – the contribution that livestock can make to soil recovery if, (this is the important bit) – if – grazing is part of a holistic rotation, mob grazing is one type.
So after a fifty year obsession with intensive farming and the inexorable rise in consumption of junk food we’re starving and dying prematurely in a sea of waste, while species extinctions rise and pollution threatens our rivers. My point is that our problems aren’t caused by livestock farming per se but by intensive industrial farming. Of course we need to change the how of livestock farming, and of course we will necessarily have to eat much less, but far higher quality meat. The evidence is mounting that it’s not meat eating that’s causing the epidemic of ill health, but refined sugar and junk food. If only George Monbiot would read the evidence he would be able to take a much more balanced view of the potential for farming to mitigate some of the most pressing climate issues. It’s a fact that well managed grazing can capture carbon and increase water retention while providing high quality food at the same time. Until human beings learn how to digest grass and twigs – OK cellulose – we will probably need to access some high quality protein, vitamins and trace elements by consuming meat. It’s not coherent to argue that we should all be vegans. We in the UK are stuck/blessed with a vast amount of grassland that’s unsuitable for any other agricultural use than grazing, and all the oughts in the world will not grow a single soybean on a Welsh hill farm. Oughts and is’s are not – as any first year ethics student will know – interchangeable.
To return to an earlier point, undergrazing is as bad for the soil as overgrazing and so any sort of walking away strategy for so-called rewilding is a recipe for ecological disaster – just a different sort of disaster from the one being caused by intensive industrial farming. So while I agree with 90% of what George Monbiot writes, simply ending livestock farming would just throw the baby out with the bathwater. Charles Massy’s book shows several instances where farmers have reduced fertilizer and pesticide use to zero, improved biodiversity, reduced fossil fuel use and increased profitability all at the same time. Here in the UK, the much talked about Knepp wilding project uses grazing livestock as an integral part of their strategy.
In our compartmentalized way of thinking it’s easy to divide the climate catastrophe into ring fenced enclosures. We think that it would be a good thing to increase pollinating insects, but don’t think much about the role that insect predators, sawflies, hoverflies could play in reducing pesticide use. The whole chain of nature is one, vastly complex web of interactions. The only way to address the problem is to treat it holistically, not to imagine that we can change nature by cutting out the bits we don’t like. Ending, or attempting to end livestock farming would lead to the degradation of landscapes, the loss of habitat and biodiversity, and the destruction of human skills and communities that persisted for generations until the industrial mechanical model took over. Without enlisting the farmers to replace industrial farming with smaller and local mixed farms with strong ties to their communities and short supply lines; without reducing fossil fuel use on farms and putting aside our addiction powerful earth destroying machinery and chemicals; without transforming our entire food system, we shall see ever more destructive exploitation of the best croplands accompanied by the profound loss of the grassland biodiversity. Let’s say it – no more lapwing, skylark or any of the ground nesting birds.
I go back over and again to Michael Pollan’s dictum – “Eat food, not too much, mostly veg.”
The more times we set the trail cam, the smaller any sense of ownership or control we feel we have over the allotment. Last night the weather finally broke. We could feel it coming during the day as the temperature fell very slowly and an easterly breeze picked up. We spent the morning feeding the tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squashes and courgettes; watered anything that was languishing in the heat and then sowed seeds for the autumn and winter. The weather front came up gradually and the sky filled with clouds – not the immense thunder clouds we’d half expected – but low and dense. Madame has a nose for the smell of rain on the way – it’s called petrichor – the smell, not her nose! -but there was nothing there. After we’d driven posts and ties in to support the taller plants in case of strong winds, we cleared up; ate our breakfast at lunchtime and then went on our accustomed walk eastwards along the river and back along the canal. The evening was still stifling, even with all our windows opened wide. Bath sits in a basin, surrounded by hills and in a prolonged period of high pressure the air gets more and more fetid. The much publicised clean air zone has reduced traffic by only one percent but repairs to the Cleveland bridge have diverted even more traffic through our neighbourhood so it’s worse than ever.
Consequently we’ve slept badly during the heatwave and last night there was the added distraction of imminent thunderstorms which we couldn’t wait to welcome – preferably without too much destructive power but plentiful rain to soak the earth and refill the water butts. We were up every hour during the night, peering through the shutters – our gardening lives are dominated by the weather – and around two in the morning we heard the first sounds of thunder some miles away; grumbling like a convoy of heavy lorries. At four the lightning came close and the rain began. With the wind in the northeast a cool draught woke us up again and we watched the rain gratefully through the window.
The rain didn’t last nearly long enough but at six I gave up and made tea and then kneaded a batch of sourdough bread for its second rise – which is when I decided to go up to the allotment to check for any casualties of the weather (there were none) and to extract and replace the SD card in the trail cam. It seems that we weren’t the only ones up and awake last night. There were video clips of a badger, a fox and later on, a ginger cat all out hunting on our plot. I love the way the fox hunts. He sits bolt upright and stock still with his ears almost flared; scoping the ground by slowly turning his head from side to side and rotating his ears independently. There were other clips of him coming and going along the paths so he spent some time on the plot. The badger hunts with his nose and the cat with all its senses primed. Fox and cat stalk their prey silently and then pounce, but it’s hard to imagine the badger doing anything of the kind. He’s a digger and a browser with a prodigious memory for the places he can find treats. Yesterday one of our human neighbours found a number of her bulb fennel plants dug up.
So how much sway do we actually hold on the allotment? Of course we can sow and tend our crops; but if we consider our work from a more detached perspective it’s clear that the major parameters, within which we garden, are largely beyond our control. Seasons; weather; pests; diseases, birds and larger animals are all part of the process, and if we try to interfere we often do more harm than good. Two days ago I found a dead rat on the patch. By the next day it was gone. The most likely culprit was the cat; but the remains could have been taken by either fox or badger after it had been feasted on by a multitude of flies and insects. Why tidy things up when that means depriving our neighbourly creatures of a meal? Wild gardening necessarily means stepping back from tidiness and control but it doesn’t follow that we have less food from the allotment. We expect to lose some crop, but that’s because the ground never belonged to us in the first place. It is we who borrow it from the teeming multitude of macro and micro life-forms who have been managing rather better without our help for countless thousands of years. The best we can hope to be is good tenants during our temporary lease of the land and so rather than just feeding ourselves we need to be mindful of the needs of all our neighbours. The thing about the earth is that when we treat it properly it brings abundance, but we are the first victims when we treat her carelessly and badly.
The trail cam just brings our larger neighbours to our attention. We’ve loved having so many bees, butterflies, hoverflies, dragon and damselflies as well as tadpoles and froglets in the pond. We do no more than provide a habitat for them and they pay us back tenfold by clearing up after us on the compost heaps, pollinating our plants and feasting on pests like greenfly and blackfly. To try to argue that these creatures lower the productivity of the allotment is crazy. The allotment produces abundance – more than enough to meet our need for food but also feeds our inner, spiritual needs as well; maintaining a huge community of which we are just one part. Even more significantly there’s evidence that the humble allotment is far more productive acre for acre, than many intensive farms; providing much more opportunity for engaging and creative labour. Farmers all over the country are going out of business, unable to make a profit. Local authorities, who used to be major holders of land for smallholdings, have sold off these resources but if they would lease new land from unprofitable farms it could be used to produce new allotments and smallholdings close to towns and cities that could produce good food locally and reduce food miles while improving biodiversity and creating many new jobs. Objections to this such a scheme can surely only be motivated by an ideological commitment to more chemicals, more false productivity and more growth.
The weather is a mess of our own making; the air we breathe is polluted by our addiction to oil, and we are sick from extremes of poverty and wealth; eating industrial junk; and stricken by loneliness and separation from nature. We’re governed by a bunch of clodhopping clowns with no vision and no plan except more of what’s killing us and it’s high time we pushed back and demanded something better. End of rant – but I hope you like the video clip.