rethink sustainability

    FarmED – towards an agricultural revolution – part II

    The CLIC® Chronicles: FarmED – towards an agricultural revolution – part II

    Agriculture has a problem. At a time when the global population is growing, agricultural resilience is breaking down. The modern monoculture farming techniques that, over the past 70 years, have created near-miraculous increases in crop yields1, are damaging our soils. Barren, structure-less soils are less able to soak up and retain water, leaving crops at greater threat from pests, heat and drought. Studies have even found that industrially farmed cereals and vegetables are losing their nutritional value2.

    Ian Wilkinson, founder of Oxfordshire-based FarmED, and owner of Honeydale Farm, believes the solution lies in adopting a regenerative, soil-first approach to farming. This, he says, could lead to “healthier bodies, healthier minds and a healthier planet Earth.”

    In the second part of this in-depth interview, we hear from Ian Wilkinson about the heroism of earthworms, why crop rotation must come back into fashion, and why he believes food production may be on the cusp of a revolution.

    Without food there will be no human world, and that means no financial world

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    1. Earthworms are invisible yet ubiquitous superheroes – they play an essential part in our ecosystem but are frequently overlooked or underestimated. You are particularly passionate about these silent creatures. Tell us why.

    We understand that for many people earthworms come into the category of ‘creepy-crawlies’.

    For us, it’s really simple. Earthworms live in and on organic matter. There are earthworms in healthy soil. There are no earthworms in unhealthy soil. If there are earthworms in the soil, then we know that all is well.

    We have a very simple way of showing this. We keep a strip of land in which we grow wheat in the conventional way, using fertiliser and pesticides. We take a spade with us on farm walks. We take a spit of soil from the ‘conventional’ plot and one from one of the rotational plots. The rotational soil will have earthworms in it, and the conventionally-farmed soil will not. This happens every time. And that’s why we love earthworms.

    We were inspired to see Lombard Odier’s full-page advert in a financial newspaper with a picture of an earthworm under the caption “superhero”. Everything in the article was true, and it took courage to place that advertisement in that context. We need to raise awareness that without healthy soil there will eventually be no food. Without food there will be no human world, and that means no financial world. We applaud the truth and the courage of that advertisement.

    There’s nothing ‘conventional’ or ‘traditional’ about planting the same crop on the same piece of land year after year

    2. Can you tell us how you rotate the plots for different types of crops?

    Gladly, but first a word about crop rotation. There’s nothing ‘conventional’ or ‘traditional’ about planting the same crop on the same piece of land year after year. For centuries this practice has been known to exhaust the soil and to lead to a build-up of perennial weeds that become ever harder to eradicate, requiring ever larger doses of toxic chemicals to keep them under control.

    The benefits of crop rotation have been understood since around 6000 BC, when a simple two-field rotation was practiced by farmers in the Near East. A four-year rotation (wheat, turnips, barley, clover) was popularised in this country in the early eighteenth century by a farmer called Charles Townshend. The productivity gains from this rotational system contributed to the Agricultural Revolution which took place in the years that followed.

    For us, crop rotation is part of the process of rebuilding the fertility of our soil. Our system is based on local conditions and on the particular needs of the soil on our farm. We use an eight-year rotation. In the first four years, the land is under perennial crops. This is the carbon sequestration phase. There is too much carbon in the atmosphere. This carbon should be in the ground, and the process by which it gets there is photosynthesis. We use the fertility built up in the first four years of the rotation to grow wheat and oats, before returning to the recovery phase.

    When judging the success of our version of regenerative farming, it’s important to remember that in our ten years on the farm, in addition to the crops we’ve produced, we have rebuilt the fertility of our soil from a very depleted state, around halfway back to where we believe it should be.


    3. Since the 1980s there has been a shift towards more sustainable methods of farming. How have you seen this shift gathering pace since you started FarmED?

    We’d say that a more widespread understanding of the issue has only started to gain traction in perhaps the last ten years. We see concern for nature and the health of the land expressed in different ways.

    • A seismic shift in government incentives. The Government’s new approach is often summed up in the phrase ‘public money for public goods’. These used to support production in areas where it was only marginally profitable, for example Welsh upland sheep-farming. Today’s government subsidies are all about environmental stewardship.
    • Farming systems and the environment feature more highly in school curriculums, as we have noticed in the ever-increasing numbers of school parties visiting FarmED.
    • An increasing interest in growing our own food. During lockdown, for the first time, seedsmen sold more packets of fruit and vegetable seeds than of flower seeds. There has been no sign of this trend reversing.
    • Public concern for the environment can be seen everywhere. Today you’ll often see people walking down the street wearing T-shirts saying SAVE THE BEES.
    • At FarmED, we see gardeners and small growers but increasingly we see substantial farmers with thousands or tens of thousands of acres, willing to engage in serious discussions of alternatives to the agribusiness paradigm.

    Read also: Tiny and vital – how we must save the bees to save our crops

    4. Some suggest that investing in sustainable farming practices such as regenerative agriculture will generate fewer returns than investing in traditional farming. What do you think about this?

    It’s a very complex issue. The economics of farming are peculiar. It is a highly capital-intensive business because land is so expensive. Some land has been in families for centuries, but some has been bought more recently on borrowed money, creating pressure to maximise farm income to pay the interest on loans.

    Farmers have been encouraged to think of maximum crop yields and maximum financial profits as ends in themselves.

    Regenerative farming is in its infancy. We are learning as we go. We haven’t yet seen regenerative farming in a state of high evolution, and we would ask critics to reserve judgement for a while longer

    The market in farm produce is increasingly dominated by powerful retailers who compete with one another to sell food at the lowest possible prices, while retaining a healthy margin to cover their overheads and pay dividends to shareholders. The prices farmers receive are often at or below the cost of production. In this context survival has to take precedence over the long-term health of the soil.

    Everyone knows that this situation is unsustainable and that an alternative needs to be found. Young people can’t get into farming because the cost of land is prohibitive, while older farmers are leaving because their margins have been squeezed out of existence. Institutions are paying top prices for land to support carbon-offset schemes, taking the land out of farm production and making a difficult situation worse.

    We would not describe today’s ‘traditional farming’ as in any way traditional. It is a relatively recent departure from longer-term tradition, arising only in the second half of the twentieth century.

    We concede that in terms of yield per hectare, so-called ‘traditional’ farming produces more output than the regenerative alternative, but we would question whether the quality of their product, in terms of nutritional value, is anywhere near as good as ours, while the environmental cost is huge.

    Regenerative farming is in its infancy. We are learning as we go. We haven’t yet seen regenerative farming in a state of high evolution, and we would ask critics to reserve judgement for a while longer.

    Finally, we’d point to regenerative farming’s hidden resource, one that is vast but difficult to quantify in cash terms – the goodwill and enthusiasm of its growing band of adherents. Honeydale Farm’s total output isn’t just the crops produced by the rotational system or the trees we have planted, but also includes the produce of the microbusinesses, the largest of which is the market garden, supported to a large extent by volunteers, who believe so steadfastly in its philosophy that they are happy to work in rain and shine, winter and summer without financial reward.

    When we look across the valley to the ‘traditional’ farms on the opposite hillside, we see none of the ecological richness and beauty that we enjoy here, only the most perfunctory of hedges, an almost total absence of wildflowers, very little bird life – and no volunteers.

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    Across societies we have seen a revolution in rubbish collection. Fifteen years ago we put our rubbish in the bin without thinking twice about it, and off it went to landfill. We look back now and wonder how we could have been so wasteful. Today, we put the green waste in the green waste bin, the recycling in the recycling bin, the bottles in their box, and what remains, less than ten percent of the total, goes to landfill.

    We believe that we may be on the point of a similar revolution in the way we produce, consume and think about food. In fifteen years’ time we may be producing more fruit, more vegetables, less but more varied cereals (and for human consumption rather than for factory-farmed animals), less but better meat, and with more voluntary human involvement in the process. The result of which could be healthier bodies, healthier minds and a healthier planet Earth.


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    Important information

    This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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