rethink sustainability

    Meet FarmED – the farm putting soil first – part I

    The CLIC® Chronicles: Meet FarmED – the farm putting soil first – part I

    20 miles north-west of Oxford, sitting in nearly 800 square miles of gently rolling hills, is Honeydale Farm. Named after its yellow, “honey-like” clay soil, the 107-acre farm is a central part of owners Ian and Celene Wilkinson’s mission “to accelerate the transition to regenerative farming and sustainable food systems.”

    After decades in the agricultural sector, the couple had become troubled by a worsening problem: industrial monoculture farming was degrading soils. As a result, farmers were finding themselves ever more reliant on chemical inputs and at the mercy of the global fertiliser market. With input costs rising, but the sale value of produce remaining stagnant, many of the farmers they knew were struggling to operate at profit. At Honeydale and FarmED, the educational arm they founded in 2018, the Wilkinsons hoped to unearth a solution.

    In the first part of this in-depth interview, Ian Wilkinson explains how he has reinvigorated Honeydale’s formerly impoverished soil, creating a vibrant mixed ecology that produces healthy, nutritious crops with no synthetic inputs, and outlines FarmED’s philosophy: fostering crucial conversations on the need to rethink the agricultural industry.

    …we cannot ignore the fact that modern farming methods are major contributors to climate change and the destruction of the natural world

    Read also: The CLIC® Chronicles: how technology is changing the future of agriculture


    1. One of your key messages is ‘we need to talk about farming’. Why does modern farming need to change?

    Farming has arrived where it is today through a process of evolution. In the UK, rapid population growth in the 1950s, and a post-World War II desire to be self-sufficient, led to a government drive for vastly increased food production, through specialisation, intensification and the redefinition of farms as rural factories. The resulting concept of ‘agribusiness’ encouraged farmers to see their enterprises as indistinct from other commercial concerns, with profit driving every decision. In this context, it made sense to select the most lucrative strand from a mixed farming venture and specialise in that one area exclusively.

    There is no doubt that monocultural agribusiness has vastly increased food production, for example in terms of cereal yields per hectare. In the UK today, wheat crops are around four times heavier than those achieved on similar land in the 1970s. This is without doubt an astonishing success story.

    But, fifty years on, we cannot ignore the fact that modern farming methods are major contributors to climate change and the destruction of the natural world. Heavy application of artificial fertiliser, particularly in wet areas, causes run-off and the chemical pollution of rivers. One residue from nitrogenous fertiliser is nitrous oxide which is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect.

    Soil is the farmer’s ‘natural capital’

    Intensive monocultural agriculture is seriously flawed. Of greatest concern to us is the destruction of the soil. Before we acquired Honeydale Farm, ten years ago, it had been used for repeated annual cropping of cereals. A healthy soil contains around 10% organic material. The organic matter in our soil when we arrived was just 4%. It had no integrity of its own and relied entirely on external inputs in order to grow anything. Farmers whose soil is impoverished have become slaves to the price of fertiliser and depend on its availability for their livelihoods. This is a risk to which we would rather not be exposed.

    Monocultural grain farmers, who find themselves unable to sow seed in a wet autumn (increasingly frequent due to global warming), may risk losing their entire year’s revenue, as do intensive chicken farmers if their flocks are infected with avian flu. These exogenous risks are becoming more, not less, frequent.

    And that’s why we need to talk about farming. We believe that there is a viable alternative. Often referred to as regenerative agriculture, it begins with rebuilding our soil fertility to levels where the soil can support food crops without chemical supplements. It develops further into the creation of a complex resilient system where, as on the farms of old, different activities support one another in a co-dependent way. We believe that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all solution’. Success will often depend on making the best use of local conditions, including everything from rainfall patterns to local markets and a good understanding of the context in which a farm sits.

    But rebuilding the soil is where we must begin and it is a multi-year project. When’s the best time to start? Ten years ago.

    We are passionate, but we are not dogmatic. FarmED is somewhere for people to come and discuss their views and ‘we need to talk about farming’ means just that.

    Read also: Seabirds: the secret fertilisers who give so much for nothing


    2.  You don’t use fertilisers or sprays on your farm – why not? Does this mean that you have to find another way to naturally replicate the benefits of these substances?

    Our vision in acquiring Honeydale Farm was to develop ways of growing crops without artificial fertilisers and pesticides that would still contribute meaningfully to the nation’s food production and ensure financial returns.

    We don’t use artificial fertilisers because they are produced from non-renewable sources. Their cost fluctuates under pressure from global market forces and has been forced sharply upwards in recent years, most spectacularly in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Chemical fertilisers contribute to poor soil health, soil erosion, and poison rivers and the atmosphere. These chemicals act as a drug which may stimulate the patient in the short term but become addictive with habitual use and cause serious problems in the end.

    Soil is the farmer’s ‘natural capital’. Investors know that taking and spending the income from their capital as it arises, while leaving the capital untouched, is a sustainable practice which can continue in perpetuity. As soon as investors begin to spend their capital, the income from the remaining capital is reduced, and a downwards cycle can quickly develop. Spending capital isn’t sustainable, and yet this is exactly what so many modern farmers are doing with their natural capital. They are taking more from the soil than it is capable of producing. In so doing they are putting themselves, their families and the consumers of their products at risk.

    Read also: Soil: food’s forgotten superhero

    Sometimes it makes sense to stand back and let nature do the work for us. It seems to be a law of nature that the more we interfere, the more we end up having to interfere

    Our rotational system builds fertility naturally. Phosphates are available from micro-nutrients in the soil, and traces of zinc are there, too. Plants in the clover family fix nitrogen from the air. Deep-rooting plants such as sainfoin and chicory access nutrients from the subsoil that are unavailable to other shallower-rooted species – making them more drought-resistant. In the dry summer of 2022, we found that deep-rooted crops were largely unaffected. We also grow cover crops for green manure.

    Crop rotation controls weeds. A more diverse ecology develops its own natural resistance to pests. Our farm is home to predatory insects such as hoverflies and wasps that do the job of chemical sprays at no cost and without any side-effects, while birds control the wasp population.

    Sometimes it makes sense to stand back and let nature do the work for us. It seems to be a law of nature that the more we interfere, the more we end up having to interfere.

    We could use the word ‘unconventional’ to describe natural flood management. Other words we might use are ‘practical’, ‘rational’, ‘farsighted’ or even ‘altruistic’


    3. Talk to us about other unconventional farming methods such as natural flood management, sainfoin hay production and your trial field.

    Natural Flood Management

    We could use the word ‘unconventional’ to describe natural flood management. Other words we might use are ‘practical’, ‘rational’, ‘farsighted’ or even ‘altruistic’.

    We could have dug a drainage ditch running in a straight line down the hillside from our farm. After heavy rain, the water would be off the farm (problem solved for us!) and into the nearby river in minutes. But poor management upstream leads to problems downstream, which we naturally want to avoid.

    In our system, the water meanders down in a zigzag pattern which reduces the rate of flow, passing through a series of ponds as it goes. The watercourse descends through a wildlife area with trees above a thick carpet of flowering plants, whose roots absorb the water as it passes. The wildlife area is a rich habitat for insects, birds and small mammals. The effect of this management system is to control the flow of water into the river, reducing the risk of flooding in the towns and cities further down.

    As an additional benefit – the natural flood management area is an effective carbon sink.


    Over the last few years, we have planted over 20,000 trees, now covering around 15% of the farm area. Our heritage orchard and agroforestry strips contain over four hundred different species of fruit trees. Other trees provide shelter, wildlife habitat and carbon capture. We aim to coppice trees rather than fell them. This lets the light back in to grow annual crops like wheat. Composting experts have told us that the ideal compost mixture is two thirds green, one third brown. Trees are a perfect source of wood chip which provides the brown element of the perfect compost.

    Sainfoin hay

    As a member of the pea family, sainfoin collects nitrogen from the atmosphere and deposits it in the soil. Its deep roots make the plant drought-resistant, and the hay is rich in protein. Sainfoin is a natural anti-parasitic which means that we don’t have to use synthetic drugs to control parasitic worms in our sheep or cows. This may appear a side benefit, but British farmers spend GBP 85 million annually on these products and, just like antibiotics, resistance is building due to their prophylactic use.

    Other ventures that might be considered unconventional

    Honeydale Farm is a venue for eco-tourism. The number of visitors to the farm is rising year on year. It is also an ideal site to keep honeybees due to the variety of crops that are surrounded by wild habitats. The farm provides an unbroken supply of nectar and pollen from the snowdrops and hazel catkins in February to the ivy in October. This environment can produce honey crops that are several times the national average without having to move the hives anywhere. The bees fly over a hedge to reach the orchard, a distance of around ten metres. It’s an ideal combination – early pollen and nectar for the bees without the stress of being moved, optimised pollination for the trees, and significantly higher fruit yields, all at no environmental cost.

    Today, more investors demand environmentally responsible investments than don’t. There has been a seismic shift in attitudes

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    4. Much of our world, and what lies under our feet, is taken for granted. What is the principal way in which we can change people’s perceptions and be more conscious of the natural world?

    We think that much of what needs to happen has already begun. In the investment world, a few ethical/environmental funds have been available since the 1980s. They were always there on the fringes. Today, more investors demand environmentally responsible investments than don’t. There has been a seismic shift in attitudes.

    We are seeing the early signs of a similar sea change in public attitudes to food production and land use. If enough people believe strongly enough that the current system of agriculture is broken, that farmers are producing the wrong foods in the wrong way, and that the environmental damage that’s being done is unacceptable, then change will happen, not from above but from below. At FarmED, we see increasing numbers of people who see clearly what needs to change, and are passionate in their determination to make that change happen.

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

    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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