A Word For the Farmers
Never mind 'The Farmer and the Cowman' rubbing each other the wrong way in Oklahoma! The Musical. In today’s world the farmer and the ecologist ‘should be friends’. Time and again in the rewilding debate we hear of the animosity between farmers and conservationists. There isn't time to squabble.
To pinch Aunt Eller’s line from that stomping show tune, 'I’d like to say a word for the farmers'. What a difficult career they have picked and yet what a noble one, to feed their fellow man while making very little profit. If you go into a Morrison's supermarket you will be confronted by a carton of milk which declares that if you buy it at a slightly higher price than their usual brand milk, 10 pence of the proceeds will go to the farmer. In what other industry would you short change your suppliers so badly you then need to treat them like a charity? We also learn that Morrison's has been a bit misleading over their claims, but that is all part of a larger problem.
With supermarkets (which means international wholesalers) continually forcing down prices to provide cheaper food for us (and bigger dividends for their shareholders) the farmers have little choice but to maximise yields using every means they can. This has meant removing hedgerows where birds used to nest so they can create larger fields, taking out the field margins where the wildflowers used to grow, and continually spraying crops with herbicides and insecticides so no insect or wild flower can compete with their precious mono-culture crop. It works in the short term. It produces food at the price that retailers expect, but at what costs: Farmers still see little profit for their efforts, and it massacres biodiversity. Go take a walk down a lane in East Anglia, where vast arable fields lay stretched out beneath the sky, and let us know if you hear a curlew, the croak of a partridge, a yellowhammer’s tuneful lament of ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’, skylarks fluttering and twittering in the air, corn buntings, yellow wagtails, turtle doves, or even a field mouse scurrying or insects buzzing between the ears of wheat. You won’t. These once ubiquitous farmland noises are absent from our intensive farms. You’ll be met with silence, apart from the funereal rasp of a crow, or a seagull’s mournful cry, two tenacious birds that, so far, have survived the hardships of the modern countryside.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Colin Tudge of the Campaign for Real Farming, says that there are many better models around the world than the industrial one our government is currently obsessed with, and they are proven to work. Our government food agencies, Colin Tudge argues, are working on bad information. But there is a renaissance underway, and it is taking place in small pockets of land around Britain where a significant minority of farmers see protecting biodiversity as equally important as providing food, and have chosen a different culture, that of mixed low-input, or High Nature Value farming.
This is not the whim of woolly headed hippies, or idle landowners who don’t need to make a profit from their land, these are the decisions of hard-headed business farmers who see sustainability as essential to farming culture. Of course it is. Scottish organic farms are booming says The Scottish Herald.
One such farm in South Wales, Cwrt Henllys Farm near Newport, is leading the charge into sustainable farming. Inspired by Rebecca Hosking’s BBC film, A Farm for the Future, they studied permaculture and soil biology, and set about replanting the corridors of hedgerows where wildlife can gradually expand their ranges, and fostering the wild flower margins so vital for feeding insects and birds. They are also confident they can make the farm turn a profit independently of CAP subsidies.
Not so easy at Balnakeil Farm in Durness on the wild North Coast of Scotland. Here, Andrew Elliot raises Aberdeen Angus and Cheviot Ewe. He does this using a low impact farming model which nurtures a wealth of biodiversity, and maintains some of the rarest species of wild flora and fauna in the UK, among them the corncrake, a bird in sharp decline elsewhere in the UK. He can't do it without the support of the CAP. In fact, of the £3 Billion the UK taxpayer gives to support CAP subsidies, a tiny fraction goes to High Nature Value projects such as Elliot's. 60% of Balnakeil's revenue comes from the Single Farm Payment. It couldn't survive otherwise. If we have to pay vast sums of money to support farmers, then perhaps we could support more of these kinds of farmers.
Looking to the future, these small independent farmers say we have to totally change the way we farm, maintain the integrity of our soil and start to produce quality products at reasonable cost. Colin Tudge agrees with this. He advocates a food and farming renaissance which celebrates the best possible diet - the opposite of what industrial animal and arable farming currently offers us. For those who say, but we cannot feed the world that way, Colin Tudge answers, but we cannot feed the world or even our own countrymen with the system we have (one billion people worldwide live with the constant threat of starvation; one million in the UK used food banks last year), and we are destroying the biosphere into the bargain. Worldwide 30% of soil has been utterly degraded due to industrial farming. What future in that for feeding the world? A true renaissance in the way we farm from the ground up is what we need. It's unlikely to come from above.
As for the apex species, they feed off small mammals, who feed off the insects or plants whose very survival is wrapped up with low input farming methods and small mixed crop or livestock farms. Some in the rewilding debate will say the opposite is true, that apex species cause the smaller herbivorous mammals to move around which determines what will grow where. That may be true in larger wild spaces, but, the essential truth is most of UK land is farmland, and if we are to feed our people while not destroying our biosphere, farms need to play an integral part in that rich diverse world of plant and animal, bird and insect. Which means everyone needs to get on board. We all need to support the small independent farmers who are leading the renaissance. We all need to make the best possible choices about what we eat.