When I was interviewed for the job of Farm Manager at the Duchy Home Farm in 1985, I was asked: ‘would I be prepared to try some biologically sustainable farming?’ It was an interview and, although I had little understanding of the question, I said ‘yes’
I have told this story many times because it was my introduction to organic farming and a system of production with which I was unfamiliar.
That said, I have always been interested in food and had often felt uneasy with some of the practices with which I was involved in my previous job – especially spraying – and certainly when a chemical I had been using myself was withdrawn from sale as it was proven unsafe.
I was lucky enough to get offered the job – something I put down to the fact that my wife Caroline came to the final interview and was the only woman in a room of five men.
The Prince of Wales had long held an intuitive feeling that all was not well in the countryside (all shown to be justified 34 years later) and wanted, in his own words ‘to at least try organic farming’, so that we could share our learning with anyone who was interested, ‘warts and all’. He also said: ‘If the Duchy of Cornwall can’t afford to try organic farming, then who can?’
In the summer of 1985 and with the help of Terry Summers, a farm consultant from the long gone rural land agents Smith Woolley, and Mark Measures, a farm advisor from The Organic Research Centre, a mixed farming system was devised around a seven-year rotation.
We started like a timid early season bather offering little more than a big toe into the waters of organic farming by planting, in early 1986, two fields of a red clover / grass mix, plus a further field with Sainfoin.
All three fields produced good yields of fantastic quality forage – hay and silage as well as grazing. This was a bit of a surprise and the beginning of my eyes being opened to the potential of an alternative way of producing food.
At the beginning, I remember wondering how I might grow crops without fertiliser and yet here we were with these two bonanza crops that had come up with the goods but without the costly inputs. This was highlighted by the fact the rest of the farm had received a costly dose of N, P, &K.
Not only were we getting the quality fodder from these two leguminous plants, but also a generous legacy of nitrogen that enabled us to grow the cereals later in the rotation.
A typical seven-year rotation for us is as follows: three years clover/grass ley, winter wheat, spring oats, spring barley or spring beans, winter rye.
The livestock that graze these rich clover leys are 200 Ayrshire dairy cows, 100 beef suckler cows and 350 Lleyn ewes – from time to time we have a few outdoor rare breed pigs. A central theme of the farm is genetic conservation and it is something HRH is keen to both support and actively engage with. Among the commercial breeds of livestock, there are rare breed interlopers; in the dairy, ten Original Population Dairy Shorthorn cows and at Highgrove as well as the Aberdeen Angus suckler herd, there are two smaller herds of Gloucesters and British Whites.
The preservation of old and rare food genetics is extremely important and should be a central strand in any sustainability planning. According to some experts, we have lost around 90% of our food genetics in 100 years and, because of increasing multinational control, diversity is still falling. If nothing else, we should at least halt this decline so that we still have these genes to use when they will inevitably be needed. We need to think more along the lines of the Irish potato famine where a single high yielding variety of blight prone potato was grown causing starvation on a huge scale.
This links into another central theme which is diversity at all levels; it is the direct opposite of uniformity and of the mantra of global companies. The goal of the multinational is to sell an identical product everywhere sourcing raw materials from wherever they are cheapest. I also believe that it is in their interest to create a constant state of over-production.
One early lesson I learnt was the benefit of clover to sheep; whenever the lambs were grazing these leys, they seemed to grow fast and be glowing with health. I have since found scientific papers that bear this out; one such paper from New Zealand published way back in the 1960s showed quite conclusively that it was possible to fatten more weight of lamb off an acre of unfertilized clover compared to an acre of intensively fertilized grass. In a way, that says it all and continues to make me wonder how we could be so easily led along a different route for so long using unsustainable resources on a vast scale.
The facts speak for themselves, clover can fix up to 250kg/ha of nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil using colonies of rhizobium bacteria on their roots and all free of charge – an amazing fact and the backbone of a sustainable system. I often describe clover as the engine of the organic farming system and it is nothing new thinking back to the rotational farming systems of our forefathers.
Another piece of work showed that lamb fed on clover lost less weight during cooking than lamb fed otherwise. ‘So what?’ one might be tempted to think. But this shows something quite subtle going on that relates, among other things, to fat quality. It is a fact that grazed ruminants produce a different quality of meat when compared to those that are grain fed – higher in omega 3 fatty acid and lower in omega 6. Generally speaking, we eat too much omega 6 in a modern diet and having evolved with omega 3:6 ratios at 1:1 they are now at 1:20.
We are constantly told about methane belching ruminants and how costly beef and lamb are to the environment but the net output of GHG is surprisingly low in grazed livestock when the soil carbon tied up in the grazing land is taken into account. By increasing soil organic matter we take carbon from the atmosphere and lock it into the soil. This improves soil health in many ways; it increases biological activity, allows the soil to hold more water and slows its downward passage, improves soil structure and increases earthworm populations as well as increasing productivity.
As a planet, we need to eat less meat as part of a more sustainable future but that meat needs to be a rare treat of the highest quality and from pasture fed ruminants whose grazing and dung are a vital part of a healthy soil. In the UK about 70% of the land is still pasture and much of that on uplands where no other food can be produced.
Ruminants are an easy target and a distraction from what we really need to do, which is to leave all fossil fuel in the ground – a reality too painful to contemplate and yet essential to our survival if global warming is to be kept below 2 degrees C.
When visitors came to the Home Farm in the early days, there was often an organic versus conventional debate and sometimes emotions ran high as to which was the right way to produce our food. Today, the goal of sustainable food production has become more of a common target although the definition of the word sustainable is at times, a little too elastic. The Oxford dictionary definition of the word sustainable is to ‘endure without giving way’, which seems pretty clear to me and certainly no way to describe the chemical based high intensity farming today. The fact is, producing our food sustainably is not a fluffy green option; it is the only way we can survive and that fact needs to be understood by one and all.
The cereals we grow tend to be older varieties and often much taller in straw length which is always welcome on a livestock farm. As bedding, it is converted into farm yard manure which in turn is mucked out, stacked in long windrows, turned three or four times to create the right microbial profile for the soil and then returned to the land. Interestingly, these tall varieties are often more able to withstand drought and have deeper rooting systems allowing them to scavenge more trace elements from the soil. This height differential also makes them effectively out-compete weeds. It is also a fact that some modern cereal varieties cannot make a mycorrhizal association reducing trace element content of the harvested crop. These are all subtle but real facts that are bound to have an effect on human health, an area that is increasingly better understood. Just to throw in another illustration of this point, you would have to eat 80 modern apples to get the same amount of bisphenols (these are substances very beneficial to health) as you would from some of our heritage apple varieties. This is purely because we are continuously breeding for heavier yield and more sweetness – highlighted recently by the New Scientist in an article entitled ‘The Bitter Truth about Our Fruit and Veg.’
The farm also grows landrace mixtures of cereals; some of these are genetically very diverse. Each mix of wheat and rye contains the genes of many varieties. This creates a population of plants that is more robust than a single variety enabling better disease resistance and more ability to cope with drought or wet.
In terms of weed control, as mentioned, a tall aggressive crop helps as does the much lower level of N found in organic crops – weeds that are the biggest problem in conventional crops are often those that like N and utilise it effectively. The lower N also helps reduce the development and spread of disease as N increases water uptake and weakens the plant cell wall.
In terms of mechanical weeding, a harrow comb tined weeder is used either pre- emergence – called ‘blind harrowing’ or post emergence, but preferably before weeds have gone beyond the cotyledon stage. Later on in the crop we use a combcut- an ingenious machine that cuts the rough stalk of plants like charlock and dock but leaves the smooth cereal plant. We also can cut taller weeds that stand proud of the crop with a crop surfer that simply cuts off the taller seed heads.
In between cereal crops, catch crops are planted. These are, as the name suggests, short term quick growing crops of stubble turnip, forage rape and mustard that mop up any free N from soil. This is then grazed, usually with sheep during the winter before the following spring crop is planted. The principal is to stop the precious N from leaching out of the soil by never having bare soil for any length of time. N is very soluble and easily washed out of the soil in the autumn which is bad for system – we don’t want to lose it because we can’t top up out of a bag but also if washes into ground water causes problems.
Whilst not perfect and recognising that any farming is a compromise with the natural world, organic farming does provide most of the answers to the sustainable food question. Having to follow a pretty strict rule book is not a bad thing and serves to stop us veering off into corner cutting. Thinking of all life forms as connected may help us make better decisions and focusing on creating healthy soil and gut biomes will automatically lead us in the right direction.
Corporate greed and multi-national company domination will ultimately destroy us. We need a system of guidelines for capitalism that will incorporate the value of natural capital in a bottom line. Easier said than done, but essential to our survival as a species.
The old farming saying of ‘you need to live as though you are going to die tomorrow and farm as though you are going to live forever’ sums it up well, as does ‘healthy soil, healthy plants and animals – healthy people’.