If you are a fan of the world’s longest running soap, BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, you’ll know that one of the main farms featured is heading in new directions, to fresh pastures one might say.
This ‘innovation’ – or maybe a return to tradition - is being guided by the programme’s agricultural story editor, Graham Harvey. Graham spoke at CPRE’s autumn conference about why putting cattle back out to grass is one way we can return to a more sustainable form of farming. It’s well worth giving up some time to watch his deeply informed and passionate explanation of pasture-based farming and to hear about the farmers making this work and making it pay.
I can barely do justice to Graham’s case here but, if your time is short, here is a canter through some of the most important points he makes.
I referred to a return to tradition above because we used to farm sustainably in the UK: for 200 years and up to the 1950s we had a mixed farming system, which rotated arable cops and grass grazed by livestock. This was highly productive, kept the land fertile and, crucially for the 21st century, locked up carbon in the soil. This model was displaced when so-called ‘conventional’ farming came in: high inputs of agro-chemicals – fertilisers and pesticides – have enabled farmers to abandon mixed farming, replacing it with monocultures – the now familiar and seemingly endless fields of wheat and oil seed rape - where once there were meadows and livestock.
Though highly productive, this mode of farming brings with it serious problems. Decades of reliance on chemicals has destroyed soil biology. Continuous tilling is burning off carbon stored in soils and heavy machines are damaging soil structure. Topsoil is being eroded as some crops leave the land exposed to heavy rains. Graham shows maize grown for fodder on Exmoor as a stark example of long-term soil damage for short-term gain. But, not only is chemical-based farming ruining the richness of the land, it feeds grain to animals designed to eat grass, making them less healthy and producing less nutritious food.
More happily, examples are emerging around the world of ways of farming that do just the opposite. Graham introduces some of these farmers.
There is Joel Salatin in Virginia, USA, who practises regenerative agriculture modelled on nature: just as the great grazing herds of wildebeest and bison are followed by birds eating parasites and insects, his grazing cattle are followed by chickens that mop up insects, add further fertility to the soil and boost the food output.
Or Neil Dennis in Saskatchewan Province, Canada, who abandoned ‘conventional’ farming and discovered mob stocking – ‘short duration, high intensity’ grazing with animals moved on to fresh pasture each day – and holistic land management. On a farm that conventional methods couldn’t make pay, he now profitably runs three times the livestock, uses no chemical fertilisers and his soils are locking up carbon: soil organic matter has risen from 2% to 13% over 15 years.
This story is mirrored by rancher Gabe Brown in North Dakota using herbal pastures and no tilling whose soils have gone from a couple of inches of topsoil to 20 in that many years.
Finally, there is Colin Seis in Australia, doing pasture cropping: planting robust wheat plants directly into perennial nitrogen-fixing plants early in the season so the land is never left bare. Not only is he getting very high yields of grain but the soils are locking up carbon – Graham claims 32 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year - and springing back to life with soil organisms many times richer and thriving.
Put together these farmers and their methods offer an uplifting message. Perhaps the most startling point Graham Harvey makes is how this form of farming could help solve climate change: if all the prairie land in North America west of the Mississippi reverted to carbon levels in the soil at the time it was grazed by vast herds of bison then the land would lock away all the ‘heritage carbon emitted for the whole planet since we industrialised’.
It’s a message the Government could well pay attention to, especially as it will launch its 25-year plan for food and farming this spring; sadly, I doubt these rich opportunities to restore our soils, to safely store millions of tonnes of atmospheric carbon and to produce more wholesome food will feature in this bout of strategic thinking.
But, whatever our politicians are up to, you have the chance to watch Graham Harvey make the case and make up your own mind. Or at least, try some meat and dairy produced from pasture-fed animals and check out a taste from the past as well as, we hope, from a more promising future.
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