A large part of my working life has been about paradigm change, either being subjected to paradigm changes or working with organisations to change paradigms, the mental images you have in your mind of the way things are ‘out there’ or ‘in here’.
As I participated in an agronomists’ meeting last week I started going back through my own farming experiences and related paradigm changes.
When I left my father’s rather traditional fam and entered the wider farming industry in 1977 it was a period of white-hot technical and financial change; plant breeding, chemistry and agricultural engineering combined to enable us to increase cereal yields by 50%, abandon centuries old crop rotations and grow cash crops where previously we could only grow grass. It was an exciting time, with little regulation and we did not heed the warnings as fungicides quickly lost their efficacy because new chemistry was being invented all the time.
I spent 15 years working in tropical agriculture, mainly oil palm, rubber and cocoa, across Asia and Africa. I had the good luck to start my career with PTPP London Sumatera Indonesia (Lonsum), a very progressive plantation company that valued its people and its natural resources; cover crops were mandatory, burning was forbidden, erosion was controlled, non-invasive weeds were allowed, and pests were controlled biologically. We were all very proud to work for Lonsum and our results were outstanding, looking after your people and the environment pays. I found this to be the case over the rest of my career.
I returned to farming in the UK to find that yields had plateaued, chemical usage had increased, weed and disease resistance to chemicals was escalating, more and more regulation meant options were being taken away all the time and famers were totally reliant on subsidy for their incomes.
In 2012, I visited Soil Capital in Belgium. It was mind blowing, what they were doing with cover crops was like being back in the tropics. When I took on the management of 16,000 ha in Romania in 2014, I called on Soil Capital for support. We already had a four-year rotation of wheat, oilseed rape, wheat/barley, sunflowers, we diversified this further, sold the ploughs, introduced cover crops, improved timeliness and yields went up by 50% in two years.
So where is my paradigm now? I recently read David R Montgomery’s books “Growing a Revolution” and “Dirt” (https://www.dig2grow.com/). Both books reinforce what I have learnt over the years: looking after your people, your environment, and your animals pays. This is reinforced from the findings of Groundswell Benchmarking summarised in our blog “Regenerative Farming brings Big Savings and Carbon Credits”(https://ajs562.wixsite.com/esusagri/post/regenerative-farming-brings-big-savings-and-carbon-credits).
I am sure that most farmers think that they are looking after their people, their environment, and their animals, this is what they do with the plough and chemistry, government subsidy gives them the illusion that it is working. However, an examination of profit margins in the John Nix Pocketbook for Farm Management (https://www.thepocketbook.co.uk/) reveals that the average farmer is losing money without the subsidy, and the subsidy will be phased out by 2028. The paradigm is shifting.
I am now focussed on farming in South-West England. Most farms have cattle and sheep, so are well placed to switch to regenerative agriculture, but it requires a huge paradigm change. Recently a son who wants to change to regenerative farming told me that his father had said “If I had wanted to do that, I would have done it 40 years ago”, the son has persisted and is being allowed to try regenerative farming on a part of the farm. The start of a paradigm shift.
A major issue is risks, these can be reduced using available resources. Moving to direct drilling requires a big investment, but there are experienced contractors throughout South-West England with a wide range of no-till drills ready which will enable farmers to try direct-drilling with minimal investment and a skilled operator. The risks and costs of the introduction of mixed species swards of grasses, legumes and wild flowers, can be reduced by entering a Countryside Stewardship Scheme.
In conclusion, my own paradigm has not changed. I believe with passion that to be successful farmers we must look after our people, our environment, and our animals to have a sustainable business. We must reduce our reliance on chemistry and rediscover the art and the science of regenerative farming. My mission is to help farmers in South-West England do this so that our grandchildren can enjoy a bountiful countryside, rich in nature and delivering wholesome sustainable food with vibrant rural communities where farmers are valued.