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How should our farmland grow?

BY GEMMA MACKENZIE, Deputy business editor at Farmers Weekly
There is no doubt the landscape of British agriculture is ever changing – go back 60 years and most fieldwork was done by hand, whereas nowadays hundreds of acres can be harvested in a matter of days, and driverless tractors and equipment are already being trialled. The next 60 years could see as many changes as the previous 60.

As I write (early March 2013), European ministers are busy debating reform of the Common Agricultural Policy– the policy behind European farm subsidies, which account for 40% of the EU budget, and the requirements farmers need to fulfil in order to receive these.

Proposals include a key ‘greening’ element, which would require farmers to commit to more environmental obligations including buffer strips and beetle banks etc. In addition, a ‘three-cropping’ rule has been proposed which could result in farmers having to introduce different crops into their rotation. For farmers, 2012 will go down in history as one of the worst years in living memory with extreme weather causing problems for all producers across the country. In future they will have to adapt their businesses and prepare for more volatile weather, as seen in 2012. This could result in different crops being planted, fewer animals out grazing in certain areas where wet weather doesn’t permit them to be outside, and perhaps changes to waterways infrastructure to cope with future flooding risks.

Customer needs will also shape the future landscape of British farms – as producers are tasked with ‘producing more from less’, new and innovative farming techniques and methods will need to be developed. Public opinion will also be a key driver – as producers look to become more efficient, larger-scale farming units will need to be created. However, the agricultural industry needs to win the public over on this – opposition to the Nocton dairy and Foston pig units show there are many misconceptions about what these larger units will entail.

As the government strives to produce more electricity from renewable sources, we will begin to see more solar panels and wind turbines on British farms. Surveys have shown that farmers are extremely interested in investing in renewable energy schemes, as the technology offers a steady income at a time when farm-gate prices are extremely volatile – the average pig producer hasn’t made an income since 2010.

However, like the emergence of large-scale units, public opposition could be a key issue to this as often the prospect of solar or wind farms causes upset among local communities.

BY SALLY MORGAN, Editor of Organic Farming magazine
Agriculture has long had a role in shaping the landscape. Five thousand years ago, much of England was covered in wild woodland but, by the time of the Domesday Book, only fragments remained. Most had been converted to farmland. In fact, almost our entire landscape has been formed by agriculture – and farming will continue to have a pivotal role in the shape of our landscape.

A recent CPRE survey showed that four out of five British adults thought farmers had a responsibility to look after the landscape for future generations and wanted them to get more support to carry out environmentally sustainable farming practices. Very few wanted to see a more industrialised farming landscape with huge fields to accommodate ever-larger machinery or ‘mega-farms’ housing thousands of cattle or pigs.

If we look to the future, it is clear that climate change will have a huge impact. The weather is expected to be increasingly unsettled and extreme with rising sea levels,periods of drought and exceptional rainfall. The challenge facing agriculture is how to adapt to climate change while, at the same time, producing food sustainably.

Many commentators claim that, in a world where the population will rise to more than 9 billion people by 2050, agriculture must become ever more intensive. But, with the rising costs of oil, fertilisers and pesticides, intensive farming may not be sustainable in the long-term. A sustainable agro-ecological whole-system approach, such as organic farming, would combine ecology, economics and culture to give truly sustainable production and a healthy environment. Innovative schemes, such as the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme delivered by the Soil Association, are already helping farmers develop fully sustainable farming methodologies.

Key to all agriculture is a healthy, fertile soil. Organic farming relies on rotations, clover leys, farmyard manures and green wastes to maintain levels of nutrients, while more intensive farming requires the use of inorganic fertilisers. Not only are the costs of inorganic fertilisers increasing, but the supply of phosphorus from mined phosphate rock is running out. Without an adequate supply of this key nutrient, arable yields soon fall. With ‘peak phosphorus’ almost upon us, conventional farmers may well be forced to look to sustainable methods to maintain soil fertility.

In the future, farmers will also have to look very carefully at their choice of crop varieties. The choice won’t just be based on yield and disease-resistance, but on whether they can cope with changeable conditions – one month drought, the next deluge. In the southern counties, a longer growing season with fewer frosts may favour, for example, the growing of sunflowers, maize and melons, altering the summer landscape.

Agro-forestry is already on the increase, as farmers discover the benefits of trees in the landscape. Wood-pasture systems provide shelter for crops and livestock alike, and help to combat soil erosion by reducing water runoff. The careful choice of tree species will make it possible to take a harvest of fruits, nuts, oils, biomass, or even pharmaceuticals.

So what might the farm of the future look like? It will probably be very diverse, with arable crops alongside grass-fed livestock, novel mixes of annual and perennial crops, small woodlands, shelterbelts and orchards, wildlife areas and small-scale renewable energy schemes. These mixed systems make far better use of the available resources, are less risky than a monocultural approach, have a much lower carbon footprint and, best of all, seem to be what the public want – a win-win situation for everyone.

BY COLIN TUDGE, Editor of Organic Farming magazine Founders of the Campaign for Real Farming
If we continue to farm as ‘the powers-that-be’ now advocate, the fields will be vast and uniform– emerald green grass with never a beast in sight, knee-high wheat, all bred to the last gene and steeped in industrial chemistry. There will be giant sheds – each with 30,000 dairy cattle or a million pigs or poultry: literally, for such units already exist.

There will be some token greening – wide(ish) field margins for the specialist species that find such spaces acceptable; the odd wood for ‘eco-services’ or ‘amenity’ – a ‘country park’ or pheasant shooting; and the odd demonstration farm, with Ayrshires, Gloucester Old Spots, and the occasional Wyandotte, but strictly for show.

Many of the nicer farm houses will remain but the countryside will be silent except for the drone of big machines.

This is what we will get – and of course are already getting – if agriculture continues to be driven, not by the desire to provide good food for everyone and good jobs for as many as possible, but by the perceived need to ‘compete’ in the ‘global market’. As successive Secretaries of State have told us (Owen Paterson is the latest) farmers must raise crops and beasts not primarily for eating but to sell as profitably as possible, preferably overseas. So long as the oil flows, this means prairies and factories.

Yet we could, if we chose, practise farming as if we really believed that its prime job was to produce good food – and to do so in ways that provide good jobs; in ways that do not simply treat the countryside as real estate, on sale to the highest bidders; that do not require animals to be permanently incarcerated; and do not wipe out our fellow creatures.

We could practice what has been called ‘enlightened agriculture’. Ten thousand years of experience; many millions (literally) of examples from all around the present world; and a growing body of excellent but non-commercial (and therefore largely side-lined) science tell us that the best way to do this is with farms that are polycultural (mixed; with genetically heterogeneous varieties and breeds); tightly integrated (the farm as an ecosystem); and low-input (as nearly organic as possible). The whole should be an extended exercise in agro-forestry – farming and trees in synergy. Such farms are complex and therefore must be skillsintensive (plenty of farmers) and so there is no advantage in scale-up (so they should generally be small to medium-sized).

To work well, such farms require excellent science – pest control without pesticides is much more subtle than a douche of industrial chemistry. But the countryside as a whole would look much as we all still imagine it should: small fields with wildflowers, and herds of recognizable cattle and sheep; pigs and chickens in woods (though this is a touch of ecological modernity); rotations of arable, pastoral, and horticultural; all very busy – not with giant machines but with real human beings practising ancient skills, up-dated with modern know-how and laboursaving technologies.

But the powers-that-be are committed to the status quo. Their excesses are undermining the whole world but they think that what they are doing is ‘realistic’ and that all alternatives are fantasy – although the truth is the other way around. So if we give a damn, then we (all of us) have to take matters into our own hands. To this end, a few years ago, I and a few collaborators began the Campaign for Real Farming (aka Enlightened Agriculture) – aiming towards a global ‘Agrarian Renaissance’. Please come to our website: www.campaignforrealfarming.org and join the crusade.

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