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Conventional farming: a game of diminishing returns?

Tim May farmer natural pasture rotation chemical-free
Tim May – Hampshire arable farmer

One of the main criticisms of organic farming is that it’s not as productive and therefore requires more land than conventionally grown produce.

The farmers and academics who gave talks and shared their research at the Oxford Real Farming Conference 2017 blew this argument out of the water with new evidence that shows conventional agriculture (chemical-reliant agriculture) is becoming less productive as the natural capital which underpin farming is eroded.

Prof Christine Watson (SRUC), Prof Carlo Leifert (NEFG) and Dr. Chuck Benbrook (Benbrook Consulting) all presented compelling evidence that yields from conventional farming are starting to plateau. Farmers are having to sow more and more seeds and apply ever increasing amounts of chemicals to get the same results. It’s a game of diminishing returns.

But turning to natural methods is not just reserved for the fringes and does not mean walking back into the dark ages. Some mainstream farmers are starting to realise the agrichemical approach is no longer viable and are adopting holistic methods instead.

We heard the story of Tim May – a Hampshire farmer with 1000 acres of arable land who farmed mainly cereals and oil seed rape, using intensive agrochemical methods. Over ten years of applying a whole host of artificial inputs they found themselves struggling to produce good harvests. When one entire crop failed, Tim, who had recently taken over the running of the farm from his dad, decided a major change was necessary. He brought in a soil specialist to assess the situation – they dug a huge trench-like hole in one field. What they found was a thin top layer with very little life or organic matter underneath. The soil was worn out and barren. The chemicals over time had severely damaged his soils, crops, wildlife and income.

What Tim did next took courage and foresight. He switched to a mixed arable rotation and put one half of his entire farm out of action and laid it fallow for four years. He planted a rich variety of grasses and flowers (“herbal leys”) containing deep rooting herbs, clovers and grasses and then brought animals back onto the farm.

When he was a child livestock had been an integral part of the farm as they also ran a dairy. But due to financial pressures to maximize production, the animals, and most of the farm’s staff, were laid off in favour of expanding the arable land. All that remained were two workers and some very large pieces of machinery. At the time this was what everyone was doing and it was seen as good sense. But in the long run it was eroding the very foundation of the whole system – the soil. Grazing animals help to put nutrients and organic matter back to the ground through their dung. Plus the biodiverse leys on which they feed deposit nutrients and fix nitrogen deep into the soil.

Tim was taking a big gamble in this experiment and was viewed with much scepticism from fellow farmers, but he felt like this was the right thing to do. He measured and documented the changes to wildlife and biodiversity on his farm throughout so he could have some hard evidence to measure his success. Another soil test four years later showed a different picture all together. The soil was rich with organic matter, teeming with life with a much thicker, darker top soil and roots going as deep as 1.5 metres. He now keeps his farm on a four year rotation and as a result Tim’s put life back into the soils and he’s also encouraged a boom in wildlife. His yields have improved and what he discovered through this return to traditional methods was a cheaper, more reliable, resilient system. Not only that, but he says it’s changed his role on the farm – he now sees himself as a nurturer of nature and it’s put the fun back into farming.

Pasture Promise TV has made a documentary about Tim’s journey from agrichemical to agroecology, the first part can be seen here. Part two, where you get to see the amazing results, is not available yet but I will post it as soon as it is.

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