5 reasons to be cheerful about the future of British farming

A new regenerative generation is providing hope for the future of farming

Now is not the time to be a farmer. The rise in fuel and fertiliser prices are hitting production costs hard. Supermarkets are pocketing the profits from higher food prices instead of passing them on to producers. Avian Flu is sweeping the country and decimating flocks.

Farmers’ press coverage has not been particularly peachy either, focussing on their shrinking incomes or claims of malpractice around river pollution and animal welfare.

Photo credit Veronica White

But it is not all bad news…

There are hundreds of farmers across the UK, diligently working to change the future and reputation of their industry. As we look towards a new year, Ecohustler are looking at sources of hope for the future of farming.

Below are five of the positive changes that farmers are making and their impact on both the industry and the environment:

1. Starting with the soil

Since the end of the second world war farmers have gone big - growing large yields as efficiently as possible. This was thanks to the invention of artificial fertilisers and heavy machinery. But farmers are now realising these inventions were too good to be true. This heavy approach has a catastrophic impact on soil health.

Photo credit Jan Kopriva

More and more farmers are moving towards a practice called regenerative agriculture. This looks at the land as a whole, focusing on the interconnection between agriculture and nature.

At its simplest, the aims are to minimise disrupting the soil structure, avoid bare soil, increase plant diversity and integrate animals into the farming system.

Animals are a natural alternative to fertilisers and pesticides – using mob grazing, livestock will happily nibble off any unwanted or unhealthy plants. Whilst they are chomping down the crops at one end, the manure produced from the other end acts as a natural fertiliser. This reduces the need for chemical nitrates and offers a sustainable source of food for livestock. As an extra bonus, this healthy soil can also capture carbon.

2. Bringing biodiversity back to British farms

Regenerative agriculture is all about increasing biodiversity. Nitrates, pesticides, and insecticides all impact the environment around crops as well as the crop themselves. The reduction in chemicals has a positive impact on native plants and wildlife.

To protect the soil structure, fields are not ploughed or left bare. This stops the soil being eroded by wind or water. Growing different crops together prevents mono-culture farming and provides a range of food and habitats for animal, bird and insect life. The year-round cover also provides food and protection for wildlife and somewhere to hide from predators.

Photo credit Walter Brunner

A new way of seeing farming is not just about maximising food output but also being stewards of the land and crucially in our nature depleted country actually regenerating the natural world.

3. Rebuilding the super-hedge highway

Farmers are starting to understand the necessity of working with, as opposed to against nature. Subsidies such as the Countryside Stewardship Scheme reward farmers for making space for nature on their farms, whether through leaving larger margins at the edge of fields, reducing hay cuts or growing hedges.

50% of British hedges have been pulled out in the past fifty years. Government schemes encouraged this practice to create larger fields that were easier for modern machinery to navigate. It was all in the name of efficiency and higher yields. In the interest of neatness, hedges that were left have been cut to within an inch of their lives and are in exceedingly poor condition.

Photo credit Rupert Dunn

Subsidies now encourage farmers to reduce hedge cutting. They may resemble a bird’s nest rather than a buzz cut but the thicker the hedge the better. Hedges are more than boundaries, they are super hedge highways for wildlife – commuting routes for bats and other birds, protective cover for mice, partridge and smaller wildlife. These hedges work to both create and connect habitats. The more hedges there are, the more pockets of nature within the rural landscape can connect to one another.

Farmers are now looking at which parts of their land are the most productive. They are taking pockets of land, unsuitable for growing food out of production. These pockets of rewilding are rebuilding habitats for Britain’s native species.

The government continues to delay sharing the details of the Environment Land Management scheme, the subsidies being introduced to replace those lost by Brexit, but there is hope that they will incentivise a move away from intensive farming and towards practices that support and benefit the natural world.

Photo courtesy of Conygree Farm

4. Introducing new voices to the world of farming

The cliched image of a farmer is a chequered-shirt-wearing, straw-chewing, weathered elderly white man but this image is starting to change. In 2020 women made up one in five farmers, the highest it has ever been, and that number has continued to rise.

A recent Countryfile episode focussed on farmers with disabilities. The number of farmers from Black, Asian and Mixed Heritage backgrounds is also slowly increasing. With diversity comes different experiences, outlooks, and ideas. New voices in the industry ask new questions and broaden approaches to farming.

People who have not grown up in farming, need to feel welcome in an industry that is often viewed as hereditary. This breaks the cycle of doing things a certain way purely because it’s how it’s always been done.

Whilst it is not yet the time for complacency or congratulation, there is still a great deal of progress to be made in agricultural diversity, British farming is moving in the right direction.

Organisations such as the Oxford Real Farming Conference do a brilliant job of creating spaces for discussion and innovation, bringing people together from different backgrounds to transform our current food system. Tickets are still available for their January event.

5. Bringing farming to the people through social media

In a society designed for convenience, the divide between urban and rural is growing . Supermarkets, delivery apps and online shopping make it easy to disengage from where food comes from. ‘Farming influencers’ are combatting this on social media. By bringing farming into people’s phones and homes they are building a resurgence in consumers’ interest in the source of their food.

Farmers are using their platforms to give an insight into their day-to-day, explaining food production and farming practices to an audience who may not have otherwise had the opportunity or inclination to engage with agriculture..

Accounts such as @the_rainbowfarmer, @thekenyanpigfarmer, @thechiefshepherdess, and @bentheoandrews, champion diversity, highlighting both how the industry has modernised and calling for further change.

Most importantly they engage people to care about the countryside and people who care are more likely to act.

Farmers are often portrayed as homogenous statistics. Social media allows consumers to engage with the people behind the food and learn about what these farmers are doing to protect the environment and future food production.

The future may be uncertain for a lot of farmers as they wait on details around ELMs, cross their fingers against avian flu and continue to fight for fair prices but there is also hope. Farming practices are shifting and there are a lot of voices in the industry pushing for change.

The future of farming is not just about growing food, it is also about regenerating the natural world. This task is both necessary and hugely rewarding. We are the generation who get to bring back the birdsong which is pretty incredible.

Farming in Slovakia Credit We Feed The World