Farmer Focus – David White

“How much rain do you get on farm? All of it.” is a quote from an American regen farmer whose name escapes me. A comment that we can all relate to this autumn as we watched the millimetres accumulate in our rain gauges with a feeling that we personally were getting ALL of the rain. The quote of course refers to the soil organic matter, water holding potential and good structure, but the percolation rate in a good soil has again shown the ability to aid resilience and retain healthier looking crops.

No question that it’s been a difficult autumn with what seems like continuous storms blowing through, can’t think how many letters the Met Office will have got through naming them!

Here in the ‘dry’ east we had 224mm of rainfall in September/October with 167 of that falling in October. Certainly, again the less is more strategy has proved to be the most resilient and here any field that had ’stuff’ growing in it has remained relatively dry and drillable. I put ‘stuff’ as it didn’t need to be an expensively seeded catch crop, as volunteer oats provided the perfect entry for winter beans.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel extensively of late, not only through East Anglia, the Home Counties and up to Yorkshire but we also drove over 1100 miles on the recent BASE UK trip to France. We did a big loop down the east, across to the Loire region, and back up to the top side of Paris for our final visits. The clear lesson learnt was that any soil that had been moved sat very sad and wet, often with wash-outs on slopes and anything ‘alive’ and unmoved walked OK. Poor headlands clearly show no respect for the Brexit separation of the UK from Europe and is a common feature.

There is of course a limit to what good structure and kind topography can cope with and my low fields do have wet holes and some standing water. These fields will have been meadows back in the 1970s when mixed farms were regarded as inefficient and the push for ‘big’ production dictated that they were ploughed up. Ooh what a bonanza we had cashing in on decades worth of carbon being released. Also,
how strange now that I’m looking at payments that support arable reversion and capital grants for fencing to return them to their former use, what goes around… I’m quite looking forward to being a livestock farmer again even if in the early days being more livestock host than owner. Clearly this trend also has no respect for Brexit with us seeing some great grazing practises in France with livestock taking over arable fields.

Bandwagon or mindset change?

We must remind ourselves livestock integration is one of the 5 Regen Ag principals and whilst many farmers now encouraged by SFI payments may dabble with throwing a few strange seeds around their farms to qualify for one or another payment acronyms, they will barely be ‘conservation grade’ never mind regen. We’ve recently seen the Red Tractor grab for further farming domination with their surprise outflanking move to impose the Green Commitment Module and grab good practice for the supply chain to capitalise on. Too many middle men see it (regen) as being on trend, something they want to be associated with to grab an easy pound (or carbon kg) or for customer kudos, without A) understanding it or B) being happy to reward those really making a difference to their farms and their soils.

This has highlighted the fact that some kind of definition of what regen ag is, is maybe needed. Lack of understanding and the fact that every new sheet of paper is blank means that we are at risk of more new wheels being invented than Raleigh ever made. This definition/demonstration of change should be no more difficult than adopting the 5 principals.

On top for that you will have to take some risk, try something new, see and measure simply the farm improvement brought by practice change. Share your experience with others so we can learn together. Work with local schools and community so they have opportunity to get on farm, understand the difference and create customer demand.

Fortunately, I’m working with 2 organisations that do understand the difference and are actively working to promote the benefits and bring financial value back to the farmer. Choose your partners carefully and not let regen ag become just another meaningless slogan.