Sally owns the Bradshaws Estate in Codsall Staffordshire and talks about why conservation agriculture is her preferred route going forward.
My father Peter Smith was a fruit and vegetable grower, farming 1500 acres on 6 farms in the Midlands and the Southeast. After the war, the revolution in farming when pesticides and manufactured fertilisers were widely used, enabled him to grow consistently good crops, made his farming business profitable and him into a pesticide junky. DDT, organophosphates, residual herbicide were all used in abundance. They enabled him to rid himself of much manual labour and expand his profitable farming empire.
Sadly he died suddenly in 1983 and I had to leave the comfort of my life in London and take on his farming businesses. I was 26, it was a steep learning curve. I continued his farming practices, his belief in operating in the unsubsidised marketplace of horticulture rather than relying on arable subsidies from Brussels, was a very much his ethic. He thought it would not last. How wrong he was.
By 1983, long-term use of pesticides had increasingly manifested itself in resistance to many of the chemical products. Thankfully many of the toxic chemicals had been banned. By then I continued to grow fruit for 20 years but finally switched my farming practices from horticulture to a fully subsidised arable farm; I equally still believe that subsidies should not and cannot continue. To farm without any subsidies is one of the reasons I chose to go down the no-till route.
Over 20 years looking at dull fields of wheat and oil seed rape on a four year rotation being drenched in nitrates and pesticides held little or no interest for me. The four-year rotation bothered me, particularly with club root in the OSR as did resistance to many of our chemical products. However, the income derived from the farm was and still is essential to my business.
I had the fortune to spend much of my youth with a wonderful Irishman call Dr David Robinson a plant physiologist and my father‘s best friend. They had met at a conference in Ireland in 1950s where David was the speaker about his work on residual herbicides, namely Simazine. His research revolutionised soil management and annual weed control.
It changed the way we farmed; we no longer needed to cultivate to rid ourselves of weeds in our perennial crops.
Most of our soft and top fruit crops were in the ground for 4-20 years. After the removal of each perennial crop and after years of Simazine application the soil was full of earthworms. Dr Robinson taught me the value of the soil we farmed. What went on underground was more important than what went on above. He preached grass leys and grazing sheep in our rotations (something we always resisted as we could not see any “profit” in that, although we understood his point). His pioneering work on residual herbicides has now all been overtaken and Simazine has been banned. His knowledge of plant physiology and the soil has stayed with me.
In my arable rotation I was growing potatoes, particularly as they were a good break crop. With the era of de-stoning and excessive cultivation of the ground in preparation for the potatoes, I had witnessed more and more destruction of my soil structure. My soil was washing down the drains and ditches. When I walked across a wheat field, following potatoes, I sank up to my knees. This was not good.
Many years ago, I had done a Nuffield scholarship. On one of their arable farm walks, I visited a notill farmer near Newbury, it really opened my eyes. He was trying to emulate the extensive grazing methods of the Prairies. (In 1800 there were 60 million buffalo grazing the land, they had been there for millennia and by 1900 there were only 500 left, wiped out by the settlers who had been encouraged to farm and cultivate there). The prairies had become a dust bowl; much of the land had become infertile, overcultivated with small rotation and no organic matter. Was this not what I had also done to my land? With the use of wide rotations, cover crops and grazing animals his earthworm population and organic matter was fantastic. On returning home I could not wait to dig a few holes in my soil. I found one earthworm in 8 digs and little or no organic matter.
The final straw came that May in 2018. I had been renting my land out for potato growing for 10 years. By the time I got home I called the tenant and said I did not want to rent the land to him anymore. Unfortunately, he was committed to crisping contracts so I had to honour our agreement. It came back to bite me. Within 2 days of him planting his potatoes we had 1 inch of rain in 30 minutes. My farm proceeded to make its way down the A41 main trunk road running along my farm boundary. Topsoil was covering both carriageways for a quarter of a mile. A couple of newly built houses down this road had my soil, carefully mixed with tons of seed potatoes filling their kitchen and sitting room up to 4 foot high. This topsoil which had taken thousands of years to produce. The home owners had to evacuate and live in caravans for a month whilst their houses were cleared of my precious soil. It was horrific.
That spring I fortunately had started to experiment with no -till farming. The fields where we had had a cover crop followed by spring oats, the storm water had run straight over the top. None of this soil had been washed away. If anything was going to make me change my farming techniques then this was it. I am now in my second year of no-till farming, I have adopted a 6 year rotation. We have used no insecticides for two years. My aim is to stop using fungicides. I do not currently have livestock in my rotation. Inputs are greatly reduced. Can we do this system profitability without subsidies? Not yet.
We have seen big increases in the number of song birds and wildlife. Our local group of bird-ringers go out at night with a thermal imaging lens to study the birdlife. The increase in the numbers of Skylarks, Owls, Woodcock, Stock Doves, Golden Plover and even a Stone Curlew have been enormous. Locally there is a group of no-till farmers. The ringers only now visit the no-till farms in our area as the bird populations are so much higher. To a hedge line, you can see whether a farmer is cultivating or not. The wildlife is just not there in a cultivated field.
I still need my subsidies to make the farm profitable, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. If I can continue to reduce my inputs and my cultivation costs, increase the health of my soil, I am heading in the right direction. Soil is our most important asset.