BY CHARLIE PYE-SMITH
The American poet Wendell Berry is one of the few people who has managed to make soil sound both important and sexy. “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all,” he wrote in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. “It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” A similar view was expressed, less poetically but more succinctly, by President Franklin D Roosevelt. “A nation that destroys it soil destroys itself,” he said when reflecting on the American Dust Bowl. If you want to understand what the Dust Bowl meant in terms of environmental damage and human suffering – a combination of drought and poor farming practices led to the loss of topsoil over an area of 100 million acres – just read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
Here, in Britain, we have yet to experience such catastrophic events, but all the evidence suggests that the condition of our soils has deteriorated significantly over recent decades, largely as a result of intensive farming practices. One study, published in 2014, suggested that if we continue along the current trajectory we have just 100 harvests left before our soils are too exhausted to produce food.
Doomsday hyperbole? Perhaps, but there is no doubt that soil degradation is having a significant impact, both on food production and the environment. Around 17% of arable soils in England and Wales are affected by erosion, with 40% being at risk. The costs of soil erosion, measured in terms of lower crop yields, reduced carbon storage and the pollution of drinking water, already amounts to around £1.2 billion a year. It is estimated that 90% of UK water bodies have raised nitrogen levels, with at least two-thirds of this coming from farming activities. An increase in nitrogen and phosphorus frequently leads to a decline in the oxygen content of the water and the loss of fish and other life.
Much to his credit, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has grasped this particular nettle. Speaking at the Green Brexit conference, held by Prosperity UK in March, Gove had much to say on the subject of our ailing soils and implied that the new environmental land management system which is set to replace the current subsidy arrangements will reward farmers for improving soil health.
And high time too, according to Alastair Leake, director of policy for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and manager of the Allerton Project. “In this country, we have never invested in soils or looked after them as a national resource,” he said when he showed me around the 800-acre demonstration farm a couple of weeks ago. Over 20 years of research at Allerton, which is situated in lovely rolling countryside of southern Leicestershire, has proved that it is possible to farm in ways which are both productive and wildlife friendly. The project has also shown how farmers can deliver decent yields – and that means food for the rest of us – while enhancing the quality of the soil.
Leake believes it makes sense to pay farmers to improve their soils; or, as he puts it, “our soils,” as we have a shared interest in their health and productivity. He points out that in the UK farmers currently receive £4 billion a year in subsidies. Around £3.1 billion goes on direct payments, most on the Basic Payment Scheme, which provides all active farmers with an annual payment based on the area there farming. The larger the holding, the more they get. The remaining £800 million or so goes on rural development schemes, most of which support agri-environmental measures designed to boost biodiversity. “You could argue that we’re not getting much for the £4 billion in terms of public goods,” says Leake. “Some of it would be much better spent if it provided payments for farmers to adopt a restorative phase in their crop rotations that led to a net gain in organic matter.”
If this sounds quite technical, then it is. It is also – once you take a worm’s eye view of the world – a fascinating business.
Dust to earth
One of the practices used to great effect at Allerton is conservation agriculture. This has three main principles: minimal disturbance of the soil, keeping the soil covered throughout the year, and rotating crops. Although conservation agriculture was first deployed in England in the 1980s, it has never become widespread, even though certain elements – like reduced tillage – have become relatively commonplace. In contrast, it is estimated that over 60% of all cropland in South America, 69% in Australia and New Zealand and 15% in North America is under conservation agriculture. For Europe, the comparable figure is a meagre 0.5%.
The first time I saw conservation agriculture in action in England was at Blaston, an estate in Leicestershire owned by Hylton Murray-Philipson. I had been put in touch with Murray-Philipson, a successful investment banker and conservationist, by Mike Belcher. I had known Mike for years, as we buy most of our meat from him – Gloucester Old Spot pork, Masham lamb and native breed beef – from his stall in our local farmers’ market in south-west London. When I told him I was about to write a book about British farmers – Land of Plenty: A Journey through the Fields & Foods of Modern Britain – he suggested I spend a week on his farm near Melton Mowbray. While I was there, his son Dan took me to Blaston along with a trailer full of ewes and young lambs. In 2012, Murray-Philipson had invited the Belchers to graze several hundred beef and a large flock of sheep at Blaston during the summer months. It was all part of the effort to restore the farm’s degraded soils.
Prior to the arrival of the Belchers’ livestock, Blaston adopted a short, repetitive crop rotation with two high-value crops, wheat and oilseed rape, following one another year after year. This may have made economic sense when world prices of wheat and rape were high, but it was environmentally reckless. The arable land at Blaston became infested with blackgrass, a weed which dramatically reduces crop yields and profits, and the soil gradually lost its structure and fertility. The bill for mineral fertilisers continued to rise, yields to fall. A similar story could be told for tens of thousands of farms across the lowlands.
Since the Belchers arrived with their livestock in 2012, the farm has undergone a remarkable transformation. Instead of just planting wheat and rape, Blaston is the now rotating these combinable crops with grass leys to improve soil structure and fertility. Nitrogen-fixing crops such as beans and clover have been introduced into the rotations and cover crops, such as oil radish and black oats, are planted after the autumn harvest to keep the soil covered throughout the winter. Just as importantly, the farm has moved away from deep ploughing to sowing directly into the soil. And of course the livestock are fertilising the land with their manure.
Exactly a year after my first visit to Blaston with Dan Belcher, I was invited back for an agronomy seminar. Those present included Tom Heathcote and colleagues from the land agents Fisher German and a four-strong team of agronomists from Indigro, a company that had been providing the farm with technical advice. Heathcote opened the proceedings by giving a brief overview of what Blaston was hoping to achieve. “We are assuming that after 2020 there will be zero subsidies,” he said. “Our aim is to be financially viable, restore life in the soil, adopt practices which are good for wildlife, and significantly increase livestock on the farm, with a view to adding value and selling beef direct the public. We are on a journey towards conservation agriculture.”
After much technical talk, and before a lunch of shepherd’s pie in the shooting lodge, we traipsed around the fields with Neil Fuller, a soil fertility expert who had come to talk about the soils at Blaston and their imperilled status on the planet. He became particularly effusive when we reached a field called Stobo. He dug up a large chuck of soil and began examining it with his fingers. “There’s a huge amount of earthworm activity, a sign of a healthy soil,” he said, almost breathless with excitement. “You can see all these earthworm middens and galleries. The aeration is very good and the soil will warm up much faster in spring than soils with less organic matter. There’s lots of biological activity and the crop here will have a whale of a time.”
After 30 years of growing nothing but wheat and rape, Stobo had been drilled with a species-rich grass and clover seed mix in 2011. For the next five years it received no mineral fertilisers or agrochemicals, but was grazed by the Belcher’s livestock. In autumn 2015 it was grazed hard to remove as much grass as possible then given a light application of glyphosate to kill the grass, but not the clover. The field was then direct drilled, which means that seeds were drilled into unploughed soil, with winter oilseed rape, and the following season with winter wheat. Thanks to these practices, the organic matter content of the soil increased from 2.4% in 2011 to 4.4% in 2015. This meant that the total amount of carbon contained within the soil had risen from 189 tons to 350 tons. Not only is the field now in much better shape for long-term food production, it is doing us a climatic favour. Indeed, conservation agriculture could well be one of the best ways of sequestering carbon and tackling global warming.
The science of success
I have told this story at length because it illustrates how farmers, over a relatively short period of time, can transform seriously degraded soils into a healthy, biologically rich substrate which can support good crops. Which brings me back to Alastair Leake and his belief that any future subsidy system should reward farmers for adopting a restorative phase in their crop rotations to complement the exploitative phase, when crops such as wheat and rape take nutrients out of the soil.
Research at Allerton has shown the conservation agriculture yields a whole range of benefits. Because it involves direct drilling or minimum tillage, the costs of cultivation are reduced. Conservation agriculture not only improves soil structure and reduces water run-off, and therefore pollution, it also leads to a dramatic increase in biological activity, with land under conservation agriculture having double the number of earthworms as land conventionally tilled. Indeed, the quantity of earthworms is a good index of soil health. The complex lattice of tunnels and burrows created by the worms provides pathways which help crop roots penetrate deep into the soil, which is particularly important when rains are scarce. Conversely, healthy soils full of organic matter are much better at soaking up water during a wet period than degraded soils, which are much more prone to flooding.
Although conservation agriculture can lead to an increase in weeds during the early years, and therefore an increase in the amount of herbicide that needs to be used, in the long run it is one of the most effective ways of reducing weeds, as well as pests and diseases. Research at Allerton also shows that conservation agriculture is better for birdlife than fields subject to conventional tillage. One project found that on land subject to heavy ploughing there were just four sky larks for every 100 hectares; there were three times that many on land devoted to conservation agriculture. Crop residues which are left on the soil, rather than ploughed in, provide nesting sites for birds as well as extra feed.
All the same, Leake warns against a messianic no-till approach. He took me to one field where the project has set up an experiment to measure gaseous emissions under three different regimes: zero tillage, minimum tillage and conventional ploughing. “There’s a possibility that emissions of nitrous oxide – which is 310 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – could be higher under no-till conditions,” he said. “And if that’s the case, we might need to rethink our strategy.” But on balance, he believes, conservation agriculture is one of the most promising ways of increasing soil structure and fertility and getting the yields we need to feed a growing population.
Before he arrived at Allerton, Leake spent 10 years managing a stock-free organic farm for the Co-operative Group. He recalled with pride getting 8 tonnes per hectare for a crop of wheat sown on land which had previously been down to a grass/clover mix. Most farmers using agrochemicals are happy if they get 8 tonnes per hectare, which is the average yield in Europe. “You don’t need livestock to retain soil fertility,” explained Leake. After five years of arable crops at the Co-op farm – wheat, rape, beans, wheat and oats – a grass ley was established for a year. Instead of being grazed by livestock, the grass was cut and mulched. This helped to restore fertility and soil structure, without any of the hassle involved in livestock farming, which should be music to the ears of arable farmers. Of course, there are no profits to be made during the restorative phase, when the land is down to grass, and this is why Leake believes that farmers will need financial support if they are to adopt the practice.
Some farmers are understandably gloomy about their prospects of survival once the area-based payment scheme comes to an end. Indeed, some estimate suggested 25% of farms could go out of business. However, there are also reasons to be optimistic about post-Brexit agriculture. We know, thanks to work at Allerton and elsewhere, how to restore and enhance the quality of our soils, and the noises coming from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have been encouraging. In his foreword to Health and Harmony – not a beauty parlour but a paper outlining a range of possible paths for the farming industry – Michael Gove pointed out that leaving the EU provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform agriculture. “The environmental damage we have suffered while inside the Common Agricultural Policy has been significant,” he wrote. “Soil health has deteriorated. Farmland bird numbers have dropped. Precious habitats are being eroded.” Now, he says, we can design a more rational and sensitive agricultural policy which promotes environmental enhancement, supports profitable food production and contributes to a healthier society.
“You can’t trot out all this stuff about looking after natural capital and rewarding farmers for providing public goods and ignore what soils have to offer,” says Alastair Leake. If we are going to feed the world’s growing population – there was 0.8 ha of agricultural land per person 50 years ago; now there’s just 0.2 hectares – maintaining soil fertility is as important as anything you care to mention. Everything begins and ends with the soil and we ignore it at our peril. That’s why Michael Gove has been right to talk of soil health as a public good in the hands of private owners.
The paperback edition of Charlie Pye-Smith’s Land of Plenty – A Journey through the Fields & Foods of Modern Britain – is published by Elliott & Thompson on May 10.