When the beat dropped during Groove Armada’s Superstylin’ and the crowd went wild in a noughties nightclub, it would never have crossed co-founder Andy Cato’s mind where he might end up some 15 years later.
Swapping deep bass for deep roots, Cato has pivoted from DJ du jour to a progressive farmer with a focus on sustainable wheat and a determination to spread the word about carbon-positive farming to tackle the soil and ecosystem crises.
His project Wildfarmed Grain is aiming to simultaneously help arable farmers in the UK grow wheat without chemicals, and protect soils and biodiversity, and educate consumers about the positive environmental impact of buying the resulting flour.
But how did such a transformation come about? It was on the way back from a gig, recalls Cato, when he happened upon what was probably even then unlikely reading material.
“I picked up an article on oil and chemical-based [food] production and what that means for the environment and people,” he says, adding that the piece shocked him enough to read more and begin to grow his own food.
“I started growing veg, to begin with quite badly, but with enough of a sense of wonder about having food on the table that you’d grown, to just know that I was going to be doing something along those lines for the rest of my life,” he says.
The effect was so profound, says Cato, who recalls the “total wonder” of seeing seeds turn into food, he sold the publishing rights to his music to buy a farm in France and take up the farming life full-time.
Watching the destruction caused by monocultures of maize growing nearby, where soils would wash off into ditches during rainfall, he chose the organic route. But it was far from plain sailing. With soils of heavy clay and little nutrients, once the chemical fertilisers and weed controls were switched off, the yields plummeted.
“After three years of that, I was broke, the yields were shit, I was buying seed expensively and selling grain for cheap and I was just trying to hold back the tide,” he says. “So that was a real low point and I was thinking I was going to have to give up.”
Turning once again to reading, a book by Albert Howard called An Agricultural Testament, taught him the value of animals in farming to build up nutrients in the soil.
With an apparently typical drive to ignore any barrier, he says: “Up to that point, I’d never had a pet in my life and then I had a herd of cows arriving.”
Set up with a route between field and shade, these cows formed an inadvertent ‘mob grazing’ system, a term used by the new era of regenerative farmers who use livestock as movable fertilisation banks by keeping them on the move.
Next, he learnt to inter-sow different crops, such as maize, grass and buckwheat, to play to their different climate resistances, as well as harvesting using horses to avoid heavy machinery crushing soils, and suddenly “there was a glimmer of hope” and successful yields of organic wheat and soybean.
Next up? A plan to scale up and share his new-found knowledge with other farmers.
“The carbon clock is ticking,” he says. “We’ve got so little time to sort out the state of our soils and our ecosystem, and there’s so much potential for quick gains if we do. It’s not about having just a few more expensively priced loaves; we need to go further than that.
“Our vision now is on the one hand helping farmers who are interested in adopting carbon positive cereal growing techniques, and on the other it’s communicating with consumers to say look, every time you buy bread or biscuits made out of [this flour], what’s happening is supporting carbon positive and ecosystem-positive farming.”
It’s hard to describe without being too technical just how different Cato’s way of growing wheat is – but even on a surface level, stripes of grass for cows next to stripes of grains for humans immediately contrasts with vast monocultures of arable fields you see across the UK.
Already supplying two London bakeries, the project is due to begin working with around 25 British wheat farmers from Autumn 2021 with plans to grow from there.
It’s becoming more commonplace now, thankfully, to recognise that any transition to a greener society, while underpinned by the urgency for change, must recognise other social factors. In this case, wheat farmers like the ones Cato is trying to reach are often trapped in a commodity market based on tonnage alone, where to gain a profit, yields must be boosted by chemical fertilisers or pesticides.
“A lot of my experience with farmers where I am in France, where people grow maize, oilseed rape and wheat, is that all my neighbours are incredibly practical and hard-working. A lot of them are also incredibly indebted through no fault of their own,” says Cato.
“They are aware that they’re up against a soil and ecosystem crisis. And they’re aware there’s a lot of talk about regenerative options. But in the first instance what that means is risk and investment. And for people who already have a noose around their neck, that’s a tough thing to take.”
Spreading the word among farmers will rely on sharing knowledge built up through his own mistakes, while educating consumers will need a momentum of its own. Luckily, slow-grown, ‘real’ bread is having a bit of a moment.
The sector is ripe for scaling up, buoyed by campaigns such as this week’s Real Bread Week, and the huge surge in interest in local food shopping since the pandemic alerting communities to the presence of bakeries in their area.
Speaking to Cato, you can’t help but feel his determination and single-minded focus on the environmental challenges at stake, something not unreminiscent of the atmosphere around activist Greta Thunberg. But he attributes it to a character trait he’s always had, and perhaps honed, in the world of commercial music.
“When I was doing the music, it was a similar idea in that you make things happen, and how you do that is up to you. Back then it was albums, and now it’s finding ways to make grains grow,” he says.
And for those wondering how you could turn your back on a life of DJing private parties at villas and yachts, he replies simply: “There’s something about that moment when you first start growing food and you start to get lost in the extraordinary miraculous processes that are sustaining us all. And once you’ve got to that point, there’s no turning back really.”