Surrounded by chicory, clover and an array of grasses on his dairy farm near Fowey, Cornwall, Martin Whell describes his way of farming as “holistic”.
He and his wife Bridget milk their conventional (non-organic) herd of 400 cows just once a day and their farm is one of two taking part in Trewithen Dairy’s new carbon project, an experiment in the benefits of regenerative farming.
The beauty of the herbal ley [mix of grasses] in this perennial pasture is that while there’s great diversity above ground, below ground is where the magic really happens. Deeper tap roots and more complex root systems mean more carbon can be stored in the soil, mixed with a greater diversity of bacteria and fungi all vastly improve soil health.
“Learning about restoring soil health and trying herbal leys is on the crest of the wave. Growing the right food for the cows and the soil is really important to us,” says Whell, who is gradually reducing the amount of chemicals he uses – this year he’s using just 70 per cent of the artificial fertilisers he used in 2020. And while it may not sound drastic, the reduction in fertiliser is a significant step on a traditional farm and the start of a process, rather than a sudden switch.
“As a commercial dairy, we want a transition to lower impacts but it can take a few years for soil to adapt,” he adds.
Described as an “eternal challenger of the norm”, founder of Trewithen Dairy Bill Clarke started farming with 50 cows, and by 1994, he and his wife Rachel were processing their own milk into clotted cream once the kids – Francis and his brother George, both now involved in the family business – had gone to bed, jumping in the van the next morning to sell it. Today, Trewithen processes all the milk from 35 Cornish farms, has an annual turnover of almost £60 million and employs 250 people.
When Clarke first heard the TED talk by ecologist and farmer Allan Savory about using holistic land management to tackle desertification, his fascination with regenerative farming began. He believes that improving carbon sequestration (the amount of carbon stored in the soil) on farms globally has the potential to dramatically reduce the effects of the climate crisis.
In 2019, the UK was the 12th largest milk producer in the world, with just under two million dairy cows, according to the latest statistics from the UK government. Globally, dairy’s carbon emissions (3.4 per cent of the world’s total in 2015) is close to that of shipping and the aviation industry combined (3.7 per cent).
Cows produce methane during digestion, and both methane and nitrous oxides are released when manure is dealt with on the farm. Scientists agree that reducing dairy intake is a major step in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, yet global demand for milk is on the rise and the Cornish landscape is particularly suited to farming dairy cows.
All of this can make for quite a negative picture, but projects like Trewithen’s explore how some of this impact can be countered by nurturing the soil with the help of the cows, with a significant benefit to carbon storage. Fertiliser is also one of the biggest emitters from farming, via nitrous oxide, so cutting down has a direct climate impact.
“Soil is a living ecosystem, much like a cow’s rumen,” explains Tom Tolputt from South West Farm Consultants, who runs the project’s soil samples, earthworm counts and other tests, and surveyed the two farms (1,600 hectares in total) to establish their soil health.
“The joy of building healthy soil is in sequestering carbon but also building resilience,” says Tolputt. “A better ‘crumb structure’ [consistency that allows water to circulate] helps reduce water run-off and also retains moisture so plants grow better after a drought.”
But that transition to low fertiliser while maintaining a good amount of grass for the cows to eat is a tricky one, and involves knowledge and trust in how diversity in plants can help replace the fertility provided by the synthetic chemicals.
Tolputt believes that the data he collects will be crucial in convincing other farmers to switch their ways: “Change won’t happen overnight but it’s part of a process. Regenerative farming has got to be the answer – success will be game-changing for the environment.”
In the future, Trewithen’s managing director Francis Clarke hopes to produce so-called ‘earth milk’ and the UK’s first milk to be sourced only from mainstream regenerative farms. But while there still isn’t a firm definition of regenerative agriculture, perhaps organic certification is the only assurance that isn’t open to misinterpretation?
Clarke explains that regenerative farming is more flexible than organic: “We think of this as an evolution of conventional farming, with more focus on soil health and diversity above ground. It’s not too prescriptive and offers the potential for dairy to be more profitable for the farmer and affordable for customers.”
For now, the project is a learning curve for everyone, and he admits it’s nerve-wracking. “There’s no textbook for this, every farm and every farmer are different. So sharing best practice from these two farms to the rest of our group is key.”
Back to the field near Fowey and Whell hopes that other farmers will follow suit – he and Bridget regularly chat to other regenerative farmers via WhatsApp groups and online forums.
But he adds that the consumer is at the cutting edge of this: “Every mouthful you take shapes the countryside around you.”