Forging ahead in farming

Riverford’s regenerative farming lead Harriet Bell on city upbringings, the power of food choices and gender equality.

Harriet Bell is the regenerative farming lead at organic veg box company Riverford. Despite growing up in the city, she tells Chloe Atkinson how a famous American mentor influenced her career choice and why women have always been pivotal in farming, they just don’t get the credit they deserve.

What is your role? 

My official job title is regenerative farming lead. 

How long have you been doing it for? 

I’ve only been at Riverford for about three months, but in terms of working in farming, about ten years. I moved to Devon to start work on a farm in 2011, so I’m just past my ten-year anniversary. 

What inspired you to get into farming? 

It’s definitely not something I thought I would do growing up. I grew up in central London and I can tell you kids growing up in central London are not told that they could go out into the world and become farmers. I was really lucky because I spent a lot of time in the countryside growing up and in my gap year, I volunteered on a city farm. It was really small, about an acre, and had about two miniature cows, two pigs, three sheep and a lot of rabbits.  

My mum was a primary school teacher, so I knew how lucky I was to spend time in the countryside growing up, compared to a lot of kids she taught who never even left London. I have also always been really into my food, and particularly organic food. I did part of my degree at Berkeley, and there was a guy called Michael Pollan, a leading food writer at the time, and he had just published a book called Omnivore’s Dilemma which was about the story of four different meals, where they came from, and his argument was that eating is one of the most important things that we do. 

Why do you think food is so important? 

You only get to vote about who runs the country once every four or five years, but every time you eat, you’re making a decision about the world around you. You’re deciding about the environment and if it was grown with pesticides. You’re deciding if farmers get paid fairly, if the person working in a supermarket gets paid well, if it’s healthier, if there’s going to be implications for the NHS and how it could link in with global trade.  

Food is one of the simplest things we do and also the most complicated. I just thought that was really fascinating and it made a massive impression on me.  

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Bell didn’t think it was possible to be a farmer when she was growing up in the city. 

What is regenerative farming and is it important? 

Essentially the concept is you are returning more to the land than you are taking from it. Rather than depleting your natural resources. Usually, the principles of regenerative farming include things like minimum tillage. Because tillage is cultivation of the soil which can cause a lot of erosion and damage the soil structures. Things like agroforestry are also regenerative farming tools. 

How damaging would it be if you didn’t remove weeds? 

You get a diversity of opinions for this. There are some people that think the most damaging thing you can do is cultivate [dig] the soil, so if using some degree of herbicide means that you can avoid doing that, then that’s the best course of action. Other people would be of the opinion that the use of herbicides, artificial fertiliser and pesticides should be halted altogether. 

I like to remain open minded, but personally my current inclination is to not use herbicides, pesticides or artificial fertilisers and to find other means to achieve weed maintenance. But it is difficult, and I do have moments of greater sympathy with people that like to have access to those tools. 

Is the use of chemicals in farming harmful to animals?  

We don’t really study the impacts of these things well enough or for long enough periods of time to really understand them. I think the other thing is that we’ve seen 75 per cent decline in invertebrates, and we haven’t got really got excited enough about insects in the past.

I think it’s only in recent years that we’ve really come to appreciate these smaller things on which ecosystems are built. The decline in insect numbers is really worrying and inherently linked to the excessive use of pesticides

Will eating organically actually help sustainability or climate change? 

Fundamentally yes. From a climate change perspective, things like artificial fertilisers are very heavily reliant on the fossil fuel industry and you generally burn quite a lot of fossil fuels applying them. Although you can get through quite a lot of fossil fuels cultivating land from an organic perspective as well, but you don’t have the applications of fertiliser.

I think we tend to isolate climate change as a single thing and it’s not. Climate change and biodiversity collapse are inherently interwoven, so we need to build resilience across multiple systems, and I think the organic system is better. And I would say the emphasis that organic has on soil health, welfare standards and biodiversity will put us in a better place for sustainability and climate change.

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Eating is one of the most powerful things we do according to Bell. 

Why do you think there are more male farmers than women? 

Traditionally I think it largely came down to the fact that women were often in a more domestic family role. I was reading one of those random internet articles about how thousands of years ago Ukraine apparently used to have this amazing agrarian society that was very heavily dominated by women, and there are actually lots of cultures where women play a more significant role in farming. 

It’s not that women haven’t always been in farming; women have always been there a lot of the time doing the work, even the day-to-day work. They’re just not known as the farmer, they’re known as the farmer’s wife or the farmer’s mother, whereas it’s the (male) farmer who is the farmer. But that doesn’t mean women haven’t been there doing the work and running things. 

How do you think you could encourage more women to do what you do? 

I think visibility is key. If all you’re seeing is male farmers or white farmers, then you don’t grow up thinking that you want to be a farmer. I also think it important to make traditionally male agricultural places more supportive and comfortable places for women and to feel like they have a role and a place.

Do you think you will be doing this for the rest of your life? 

I always follow what’s interested me and it hasn’t led me anywhere that I expected or planned. I think as long as this is an area that is stimulating and there’s constantly something to learn and make a positive difference, then yes. But life turns out differently to what you expect. 

2 Comments

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  1. Definitely going to be a great addition to the Riverford team. Am slightly perplexed by the question and response re acceptable use of chemicals in ‘regenerative’ farming? can understand there are arguments for use for volume of production, economy and even prevention of waste etc., however not sure there can ever be an argument for use as part of a regenerative farming model? Or for an employee of Riverford. After all a weed is just a plant in the wrong place …. and part of a food change for a particular insect etc etc. etc ……

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  2. Many thanks for such a thoughtful article. I find the comments about women in farming interesting. Is it not about male dominance in this area like it is and has been, all others? Farming, as it seems to me, is changing, with many more woman farmers, and a good thing too. I read a lot about work being done in Africa particularly adapting growing methods to cope with the changing climate and it seems that farming is run by women. Long may this continue.

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