“It’s all beginning to come together,” says George Crossley, explaining his mission to convert his family farm to organic, move away from arable monocultures and return to natural, diverse ecosystems.
We’re in Hampshire on Rushmere Farm, where Crossley has recently returned to oversee a conversion to organic (mainly oats, barley, wheat), while also running his start-up oat milk business Toats Mylk, woodwork workshops, a shepherd’s hut Airbnb and a weekly farm visit and coffee morning for a group of refugees. Unsurprisingly, he’s into the concept of ‘diversification’.
“The farm is the thing. We’re on 100 hectares, or 240 acres, and we have just begun organic conversion. Our system will be based around never having a monoculture, so all the crops will be under-sown with white clover, which fixes nitrogen in the soil,” he explains.
Oats are important, as Crossley hopes to start using his homegrown crop in his oat milk, which he began making and delivering from his kitchen in Falmouth during the first lockdown.
Currently he buys oats from other farmers, makes the oat milk on the farm and then delivers to customers around Portsmouth and soon to Farnham, in reusable glass bottles. Plant milk is one of the plant-based boom markets, and Crossley has just invested in a small bottling line along with a bigger vat, which he operates out of a 16th century barn.
But back to the farm. He recounts how he’s always noticed his dad, a traditional non-organic arable farmer, spending a lot on chemicals and fertiliser. “I’ve been pushing dad on what we spend on chemicals for years; they all impact each other,” he explains. “When you use more nitrogen, you get more weeds because they grow better, so then you need more chemicals.”
Nowadays and under organic conversion, parts of the farm are already regenerating, and he describes amazing results from an area sown with wild bird seed mix; vital feed for birds over winter. He does bird surveys every month and is hoping to encourage rare species like whitethroats and corn buntings to establish on the farm.
“My view is that the natural ecosystem is meant to be diverse; a monoculture is just a disaster,” says Crossley.
But moving from conventional, chemical farming to organic is not without its perils, not least as it reduces the all-important crop yields, which can make or break a farmer’s entire income for the year. Crossley still farms alongside his father, and says they expect yields to drop by around two thirds in their first year while they learn how to build soil fertility naturally, and perhaps find new markets for their organic crops. In the meantime, they’re hoping the diversification around holiday lets and oat milk will see them through.
“People say you can’t feed people on those [organic] yields, but my view is we might be growing less, but it may well be more nutritious,” he says.
Research on the nutrition of organic food is, unfortunately, relatively rare, and there is a notable gap between funding for research in organic and ecological farming, compared with shiny high-tech ‘solutions’ such as vertical farming, or gene editing.
But Crossley sees an obvious link between healthy soils cultivated during organic farming, and producing healthy, nutritious food.
“When you look at our health system, there’s definitely something wrong,” he says. “When my brother makes a loaf of sourdough, you only need one slice.”
Far from just making his own business successful – and he does have big plans to expand his oat milk deliveries as far as London – Crossley also wants to explain the story of sustainable farming as he goes. He offers farm tours to all his Airbnb guests and is thinking of expanding this as an offer on his oat milk bottles.
“The oats go into the milk, the milk goes out to the people. I’m going to indoctrinate people about organic farming,” he smiles. “I always wanted to be a farmer, despite dad not wanting us to because it’s so hard,” says Crossley, who trained as an engineer and was working in renewable tidal energy in Cornwall before returning to Hampshire.
Farming is also a powerful cultural heritage, and it’s no small feat to change direction and do things differently. “It’s a negotiation to change how things are done. Chemical agriculture gives you control if something goes wrong,” he explains.
Nonetheless, he has found the organic and regenerative farming community to be friendly and very open to sharing knowledge. Very different from the oat milk business, where he says he largely self-taught through trial error using YouTube videos and the occasional help from a food scientist. The sector is still new, and highly competitive, as demonstrated by the recent court case between oat milk giant Oatly and Cambridgeshire oat milk producer Glebe Farm.
Crossley has seen his own modest growth with Toats, expanding from one 30-litre ‘brew’ to 16 a week (around 500 bottles), with plans to double in the next few months. “The hardest thing is not being able to ask anyone. I’ve had to figure it all out,” he says.
He adds that one problem as an arable farmer is the grain market is set up as a globally-traded commodity with limited flexibility. “For commercial grain trading, you can only grow a few varieties,” says Crossley, explaining how this doesn’t fit his vision of a diverse system with multiple varieties and species of crops.
“With farming it does seem like the general drive is that we need to be producing shit loads of food regardless of the quality. It’s all about technology, and precision application of chemicals. And the NFU is fully in support of that. It’s all wrong,” he says. “The big movement is still towards the big, destructive farming systems.”
He is similarly sceptical of a new market for farmers to ‘sell’ their soil carbon, helping other companies like airlines offset their own carbon footprint.
“People think we can up our income with carbon and biodiversity trading – if I can store carbon and use that to benefit my own business and market that’s great. Morally I’m against selling it to property developers or others,” he says.
Like Crossley, there are thousands of small-scale organic and regenerative farmers across the country who care for their land, their livelihoods and for nature. They meet at events like the Oxford Real Farming Conference coming up in January, or the regenerative farming event Groundswell in summer, and share advice via farmer-led research schemes like Innovative Farmers or in regenerative farming community WhatsApp groups.
Together they are a sign that while policies to encourage it may be underwhelming, on the ground at least, there is a revolution in sustainable farming that is waiting to happen.