Recently we suffered the most devastating soil loss that I have seen in over 50 years of farming. We could blame the heavens for sending such intense rain in summer, but really this is a man-made problem: created through agricultural practices which leave bare soils vulnerable, and through climate change which makes extreme weather more likely.
It takes 1000 years of natural weathering to transform our underlying slate into an inch of fertile topsoil. To see that lost in just a few minutes is heart-breaking. The field in question was a steep bank; favoured for its southerly aspect and proximity to irrigation and the packing barn, its last lettuces had been cleared and the soil cultivated ready to sow a green manure (such as rye and vetch) to protect it through winter. Arguably this is good practice, but evidently it was not good enough.
Perhaps we should not grow veg on our slopes, and leave that to the flatter East of England – but they have their own issues, with depleted water aquifers (water stored in permeable rock underground), peatlands oxidising and releasing carbon, and sandy soils that can be lost to wind erosion. We could subdivide our fields with more protective breaks of grass, perhaps even terrace the slopes like rice farmers; all would be possible, but add substantially to our costs. In truth, food cannot be produced sustainably for the 0.7 per cent of GDP earnt by UK farmers; soils, waterways, wildlife, and our health are paying the price.
I suspect many of you would say: “do it – build the terraces, and charge whatever it takes to farm well”, but on a day when you’re feeling the pinch, with the bank statement on the table, that field so remote, and so many cheaper food options, would you really be able to stomach the price hike? We would have to constantly battle to justify our prices, and would inevitably limit our market to a committed and very affluent niche.
As a values-led business, we must do our best in an imperfect world. When our best is still not protecting the planet for those who follow, we must argue for radical change; for a form of patient, far-sighted capitalism that attaches value to what we have been given for free, but cannot be replaced. Developing perennial food crops, which come back year after year and so don’t require the soil to be re-cultivated after every season, would be a good start; as would some reality about the true cost of sustainable food production around the world.