“Mixed farming is muddled thinking.” That’s what Douglas, one of our neighbours, said of my father’s complex mixed farm, 40 years before anyone had heard of regenerative agriculture. They had both started farming as church tenants after the war, running mixed farms (traditional systems rearing both crops and livestock), with cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, cider orchards and grain fields. As agrochemicals got cheaper, and as machinery got bigger, Douglas sold his livestock, grubbed out his orchards, and focused on grain – which he did very well at, retiring early and comfortably.
We grow around 60 crops on the farm now; down from over 100 in Riverford’s early days. It sometimes feels like we are fighting the 18th century economist Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (the unseen forces that move the free market economy to serve society’s needs), which would have guided us towards scale and simplicity. There is no doubt that in farming, as with any business, the more different things you do, the smaller the chance you will do any of them well.
I remember visiting Frank, a Dutch glasshouse farmer who grew only cucumbers. He apologised for having to leave early for his amateur dramatics rehearsal; when I asked what the play was about, he said, without irony, “cucumbers”. Needless to say, he was excellent at growing cucumbers, with high yields and lower prices. So why should you pay for us lacking Frank’s focus? I do think that our lower yielding, shorter season cucumbers taste better – and they certainly have a lower carbon footprint, being local, grown without artificial heat, and part of a crop rotation that benefits the soil.
Our mix of crops and weeds support more biodiversity than would ever be found on Douglas’s grain farm. Market forces have driven agriculture towards specialisation and scale; the increased yields have reduced the price of food over the last 70 years, but with catastrophic environmental costs.
The mixed and regenerative farming advocated in Henry Dimbleby’s excellent National Food Strategy (essential reading for anyone interested in the future of food and farming – nationalfoodstrategy.org) is widely held to be key to feeding ourselves while caring for the environment. But, as Dimbleby concedes, we have a mountain to climb in terms of reskilling, and reshaping our food systems, to make it financially viable for farmers to deliver. More on his report next week, when I have had time to digest it.