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Mixed farming and the National Food Strategy

"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.

farm
Mixed farming with a diverse range of crops and livestock protects soil health. 

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.

    Comments

    Val Green

    22 Hours 15 Min

    I agree with everything you’ve said. Since I was a child in the mid 50’s to 60’s I experienced mixed farming as a normal practice by my grandfather, my relatives, their friends & neighbours in Lincolnshire. I lived on the edge of the Cotswolds and in both areas I observed awful changes in the countryside of growing mono crops, facilitated by destroying hedgerows and awful smelling chemical fertilisers or pesticides. I used to see so much wildlife in the little fields, hedgerows and small woodlands over 40 years, getting less and less. I’ve always thought mixed farming made a lot more common sense as a balanced and harmonious way to work with nature. I trained to be a nutritional therapist, as a later life career and learned that most modern diseases are the manifestation of poor diet and lifestyle caused by lack of nutrients, microbes in the soil and our polluted and stressful environment. I cannot tell you happy it makes me to see and read what you are achieving with your organic mixed farming.

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    Guy Singh-Watson

    Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 80,000 customers a week. Tired of meetings, brands and the assumption that greed is our predominant motivation, Guy converted the business to employee ownership in 2018, using the proceeds to buy a small farm and return to growing organic vegetables. In common with many of Riverford’s new co-owners, Guy is an advocate of using business to shape a part of the world, however small, to be kinder, more considerate and sustainable; more like the world most of us want to live in.  His weekly newsletters connect people to the farm with refreshingly honest accounts of the trials and tribulations of producing organic food, and the occasional rant about farming, ethical and business issues he feels strongly about.

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