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An uncomfortable truth

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.

Comments

Kiera Skelly

2 Months 2 Weeks

Ah Jesus that is heartbreaking to read.
I know worse could happen in life but I'm imagining my farming Grandparents going through that and it would be such a blow.
I appreciate you and your team sharing these insights as it's so easy to feel removed from the growth of the food we eat every day.

1 Reply

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Spiral

2 Months 1 Week

Guy we are so sad to hear how this has shaken you.
Please don't give up- your optimism is vital to us all.
You are our benchmark!

1 Reply

anthony roper

2 Months 1 Week

We need to face up to the era of so called cheap food being almost over and pay producers a realistic price for feeding us. Keep going anthony

0 Reply

Denby

2 Months 1 Week

Agree with everything Kiera says. What potential perennial food crops would be candidates for slopes like that, I'm interested? Obviously tree fruits, which are then mega labour intensive to pick, but what else?

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Freda

2 Months 1 Week

Traditionally farmers used to eroded soil back up the field, but I suspect that doesn't happen much now. If the soil leaves the field, it should presumably be possible to block the exit point e.g. gateway?

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Spinnaker

2 Months 1 Week

Well worth a watch if you’ve not already seen it
TheNeedtoGROW..com

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starling

2 Months 1 Week

Thank you for your account, Guy. I hope you can get out this message through the soil association or some such to our legislators & politicians as well as to some of the ordinary public.

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DeHavilland

2 Months 1 Week

Thank you Guy. Soil management, the financial plight of farmers with insufficient revenue to conserve their natural capital due to the vagaries of the ag. market, thereby putting the UK's Environmental Security at risk is of great interest to me. This link will connect you with an article I wrote for the Sustainable Soils Alliance which is working hard to bring this issue up the political agenda.
https://sustainablesoils.org/reflections-on-harmonising-natural-capital-and-the-human-economic-subsystem

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Rosie Sol

2 Months 1 Week

Sadly legislators and politicians for the main part, have little to no interest in the planet. They are utterly disconnected. Our system of government ( now not even a pretend democratic one !) is totally disconnected and serves only the interests of large corporates. On which note, has anyone here seen that someone has proposed Guy as potential leader for a new system of 'government' !!? - its on the Keep Britain Free website forum under the Your Stories category. Don't think you have to join to read all the comments: https://www.keepbritainfree.com/forum

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Jacqueline Hill

2 Months 1 Week

I for one would be happy to add an amount to my order each week to help cover costs of soil saving. If this were an option, then those who can afford it could donate as much and as often as they wanted. Saves putting the prices up for everyone. Happy to invest for a "warm glow" return!
Best wishes
Jacqueline

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anthony roper

2 Months 1 Week

From things I hear recently farmers are trying to intensify,diversify etc all the time in order to make a living. It seems to me the main problem is so called cheap food. Which of course is not really cheap because we all pay for the water/ river pollution, dead zones, pesticide in our food etc. We need to grasp the uncomfortable truth that our 'cheap' food era is coming to an end. We need to pay producers a reasonable price for their efforts on our behalf.

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DeHavilland

2 Months 1 Week

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2W8dKdgGhc

This documentary on soil may be interesting when it comes out.

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Green Gardener

2 Months

So sorry to hear this.

Agree totally with your comment that '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'. Do you have any possibilities in mind?

Denby mentioned fruit trees, but what about nut trees as well? And fruit and tree shrubs like blackcurrants? I'd also suggest perennial herbaceous greens below, but I imagine that would make for difficult and therefore more expensive harvesting, and you might prefer to keep things separate.

Ideally we'd be growing most of our food in 'forest garden' type systems, which would massively reduce damage to the land, and should have low management costs - but they'd have higher costs when it came to harvesting. So sometimes I reckon we're going to have to end up with regulation to stop people growing food in unsustainable ways, because otherwise good people like you may end up not being able to make a living.

https://www.agroforestry.co.uk/product/creating-a-forest-garden-2/

http://climatefriendlygardener.co.uk/make-an-orchard-garden/

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Guy Singh-Watson

Self-confessed veg nerd, 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 55,000 customers a week. Guy is an opinionated and admired figure in the world of organic farming, who still spends more time in the fields than in the boardroom. Twice awarded BBC Radio 4 Farmer of the Year, Guy is passionate about sharing with others the organic farming and business knowledge he has accumulated over the last three decades. His weekly veg box newsletters connect customers 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. In June 2018, Guy handed over the reins of Riverford to its staff, choosing employee ownership as the model that will protect Riverford's ethical values forever and ensure the security of its employees.

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