Thursday, 23 October 2008

A Tale of Modern Farming

This morning I happened to listen to ‘Farming Today’ on BBC Radio 4. I was fascinated to hear a farmer explaining how he is managing to stay in profit even in our current and increasing recession.

Clearly the first point to be made is that he and his family work extremely hard, with no expectation of such soft options as weekends off.

Secondly, he sells all his produce through farmers’ markets. He started with one, but now sells through 25, and employs a full-time butcher.

The third thing he is doing, to help offset the increasing cost of fertiliser (currently £300 per tonne), is to extend the grazing area for his cattle, so that with less input he produces more meat, but from a greater area.

But this gentleman made it very clear that he doesn’t believe in organic farming, preferring, as he puts it, ‘traditional’ methods.

In the same programme we heard about a new report by Professor Dick Godwin, commissioned by the Royal Agricultural Society of England, which suggests that our soil is barely fit for purpose, and no longer able to sustain the increasing demands of intensive food production.

He puts this down mostly to bad drainage and bad soil condition. There is evidently extensive rainwater run-off and resultant soil erosion because the soil in its present condition cannot absorb the water, while too much rain leaves the fields unworkable for farm machinery. He recommends good soil management and better drainage as being the solutions, but made it clear that there is nowhere for farmers to go for expert advice.

Now I am not an expert. All I have to help me is a little common sense. But it seems to me that our successful farmer mentioned above is, despite his protestations to the contrary, leaning ever so slightly in the direction of organic farming, by reducing the amount of oil-based fertiliser per acre on his land.

He is unconsciously following the recommendation of Prof. Godwin and starting to improve the condition of his soil. He may even find in a few years time that, assuming these trends continue, organic farming is the only way to remain profitable.

Am I imagining the contradiction; that by going organic he thinks he would be abandoning ‘traditional’ methods of farming? He must be a lot younger than me – or else he has a very different take on the word ‘tradition’!

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