The Good Life?
Regenerative wilder farming
Native woodland, fields and bog at Lynbreck Croft near Grantown on Spey. ©Lorne Gill/SNH
When I read about Lynbreck Croft, I immediately thought of the compelling TV series over the years, where a new life beckons for the people, or to be more precise, guinea pigs, on their adventure to master the art of self sufficiency.
The Good Life back in the seventies, gave us a funny, gentler glimpse of what it might be like for our fictitious married couple, Tom and Barbara, to grow their own food while keeping hens, goats and a pig in their well-to-do, back garden in Surbiton.
Much later, Ben Fogle, a presenter who’d also been discovered on another series, called Castaway 2000, explored, New Lives In The Wild on Channel 5, where he travelled to remote corners of the world to experience other people’s extreme lifestyles.
It’s cheap, escapist TV, which can become addictive viewing when it’s clear that the guinea pigs are truly out of their depth. A particularly notable series was Channel 4’s, No Going Back. I never think of the smart Essex plumber who bought a chateau with a lake in northern France, moving his family from England to run a successful course fishing business and a vegetable plot. It’s always Jayne Gaskin and her tiny island off the Nicaraguan coast, bought off the internet and renamed Janique, that sticks in the memory and not because she gave up her pink Buckinghamshire Aga. But I digress.
Lynn and Sandra have a great story to tell on their web site. Having met as apprentice National Trust rangers working in the south east of England, they decided to move to Scotland. They worked on rewilding projects in the Southern Uplands, planting native trees before they seriously started looking for their own farm and home. Finally, in March 2016, they bought a semi-derelict croft. 150 acres of land in the Cairngorms, with no farming infrastructure, 2 uninhabitable buildings and a wooden cabin which they could live in. Their dream was to live closer to the land, grow their own food and raise their own animals.
5 years later, they have a thriving business. What’s particularly impressive is how they’ve gone about it.
“…every decision we make has to have a positive environmental impact. We don’t want to alter things in any way that isn’t ecologically sound.”
Sustainable, successful and smart
So aside from keeping Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, Highland cattle, a variety of hen breeds and 7 black bee hives, all their farming decisions are based on improving soil health, natural land management and good agricultural practice. And they run a successful business. They’ve been able to take advantage of a number of agricultural and forestry grants which has allowed them to plant 17,500 new trees, a 900-metre long hedge and start a grassland meadow.
They now offer their own week long, How To Farm courses and this year’s in August and September are sold out. It’s a course which they wish they could have gone on themselves when they first bought their croft. Their focus is on regenerative farming, helping to heal the UK’s broken food system and re-establish a connection with nature. But importantly, learning how to do this helps to ensure that bills can still be paid and a successful business can be developed.
What is regenerative farming?
You might be thinking that Lynbreck Croft is only successful because it’s small scale. But the four key principles of regenerative farming can be applied anywhere. They are based on the fact that healthier soil leads to healthier plants which leads to more profit, while also removing carbon from the atmosphere at the same time. Regenerative farmers follow these guides:
Minimise soil disturbance to protect the micro-organisms and create soil fertility, which means a reduction in chemicals and ploughing
Keep the soil covered to protect from wind and water erosion which also means growing something else in-between the cash crops
Lots of plant and crop diversity
Integrate livestock, allowing them to graze on arable land
What about crop yields?
Haven’t farmers partly wrecked the environment because their only concern (and their governments) has been ever increasing crop yields? In the IPCC’s latest report they state that, 23% of the total global greenhouse gases are directly related to agriculture, forestry and other types of land use.
The world’s average cereal yield has increased by 175% since 1961. One hectare of Dutch apple trees yielded 6 tonnes of apples in 1950. By 2015, that had risen to 44 tonnes.
The challenge seems to be balancing affordable food with sustainable farming methods with climate change now forcing every government’s hand, or at least it should be. While regenerative methods can lower yields it varies depending on the crop and local conditions. The Rodale Institute, a US nonprofit and leader in regenerative organic agriculture has been running side by side studies for the last 30 years. Results show that after a 1 to 2 year transition period, where yields decline, there is no difference between conventional and regenerative farming methods.
Even if yields were lower, the price premium to the consumer can still make it more profitable for the farmer. In 2018, US researchers identified that regenerative fields in the Northern Plains of the US, had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits.
There is growing momentum in the UK as demonstrated by Groundswell, the flagship event for regenerative agriculture. It started 6 years ago with a few hundred attendees. This year 3,500 people were in attendance including environment secretary, George Eustice. John Cherry who founded Groundswell, had a similar story to tell about yields.
Farmers may be getting a higher yield with conventional approaches, but it is costing them more too with all the inputs, so they are not making more money.
An interesting final fact
Dr Rattan Lal, a soil scientist who won the 2020 World Food Prize, claims that increasing the carbon content of the world’s soil by 2% would return greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to safe levels again.