Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


Farmers Must STOP Killing Earth (Dec20)

Muddy run-off

Why are most rivers brown or red? A soupy earthy colour.  It’s because they are draining the life blood of our planet away – soil. It’s crumbling, melting and disintegrating into the water and being swept out to sea, never to return. It has to stop. It’s disastrous. And there’s a better way… 

I remember getting nearly full marks in a school test about soil. But I knew so little about why its health is vital for life on this planet. Now I know more and have been inspired by listening to the fascinating Story of Soil webinar on regenerative agriculture. It was organised by 5 X 15, in collaboration with Groundswell.

If you look at the blog I wrote when I got back from Sicily in October (2020), you’ll see how shocked I was at what the farmers were doing in the centre of the island. They are not alone. Ploughing, spraying and planting monocultures has become standard agricultural practice around the globe. The result is massive soil erosion, degradation and loss of fertility. It also means that the earth is less able to retain water and is therefore more vulnerable to droughts and floods.

David Montgomery, author of Growing a Revolution, talks about how humanity has lost about one third of cropland to date and that another third will be lost by the end of this century, if we don’t change our approach.

In the webinar, the Cherry brothers – Paul and John – (Groundswell) give a graphic illustration of good soil vs bad soil. They had two jugs of water, putting a lump of degraded soil in one and some rich humous soil in the other.  The difference was immediately obvious. The poor soil started dissolving and continued to do so whilst the healthy soil stayed afloat.

The jug on the left is degraded soil – it started disintegrating immediately. The soil in the jug on the right is carbon rich and from a neighbouring field – nothing came off it.

The good thing is that the speakers know how we can change our approach and make things better. They all had broadly similar recommendations, as follows:

  • Stop ploughing: The Americans refer to this as ‘No Till’.  Modern equipment replacing the till with the drill has made this far easier than it was in the past. 
  • Maintain permanent land cover:  Keeping the land continuously covered with plants is excellent for the health of soil microbes
  • Grow Diversity:  Rotating crop species used to be common practice and it should be again, as well as mixed planting. 
  • Stop Agrochemicals:  A massive 2.5% of greenhouse gases comes from fertiliser as it releases nitrogen oxide.
  • Work with Nature: ‘To be good stewards we have to understand how healthy eco-systems function.’ In nature there’s no mechanical and limited chemical disturbance. 

Gabe Brown, who has become a soil guru shared his story. He says that his father-in-law taught him about farming with the adage ‘the more you work the soil the better it is’. This reminds me of a book I used to read to my children about a father bear trying to teach his children what they should be doing – but in the end managed to show them what not to do! Gabe has discovered following the advice passed onto him was devastating for soil health and fertility. 

Large hale stones

The incredible part of Gabe’s story, about his farm in North Dakota, is that he had such a hard time after he sold his tillage equipment in 1994.  Over the next four years, he lost 100% of his crop, four times – three through hale and one through drought. He now says that this was the best thing that could have happened to him, despite the huge $1.5m debt he had, along with the challenge of raising a young family. 

He got some better advice.  Don’t just change what you’re doing, change the way you think – and really look at the land you’re trying to farm.  Essentially, this meant working out what crops were most suited to the soil and the climate where he was. He says, that to be good stewards, we need to understand about healthy eco-systems – working with nature rather than against her.  The results for his farm have been spectacular.  He has a graph showing that in 1993 his top soil was 3 inches deep with approximately 1.7% organic matter and half an inch of rainfall infiltration. Now it’s x (figure to come) inches deep, has 7% of organic matter and can infiltrate a staggering 30 inches of rainfall per hour – wow! 

‘Imagine if you’re an earthworm – you’d be pretty happy
if the soil didn’t dry out’.
Joanna Bowen, Groundswell Outreach Programme

You may wonder what these farmers think about livestock and their impact on climate change. The Cherry brothers explain the benefits of grass fed animals, as supported by the Pasture Fed Livestock Association.  They say that although their cows are burping methane, they also stimulate methane eating bacteria.  One cow is not the same as another when it comes to its impact on global warming.  

One question that we might all be asking is why isn’t regenerative agriculture much more widespread and actively encouraged by governments?  Apparently, this is still at the stage of early adopters and it takes time to overcome conventional wisdom. 

However, the benefits are huge.  Healthy soil means higher farmer profits (yes!), comparable yields, less fertilisers, pesticides and fossil fuel use, increased soil carbon and water retention and less off-site pollution. What’s not to like about that?

“Ditch the plough, cover up and Grow Diversity”
David Montgomery, author of Growing A Revolution

Comments Welcome….

Comment Section

0 Responses

  1. I understand your frustration and anger and why you wrote this piece. I share it when I see soil-laden water running off fields – I am a farmer so wonder why people let their most prized asset wash awa.

    People like Gabe are an inspiration. There are quite a few other great people within the Acres USA fraternity. They have an excellent annual conference although I’m sure it hasn’t happened this year. I was once lucky enough to go, being paid by DEFRA, to look at organic standards over there versus here. I wrote a report but sadly they buried it!

    I’m not trying to be critical, but feel the need to point out the practicality problems with No-Till. There are quite a few crops which can’t accommodate the practice, particularly all the root crops, and may crops needing to be harvestd late in the season when establishing a “cover crop” to protect the soil.

    Equally, No-till as a tecnique is not very suitable for most organic farms because of the difficulty in keeping weeds in check. I know a couple of larger scale organic farmers are having a go at trying to adopt the practice. Being large-scale makes it much easier for them, and the very expensive machinery is affordable as they are covering many acres. No-Till is also hard to adopt when needing to switch from a grass ley to an arable crop – without ploughing.

    Last autumn gave yet another reminder of the folly of growing maize on many soils, and particularly when it’s only been grown to fuel a bio digester.

    With economics in agriculture likely to come under further strain courtesy of Brexit, and the COVID fall out, capitalising to make such changes as becoming a No-Till farmer are not easy. This is made even harder by the extremes of our seasons. Whilst many who have adopted No-Till find their soils easier to cultivate, it certainly isn’t always possible as many discovered over the last two years of extremities in terms of rainfall and dryness.

    Happy to help with these tricky issues if you want it.

    Happy New Year!

    1. Hi Oliver,

      Hi Oliver,

      Great to get your perspective.

      I have to admit that you’re far more qualified and expert in this area than me. I was primarily trying to relay the contents of the webinar – did you watch it? Felt hugely inspired by what they were saying. Yes, understand that their approach may not be universally applicable. But presumably, it could be much more widespread than it is?.

      One point that Gabe made particularly struck me. It was about adapting what you grow to the land you have. Some of the time, perhaps the reason that farmers can’t use these techniques is because they’re trying to grow the wrong crop?

      It would be great to talk to you about this.

      Happy New Year.


  2. Anyone interested in my blog may also be interested in:

    Oxford Real Farming Conference Global: 7-13 January 2021 orfc.org.uk@ORFC / Full programme: https://orfc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/ORFC-Global-2021-Full-Programme-1.pdf
    The conference has grown swiftly from its beginnings in January 2010, when 80 people gathered in Oxford for a half-day event. It has since become the unofficial gathering of the UK real food and farming movement. In January 2021 the event will be online and global, with thousands of farmers and food activists expected to attend over seven days. The conference will host 500 speakers.
    Sarah Buckingham, Communications, Oxford Real Farming Conference

    3rd January 2021

    Run-up to COP26: Farmers and communities from 75 countries gather at global summit to show how farming can fix the climate crisis

    THOUSANDS of farmers and activists across six continents will come together at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC Global) on 7th January to show that small-scale farming can fix the climate and ecological emergency.

    ORFC Global delegates, including representatives of indigenous communities from the Amazon to Alaska, are pushing for food, farming and nature to be at the top of the COP26 agenda this November.

    Farmers around the world who practice climate-friendly methods, including regenerative and organic farming, will share their success stories over the course of the seven-day global conference.

    Colin Tudge, Oxford Real Farming Conference co-founder, said:

    “Agriculture in its present form is both a cause and a victim of all that is wrong with the world – from social injustice and political unrest to mass extinction and climate change. It is treated as a business, like any other, and required above all to compete for profit in the global market.

    “What we need is real farming – based on the principles of agroecology and food sovereignty. ORFC Global will bring together farmers, food producers, activists, policy makers, academics and many others from around the world who are already showing how things could, and must, be very different.

    “The ORFC is part of what is becoming a vital global movement – to restore agriculture to the centre of the world stage and to ensure that it operates in the best interests of all humanity and of the natural world.”

    Elizabeth Mpofu, small-scale organic farmer, coordinator of the global farmers’ movement La Via Campesina and co-founder of the African Women Collaborative for Healthy Food Systems is one of 500 speakers at ORFC Global. She said:

    “Small-scale agroecological farmers around the world, the majority of them women, are producing food and resources for their communities while reducing CO2 emissions from agriculture. It’s as simple as that. Agroecology is the way forward. It’s a climate-friendly farming system.”

    Jyoti Fernandes, smallholder and coordinator of The Landworkers’ Alliance which represents farmers, growers, foresters and land-based workers in the UK, said:

    “We are in a climate and ecological emergency, but we already have the solutions. Agroecology reduces carbon emissions, sequesters carbon and increases biodiversity. On top of this, small-scale farms using local supply chains reduce transport, waste, packaging and refrigeration.

    “By growing food locally, we are cutting out the need for imports of crops that may have been grown on land cleared of forests. Leaders need to wake up to the facts quickly and set targets for a transition to agroecology.”

    The call from farmers comes in the face of multiple global threats. The climate crisis, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, economic inequality and poverty continue to be caused and exacerbated by industrial farming, with huge monocultures devoid of workers relying on chemical inputs and geared to global markets. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the weaknesses of global food systems.

    The conference will host sessions put together with partners in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Ethiopia, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Ivory Coast, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Malawi, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Palestine, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Scotland, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Taiwan, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Togo, Trinidad & Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, USA, Wales and Zimbabwe.


    Notes to editors

    Sarah Buckingham, Communications Coordinator
    Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC)

    Spokespeople (from Monday 4 January)

    George Young, Essex agroecological farmer: george@fobbingfarms.co.uk

    Jyoti Fernandes, Dorset farmer and campaigns and policy coordinator, Landworkers’ Alliance: jyotifernandes@landworkersalliance.org.uk

    Elizabeth Mpofu, African farmer and La Via Campesina coordinator: eliz.mpofu@gmail.com

    Martin Lines, Cambridgeshire farmer and UK Chair, Nature Friendly Farming Network: martin.lines@nffn.org.uk

    Fran Price, Oxford Real Farming Conference Programme Director: francesca@orfc.org.uk

Leave a Reply