Decisions, decisions. To start with the practical or the philosophical? Let’s go for practical.
It’s obvious that like after my trip to North America, the climate is so different in Australia that it’s not possible, or at least sensible, to import techniques wholesale. But that doesn’t mean inspiration isn’t there for the taking.
I’ve been encouraged by how many people graze cash crops, specifically cereals and oilseed rape. There is plenty of conflicting evidence and experience about its potential harm, or lack of, to the following yields. But if anything I am more interested now than I was before – luckily as we have some wheat waiting to be grazed at home this year anyway. One thing that I hadn’t considered before was grazing rapeseed, which I think has more potential than the cereals. It could be a great way of planting early and relatively thickly, to mitigate flea beetle damage, and then grazing to get it back to a sensible size pre-winter. Originally, after meeting Hugh Dove, I thought it would help us with weed problems.
I now think that was a mistake. Literally everyone else I have spoken to, farmers, researchers, has said it is something to be avoided on weedy fields; especially grass weeds. Broad leaf weeds should be less of a problem, apparently the sheep will sometimes preferentially graze them, which has to be the ultimate selective herbicide. But I have seen first hand how much a thick crop and lots of competition helps to suppress weed growth, so the grazing must be approached with caution. We will graze some OSR this season now as a trial.
The second area I think has potential is biological fertilisers, specifically compost, worm juice, and microbe seed dressings. However, the devil is in the detail. I know there is a source of cheap compost nearby our farm, but I’ve learnt that not all compost is created equal. There are tests to see what is good, but I have no idea yet if they are available in the UK. The same goes for the juice, and the microbes: it’s plausible that they will work as advertised, but can we get hold of them to try out? And can we apply them properly with the equipment available?
The visits I get most out of are when I see someone who has developed a new system, preferably one that makes them appear insane to the neighbours. Colin Seis & the Haggertys fit into the most extreme corner of this niche. But the more times I see people like this, and not just in Australia, a simple fact becomes clearer. They are all farming in conditions that would not be considered very productive – either through soil type, climate, or both. Is that a coincidence? Are farmers on good land just lazy, and have never had to break the mould in order to survive? Or is it that it is actually better, and more profitable, to farm in the conventional high input systems? It certainly makes me wonder whether taking inspiration from Western Australia, or North Dakota, is actually a sensible idea when we farm in northern Europe, most of which is much more productive than anywhere else in the world.
A lot of the farmers I want to meet have a desire to expand their businesses, but they also lament the price of land, either to buy or to rent. There’s a pretty clear conflict here though: not everyone can expand. So it should come as no surprise that prices go up and up – but someone is always able to pay. If not, then maybe a look in the mirror is needed. I think if you cannot make the numbers work for rent then you’re probably not as efficient as the guy who can.
If these ideas of regenerative, conservation agriculture really are so much better, then soon we will have to start seeing the farmers using them become the big players, gobbling up all the land around them. It’s the way of the world, and only a matter of time, or else they will themselves be taken over by whichever system is making the most £s or $s. Perhaps we are at the start of that curve, but wanting it to be true doesn’t mean it is.
I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who has given me their time, I hope I haven’t got too many things wrong. Also an equally big thank you for all the hospitality, you know who you are.