Digging ditches and planting trees across the middle of your fields? Most farmers would think you’re mad. But Nigel Griffiths is a man on a mission and not afraid to challenge farming orthodoxy. A year ago he moved to the 30-acre Landews Meadow Farm on the North Kent Downs and started by investing in a wind turbine – the first step in his vision of a sustainable self-reliant farm.
Nigel and his family began farming with no previous experience. They were inspired by what they heard on a permaculture course and by examples from Mark Shepard of New Forest Farm and Joel Salatin of Polyface farms. A year on, they are producing high quality free-range eggs, woodland-raised rare breed pork, pasture-raised chicken and duck, and honey. More products are lined up for the future. This type of ‘regenerative’ agriculture aims to increase and sustain productivity by restoring and enhancing ecosystem processes – in contrast to most modern farming systems, which rely on external inputs. Within the context of organic farming, regenerative agriculture is designed specifically to build soil health and to regenerate depleted soils. With increasing awareness of widespread land degradation, more farmers are realising that the health and productivity of their farms rely on soil fertility and they are seeking methods to address this.
To hear more about Landews Meadow and the example it sets, I went on the Regenerative Agriculture Start-up – Systems, Processes, Sales and Marketing workshop and farm tour organised by RegenAg UK. The organisation was set up in 2011 to connect experts in regenerative practices from around the world as well as around Britain with farmers and smallholders across the country. It runs a range of courses and events about soil health and farming methods, which are accessible for the expert and novice alike.
The day started with Nigel discussing the practicalities of the farming strategies he has implemented. One of the most significant issues to be addressed was water. It is easy to assume that in Britain the abundance of rain means that water is one resource we don’t need to worry about. Yet, with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns resulting from climate change, water management is a critical issue even here.
Nigel noticed that water flowed down the slopes of his fields without being absorbed into the earth. Consequently, precious soil nutrients were being washed away. To combat this, he dug swales along the contours of his pastures and piled the excavated soil on the downhill side of the ditches. He also planted some 2,000 trees in ridges on either side of the swales, to further break up the clay soil and allow water to infiltrate. The swales also act as a windbreak and shelter for grazing animals, further increasing biodiversity through the edge effect as well as producing a variety of fruit and timber. The swales have been fenced on both sides and designed in such a way that the 30-metre wide continuous alleyway allows enough space for grazing livestock.
Management Intensive Grazing is another important aspect of the regenerative farming methods used at Landews Meadow. Nigel has invested in a herd of 10 cattle, including Dexters and Australian Lowlines, which he intends to crossbreed, eventually increasing the herd to 20 once the pasture quality has improved. They are hardy breeds and can stay outside all year round. For the first three to four days the animals had to be trained to respect the electric fencing, which is key to this type of holistic planned grazing. The cattle intensively graze a relatively small area of pasture, and are then moved on to a new section every day, mimicking natural grazing patterns. This gives the grass longer rest (and recovery) periods, resulting in increased productivity and biodiversity. The cattle are also fed a seaweed supplement, which is an excellent source of trace minerals, enhancing both animal and soil health.
His rare breed pigs – Oxford Sandys and Blacks – are kept in an area of woodland. These, too, are rotated through different areas to allow the forest floor to recover. The pigs serve a dual purpose: as a meat source and as a deterrent to foxes interested in the chickens that are kept nearby. The farm raises both free-range laying hens and free-range chickens for eating. Although Landews Meadow is not yet self-reliant in terms of animal feeds (for the chickens, pigs and cattle), a significantly smaller amount is required than in conventional farm systems.
The conversion of a trailer into a small processing parlour means that Nigel can slaughter 50 birds at a time and does not have to ship them off to be killed elsewhere. He explained that gaining a slaughter licence and registering with the Food Standards Agency rating was relatively hassle free. Although the meat birds are time intensive, their presence on the land significantly contributes to the fertility of the fields.
Eggs are a slightly easier operation to maintain, earning a 50% profit on each bird as well as increasing soil fertility. Ideally, the chickens follow the cattle in their grazing rotation, eating insects and helping to reduce pests and diseases, as birds in nature do more widely. The 90 laying hens roost at night in an ‘Eggmobile’.
After a hearty lunch of food from Landews Meadow and other local producers at the Halfway House Pub in Challock, Luke Everitt from the Woodland Trust explained the importance of including trees in agriculture. He also gave advice on grant funding available for farmers to plant trees and maintain hedgerows on their land. The Trust wants to convince farmers that planting trees on their land can actually make farming more productive, as Nigel and others – such as dairy farmer Tim Downes and vegetable grower and agro-forester Iain Tolhurst – have already demonstrated.
Besides supplying the local pub and various friends, family and neighbours, Landews Meadow farm may join a Food Assembly in London. Food Assemblies have become popular in France and are now beginning to pop up around Britain too. Consumers choose and pre-order online from a range of products available from their local suppliers and then pick up their order once a week at a designated local venue, where they can meet and chat to the producers. This direct trade between customers and local farmers builds connections and means that both parties get a better deal.
The farm tour around Landews Meadow revealed both the practical and financial realities of implementing regenerative farming methods and the creative ways that Nigel has adapted them to his own circumstances. Although the farm is still in its early stages – it has yet to turn a profit and still relies to a certain extent on bought-in animal feed – it is a working example of how relevant regenerative agriculture is to Britain. It also shows that even inexperienced and part-time farmers can quite quickly start to build productive and ecologically sound systems.
Building soil fertility and enhancing ecosystem processes has been Nigel’s initial focus, but reducing the need for imported nutrients and increasing self-reliance are his long-term goals. The results of Nigel’s efforts in using methods such as swales, Keyline ploughing and compost teas will become apparent over time as pasture productivity improves and the benefits of increased biodiversity start to show.
The next RegenAg UK course will be about holistic management at Huntstile Farm on 3rd–5th November 2015.