Grass from the Past

July 27, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

I found this profile featuring myself and SFT Board member Peter Segger when cleaning out my garage last week. It appeared in the Guardian on 1st December, 1984 at a time when the UK organic movement was still in its infancy but developing strongly. The Guardian ran the piece because Peter and myself were the subjects of one of the On Your Farm programmes hosted weekly by BBC Radio 4. In those days the presenter was a man called Tony Parkin who also happened to be agricultural editor of The Archers, which for non-UK residents is a very much loved radio ‘soap’ introduced shortly after the Second World War as an agricultural propaganda/education programme and which still has a cult following today. As a direct consequence of the programme, which received a greater response from the listeners than any other in its 21 year history, a decision was made to convert one of the programme’s farms. Interestingly enough, The Archers is still proving to be a major influence on public understanding about agriculture, largely because the present agricultural editor Graham Harvey is one of the great proponents of sustainable farming (check next week’s newsletter for our review of Harvey’s recent book Grass-Fed Nation).

Although in some ways this Guardian article now seems a little dated, it is reassuring to know that in relation to the true cost of food, we have been consistent in our advocacy for over thirty years.


The Guardian – Saturday 1st December, 1984

“After 20 years of pouring nitrates into the soil and pesticides on to the crop, you are left with no insects, no wild life, no farmworkers. You have a residue problem in the soil and pollution in the atmosphere. And for what? Tasteless food and a system of agriculture which is impossible to sustain. It is not cheap food, it is very expensive.” Susan Thomas visits two farms in Wales which are proving that it needn’t necessarily be so.

Patrick Holden and Peter Segger have been organic farmers for 11 years. Quietly, steadily and successfully, growing sturdy, chemical-free crops on the sodden Welsh uplands. They produce milk and vegetables which look like the real thing, taste like childhood, and sell like there’s no tomorrow. Which, given the widespread anxiety about the future of farming, food and the nation’s health, is not that surprising.

But now, suddenly, everyone who is anyone, seems to be beating the muddy path to their respective barn doors. “We’ve had supermarket buyers, smallholders and the 1,000 acre boys, Third World agriculturalists and even the Men from the Ministry.” Patrick Holden told me. And all of them wanting to know how to grow or obtain chemical free food.

Why? Because the marketing men see that a substantial section of the public is sufficiently concerned about tasteless food, sprayed vegetables and drugged meat to pay for something better. Because farmers see an end to the golden days of grain mountains and intervention payments. Because the underdeveloped nations need a low cost, labour intensive, sustainable agriculture. And because the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food wants to know how it is done in order to advise these new apprentice farmers now that the old masters are dead and turning in their graves.

This all began one May morning when Segger and Holden joined the BBC’s pre-dawn farming conversation piece for night workers, farmers and insomniacs. “Even before the programme was off the air people were putting pen to paper.” said Holden with justifiable satisfaction when I phoned him. “We had 800 letters (the average is 30) and what surprised us most was the range – about 300 from doctors, planners, academics, vicars (we do a very nice line in vicars) and consumers.” So great was the interest that the BBC repeated the programme three months later.

“But probably the best single piece of publicity was the decision of The Archers’ team to let Pat and Tony go organic. The crunch will come when Tony rings the ADAS man to ask for information. Because the Ministry doesn’t have it. Not yet anyway.”

“For years we’ve been pouring money into conventional (agro-chemical) farming research, but we’ve done nothing, absolutely nothing, about organic husbandry,” he said. And the disgust crackled down the wire. By we, you understand he means the Establishment. For Holden and Segger, the Soil Association, the Organic Growers Association, and the British Organic Farmers have been doing their bit.

But change is in the air. The Archers picked it up when they embraced first the battery farming issue and now organic husbandry. Sympathy for the conservation movement has never been so strong, nor anxiety about unemployment, inhumane husbandry, and noxious residues in the environment, so real.

And farmers are in the firing line. “They’ve changed from being the glory boys to being the villains of the piece,” said Holden, and the idea clearly amused him. “Now, to crown it all, they have been told to reduce production by 20% – exactly the current difference in the yields of organic and chemical based farming.”

Thus the programme came at the right psychological moment…. “as if we were the last piece in the jigsaw, the key which allowed all the elements to slot into place. At last the Ministry has sent its bright boys down to talk to us and they really want to know. Come down and we will tell you what we told them.”

I did and it was awful. At least, the getting there. Mile after mile of soul curdling motorway flanked by treeless hedges, flatlands, some still bare from the autumn burning, others just green with next year’s surplus. And then I was over the Severn and off into the hills of Wales. The sun shone, the fields were spread fresh to dry in every shade of green and gold, and in the hip heavy, haw crimson hedges, larks and sparrows conferred. It seemed like heaven.

I found Patrick Holden in a mellow farm house high on a soggy hillside. The views were spectacular. Wet but spectacular. “When I look at what modern agriculture has done to England I am appalled,” he said, sitting long and relaxed among the breakfast debris and a clutch of children.

“Farming is raping the land, mining it instead of harvesting it, cashing in on a fertility bank which was created by generations of careful husbandry, and in the process destroying the environment. In some areas the damage may be irretrievable.”

It is not only the soil structure, he says, but the landscape itself which is under threat – the harmony of hedge and hill, forest and grassland, destroyed by the removal of field boundaries, the use of heavy machinery, the conversion of grassland to arable and the increase in cereal growing, year after year on the same site. Our ancestors cherished it, our poets and painters celebrated it, and we are laying it waste. “I sincerely believe that we need it as much for our spiritual as our physical wellbeing.” he said, and I believe him.

Patrick Holden farms 135 acres near Lampeter. He has a 55-strong Ayrshire dairy herd, root crops and occasional wheat. Eight miles away Peter Segger has 40 acres of spinach, broccoli and root vegetables, with salad crops under polythene.

Neither farm is ideal horticultural land. Fertility was low and the neighbours sceptical in the early days. Yet 10 years on, both are flourishing and financially viable. “They would be even more profitable,” says Holden, “if we didn’t spend so much time away from home promoting organic husbandry.”

So why do they do it? It was Segger who, over countless cups of coffee, made the case. “Agri-business, high technology, petrochemical dependent farming, is inefficient, uncaring and dangerous,” he said. It has caused the depopulation of the countryside (20 million souls left the land in Europe over the last 20 years) the destruction of the environment and in the long run who knows what damage, physical as well as financial, is being done by the use of artificial fertilisers.

“Already the water authorities are reckoning the cost of denitrifying the drinking water is millions, and the number of well authenticated horror stories about the victims of spray drift is growing at an alarming rate.” Remember the dead rabbits in the sprayed rape, the Yorkshire potato thieves and Cumbrian mushroom pickers who found that nature’s bounty had been treated with weedkiller, and the crop spraying pilot who mistook a Peterlee housing estate for open fields?

As for cheap food – the cost of converting oil to fertiliser to barley to beef is monumental. It can, however, be cut by implanting growth hormones and steroids into the young animal, stimulating growth to such an extent that the journey from cradle to casserole takes just a year.

If the public is worried by the practice, it is scared rigid when it finds its own personal growth pellet in the hamburger steak or sirloin. This is why the National Federation of Meat Traders Association recently called for a total ban on implants of growth hormones in cattle. Not, they stress, because they are making any judgment about the safety of the drugs, but because the public has already done so. The organic farmers are delighted, but there is still the arable problem.

“Growing that 100 acre field of barley means pouring nitrates into the soil and pesticides on to the crop. After 20 years you are left with no insects, no wildlife, no farmworkers, you have a residue problem in the soil, pollution in the atmosphere, and no soil structure. And for what? Tasteless food and a system of agriculture which is impossible to sustain. It is not cheap food,” he stresses, “on the contrary it is very expensive.”

If only farmers had more contact with the public, he maintains, they would know how strong the backlash has become – and with justification. “Ask a farmer if his steer, the one he keeps back for the freezer, has a hormone implant – it won’t have. Ask why so many growers have a small organic plot for the family. It is dealing with the marketing boards which isolates them from public opinion. They’ve lost touch.”

But if you don’t promote fertility with fertilisers and keep pests down with chemicals, how do you do it?

By the application of a certain amount of grey matter and following the old farming maxim that the best manure is the farmer’s boots.

So we put ours on, left the coffee pot, and went to see what a decent bit of organic soil looks like. That day it looked very wet and very friable. And the crops, netted or clamped in outhouse and byre, were superb. Great, compact, jade green globe cabbages, crisp Titian tinted carrots, and mountains of sturdy potatoes.

First it seems you look at the problems of the soil and establish the right acidity levels by liming, then you build up a bank of nitrogen in the soil by growing clovers, grazing and cutting at the right time, rooting the crops, and encouraging deep rooting with plenty of mulch and making sure that adjacent crops are compatible. It is what used to be called good husbandry, they said. It would be a help if the Government were to sponsor research to extract the heavy metals from sewage and make effluents more acceptable. Thus could the humus be returned to the soil.

As for pests and diseases, that too is a question of creating a healthy environment – no saturated top soils to foster fungal infections and slugs, correct planting times – “the black fly on your broad beans is probably the result of late planting” – and if all else fails, there are non-toxic remedies. It is a question of tailoring the system to the needs of the soil.

When you have balanced out the difference in yield, man hours and fertiliser costs, say Segger and Holden, there is not that much in it and if productivity is down 20%, then that is just what the government ordered.

As for the suggestion that we in the rich North should be overproducing in order to feed the poor South, Segger was appalled. “All the evidence suggests that food aid is directly responsible for malnutrition. And high technology agriculture is even more inappropriate.”

What the underdeveloped countries have is manpower, what they don’t have is the money to buy fuel, fertilisers, chemicals. They need a gentle, sustainable agriculture which nourishes the land, provides food for the community, and uses the available resources.

As for this sceptred isle – by encouraging and supporting organic farming or better still, labour intensive organic farming, the government could revitalise and repopulate the countryside, take thousands off the dole, improve the health of the nation and the quality of life.

I took a sackful of vegetables back to Kent – once the garden of England and now just another grain store. And for a week we ate food that tasted so good hardly anyone put ketchup on it.

Patrick Holden

Patrick Holden is one of the pioneers of the modern sustainable food movement who, during his period as Director of the Soil Association, between 1995 and 2010, played a leadership role in developing the UK organic market. Closely involved with standards development, producer cooperation, Patrick’s extensive engagement with the public through successive media campaigns, played a key role in winning public trust in the products from sustainable agriculture. In 2010 he stepped down from the Soil Association to address a newly emerging challenge - the need to develop strategies for sustainable food systems which have wider application, for the whole of agriculture. The mission of the resulting organisation, The Sustainable Food Trust, is to promote international cooperation between all those involved in sustainable food production.

Tags: building resilient food systems, organic farming, soil health