Food & Water featured

Six Inches of Soil: Excerpt

July 3, 2024

bookcoverEd. note: The following post is the Introduction to Six Inches of Soil, written by Claire MacKenzie, Colin Ramsay, and Lucy Michaels, originally published in Six Inches of Soil (5m Books), edited by Jeremy Toynbee,  Priya Kalia, and Molly Foster. The book is available to pre-order in the US ( and The film is currently on a community screening programme in the UK, and will be released online in the UK on June 28, and worldwide on December 5. There is a wealth of additional material on the film’s website

Long live the earthworm! Long live the farmer!

These were the words of the wonderful Satish Kumar as he closed the UK première of Six Inches of Soil at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in January 2024. The energy in the room was palpable and we were delighted to have received such a warm reception to the film. Satish commented that he’d never seen a film in which earthworms came on screen so often. While worms are obviously the real stars of the show, the stars of the evening and of this story are the three new entrant farmers who have bravely shared their stories with us.

Industrial farming has transformed Britain’s rural landscapes. The post-Second World War shift towards more and more intensive farming significantly increased crop yields, helping to reduce hunger and kick start the economy. Yet this has all come at a terrible cost. Industrial agriculture has taken a huge toll on biodiversity, polluted our seas and freshwater sources, turned animals into little more than factory-produced products, depleted our soils of nutrients and emptied rural areas of meaningful sustainable jobs. Industrial agriculture also makes a significant contribution to climate change and is coming under increasing pressure to change its ways.

A handful of supermarket retailers and food processing companies now control food production in Britain, with nine retailers making 94.5% of food sales in Britain. As a society, we’ve become so disconnected from the ways in which our food is produced, packaged and transported. Most of us seem happy with the ‘choice’, ‘convenience’ and ‘good value’ that supermarkets seem to offer, but we are also addicted to ultra-processed food in a way that is contributing to an unfolding public health crisis.

But change is in the soil – pioneered by a quiet but rapidly growing food and farming movement in the UK that seeks to completely overturn the way we have farmed and eaten over the last 70 years.

We began developing the film in early 2021 and it has been a real labour of love. Our journey started with the making of a short film, From the Ground Up, in 2020 for South Cambridgeshire Council and the charity Cambridge Carbon Neutral, which was a key inspiration for us. We’ve told many times the story of standing in a field of 7 ft (2.1 m) sunflowers in the middle of winter and looking over at a neighbouring conventional farm where the soil was like house bricks. It was a massive penny-drop moment for us. We felt compelled to make the film because we were so inspired. Inspired by seeing what’s possible on a farm, by the amazing people who grow our food in a nature-friendly way and by an alternative vision of the food system.

Propelled by crowdfunding, generous private donations and countless voluntary hours, we have been able to shoot, edit and promote the film as a completely independent feature-length documentary. It’s been a whirlwind, and we’re so grateful to everyone who has been on this journey with us. And now, in this book, we can take the time to dig a little deeper: deeper into the science of some of the problems and solutions in food and farming; deeper into the stories of the new entrant farmers in our documentary; and deeper into the experience and opinions of the experts featured.

Six Inches of Soil has truly come together through relationships. We began as a small team nurturing the seed of an idea, with no funds and this huge challenge of depicting the complexities of the soil and our food system in a film. But we just knew this story had to be told.

Drawing on our different strengths and connections, the team reached out to anyone who could help us. And it was those relationships that helped us build the story, an audience and a community around this film – in a truly mycelial way. As our team has grown, we have nurtured, inspired and fed each other. And we have to thank the living soils for that inspiration. We also think that this relational way of working is part of why people have been so touched by the film. The stories of our farmers are unquestionably moving, but the film also asks bigger questions that hint at far deeper human challenges that many of us feel but can’t quite articulate.

How has it come to this point in our history that we hardly value the food we eat and the soil that it’s grown in, and care little how food production impacts animals and the environment? What does it mean to be now, for many of us, among the second, third, fourth generations that are urbanised and no longer have a close relationship to the soil or the farmscape? A relationship that has been integral to human life since the beginning of agriculture some 12,000 years ago.

By asking these questions, truly transformational change can happen. Agroecology, building relationships with where our food comes from and putting our hands back in the soil, can be a more fulfilling way for us, as humans, to exist in the world.

Through Six Inches of Soil, we want to give a platform to this movement as it grows in Britain. It is a story of courage, vision and hope. We are showing why a new generation of farmers is turning away from conventional farming and choosing to work with nature to create resilient farming systems that do not rely on chemical inputs, heavy mechanisation and monocrops. Through these farmers’ eyes, we see the highs and lows of changing a ‘broken’ food system. How they’re healing the soil and the water, boosting biodiversity and fighting climate change while providing healthier, more nutritious food.

We feature three young, new entrant farmers: Anna Jackson, an 11th-generation farmer, and her dad Andrew on a mixed farm in north Lincolnshire; Adrienne Gordon a market gardener near Cambridge; and Ben Thomas a cattle farmer in Cornwall, who specialises in pasture-fed beef. Each of these stories gives a different take on how principles of regeneration can be applied to different production systems and on different scales. There are particular barriers for new entrant farmers in the UK. Join them as they tackle the trials and tribulations of starting a new business and see how they break into an industry that is famously hard to establish a foothold in. We follow them as they navigate change and get to know their land. Each of them visits and receives advice from more experienced mentors showing them what’s possible when we pay more attention to nature and to relationships in our food production.

Anna Jackson with one of her lambs, Pink Pig Farm, Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, England

By highlighting the amazing work of brave new entrants and experienced pioneers we hope to inspire many other farmers to start their journey – a journey of reducing artificial inputs, reducing tillage, working in harmony with nature and supporting a healthier soil system. But this book is not just for farmers. Reconnecting with our food, and regenerating our soils, ourselves and our communities benefits everyone and needs everyone to be involved. We want to inspire farmers with the confidence and practical know-how to adopt regenerative farming approaches. We want to give people the impetus and information to rethink their food choices. And we hope that contributing to a groundswell of public opinion can lead to changes in policy, support and funding for a British regenerative farming and an agroecological revolution. We want to challenge the prevailing idea of food scarcity and present practical pathways towards ensuring nourishing and genuinely sustainable food.

We hope that our audience and readers can take a moment to reflect on these important questions, reflect on our values and commit to rediscovering our regenerative human natures. If we can, then this film, this book and this moment we have opened up can truly lead to lasting change.

What’s in the book?

Throughout the process of making the film we were lucky to interview numerous experts from the world of food and farming while also following the progress of our new entrants. In this book we can now share with you more of what we gathered that just wouldn’t fit into a 90 minute film.

We begin with being guided, by the words of our experts, through the major challenges of today’s food system, exploring why it’s been called ‘both a miracle and a disaster’. In Chapter 2, we look more closely at what we mean by regenerative farming. We are led here by Marina O’Connell in an exploration of the different movements of nature-friendly farming over time, through biodynamic, organic, permaculture, agroforestry, agroecology and regenerative farming. This is an area in which there is often confusion and sometimes a lack of clear definitions but also one where we can see fundamental connections in the desire to resist industrial methods and embrace ecological alternatives. Chapter 3 explores in more detail the soil science that informs the present-day movement and discusses questions around carbon sequestration and measuring. By starting here, we hope to give you a firm rooting in why we think these farming practices are so important, before we go on to see how they’re put into action.

The midsection of the book (Chapters 4–6) offers a deeper dive into the stories of the three entrant farmers from the documentary and explores in more detail the experiences and wisdom of the mentors. The land Anna, Adrienne and Ben care for is diverse; different in area, typography, soil type and rainfall. Their approaches are correspondingly different. Nonetheless, they have much in common. They share a desire at their very cores to be better custodians of their land and animals, and to bring about change. Each uses multiple regenerative practices and between them they demonstrate the full range. Sadly, but most significantly, they also share the challenge of earning a fair living from farming and growing within the current poorly structured agri-food system.

Access to and transfer of land are fundamental to all their stories. In Chapter 4, Anna and her dad, Andrew, are self-admittedly in a stronger position than Adrienne and Ben who are tenants. They own their land and it gives them greater freedom to experiment. The question of intergenerational transfer of control is fascinatedly woven through their story.

Anna having returned to the family farm has to find her place in the system and to negotiate with her dad the rate of progress towards and the nature of their goals. They share a similar overarching approach and motivation but there’s variation in priorities. As Anna learns and becomes more confident, Andrew has to adjust and cede control. On many farms this process can be fraught with tension and disagreement; Anna and Andrew show a way forward based on mutual respect for each other and a good dose of humour.

Adrienne Gordon harvesting beetroot (her favourite veg) for market, Sweetpea Market Garden, Caxton, Cambridgeshire, England

Adrienne (Chapter 5) and Ben (Chapter 6) both took land-access opportunities that were only available because of the progressive, regenerative landlords who own the land they work. Adrienne’s experience will be recognisable to many horticulturalists and small-scale growers: years spent volunteering and travelling around; all the time looking for a chance, looking for a plot of land. The serendipitous reading of a noticeboard post by her landlord, Tom, led to the invitation to return to her home county, Cambridgeshire, and a lease on 1.6 ha. Tom added some basic infrastructure (fencing and rainwater collection) and waived rent initially. Why? Because he is on his own regenerative journey on his arable farm and wanted to broaden the farm’s offering, to connect and to build community.

Ben’s land has a long history of being leased out. An intergenerational change in the ownership led to a change in approach. A regenerative custodian was sought to restore the soil, and Ben answered the call. A partnership was struck with Ben providing the labour and skills and they the land and buildings. Costs and profit initially were shared within an agreement that sees the share move favourably towards Ben over time.

Ben Thomas with his Belted Galloway cattle (Belties), Treveddo Farm, Bodmin, Cornwall, England

Their three stories are inspiring, guiding and frustrating. Six Inches of Soil was conceived to bring such stories to greater attention: through them to inspire others to follow their example, to offer guidance by showing what is possible and to engender frustration at the challenges they have to overcome. Please allow yourself to be inspired, to be guided and to turn your frustration in to action.

We then take a step back from their individual stories, thinking about social regeneration, communities and the spiritual components of agroecology in Chapter 7, before rounding off with our vision of the future of the agri-food system in the UK (Chapter 8). A thread that will follow us throughout these stories – from the most scientific to the most personal – is that of relationships. While this will really come to the fore in Chapter 7, throughout the book we cannot get away from the importance of relationships – relationships in ecosystems from the smallest soil microbes to whole-farm level, human relationships to the land and to the rest of nature, and relationships in human communities.

Interspersed between the substantive chapters you’ll find six concise interludes. Four that address some key issues (land-use policy, greenwashing, subsidies and food security) that are touched on throughout and two that explain, with case studies, practices fundamental to the journeys of our farmers (agroforestry and enterprise stacking).

The epilogue is our call to action. Challenging you to act now.

At the back of the book you will find appendices introducing our partner organisations and providing more detail on the advising farmers. Brief biographical notes on the contributors to the book then follow, with acknowledgements, a useful glossary of terms, endnotes, a reading list and index rounding things off.

How the book came together

The idea of a book was first suggested by Jeremy Toynbee of 5m back in March 2022. We were interested but so busy with filming we had no option but to make positive noises in reply and put it on the back burner. But he was persistent. Over the summer of 2023, when we had a little headspace, a plan was made and a small book team assembled.

Books are normally written by one, two, perhaps a few more, people, starting with an idea and working out from a plan. This book is different. It contains the voices of 22 people and we already had the content.

Dauntingly it was spread over the 86 hours (5,171 minutes) of raw footage from which the final 90 minute film was crafted.

We handed the footage and transcripts, running to thousands of pages, over to the editing team of Molly, Priya and Jeremy. They weeded out all the ‘ums’, analysed the content and created a cohesive structure. Chapters 1, 2, 4–6 and 8 are formed from the interview transcripts worked into narrative form and imagined roundtable discussions with the experts. We wanted to maintain the energy of the spoken word and, especially in the three farmers’ chapters their voices, and so they have only been lightly edited. Chapters 3, 7 and the interludes were commissioned specifically for the book.

A note on timescale. Filming took place from late 2021 through to early 2023 and the film focuses on 2022. We took the decision early on not to extend or update the story beyond then, for the main reason that Anna, Adrienne and Ben had already given so much time to the project that to ask them to do more was unconscionable.

A note on measurements. Metric units are used. Inches, feet, miles and acres are still much used in farming and have been kept with a metric conversation.

Not least in the title! 152.4 Millimetres of Soil is hardly catchy.

The film and book are closely related but stand on their own. With this book we have aimed to provide a slightly different perspective to the film.

It doesn’t need to be read from front to back; you can dive straight into any chapter – the story of one particular farmer, the details of one particular topic – but if you do choose to go from cover to cover then we hope to take you on a journey. One that starts with the soil, moving through the stories of farmers working to protect it and, finally, through to the voices of the experts we interviewed on where we go from here.

Soil is life.

Claire Mackenzie

Claire Mackenzie is the producer of Six Inches of Soil film and produced the original film, From the Ground Up, for Carbon Neutral Cambridge.