As I reached towards the end of my stint at the River Brue Rehabilitation Board, and retirement from Unique Publications (or at least, from it being the main focus of my life), I felt very strongly that this wasn’t going to be the end of my working life, but that there was likely to be a big change. I had friends in rural Scotland, who were beginning to take a serious interest in Regenerative Agriculture, and what I heard from them was beginning to sound exciting.
They have a small farm, and for years most of their land had been hired out to a local sheep farmer and, as one of them put it, “it had become a chemical desert”. They had taken the land back and started keeping their own sheep. Then, just across the river, the local estate had changed hands and the new owner was keen to rewild it – and had invited the local community to have some input to his plans; and meanwhile the farm next door (or next down the road) had been bought by a bright young English couple who were into organic farming.
Then, more or less by chance, I went to a talk at Glastonbury Abbey House by Graham Harvey. He is a former scriptwriter for The Archers, whilst at the same time he had been writing extremely radical books about how the English countryside was being ruined by modern farming practices supported by successive governments’ agricultural policies. He decried the loss of small family-run mixed farms, and by the time I heard him speak he had become very interested in Regenerative Agriculture and in particular ‘mob grazing’.
This is a grazing practice that mimics the way herd animals and plants growing on prairies had evolved over millions of years, building rich, deep soil in the process. Herds would move quickly over the land, bunched closely together, which provided the best protection from predators. The result was that the land would be trampled as much as grazed, meaning that organic matter would be trampled into the soil – which steadily built up a very high nitrogen content. On modern farms this can be replicated by using electric fences to move the herd on from one ‘paddock’ to another on a daily basis. Animals are therefore grazing a fairly small area of pasture at a time, whilst the land has much longer than on conventional farms to recover.
After living in Glastonbury for nearly 40 years, I was ready to leave and move to Scotland, to become part of the emerging regenerative agriculture community up there. I bought Graham Harvey’s most recent book, which gave me the information that naturally the soil contains three times as much carbon as the atmosphere, whilst the biosphere – the plants and trees that grown in the soil – contains twice as much. Chemical fertilisers increasingly drive this carbon into the atmosphere, a major contribution to atmospheric carbon and climate change.
We are often told that to mitigate climate change we need to reduce the amount of meat that is consumed. This, however, depends entirely on how the animals are farmed. Practices such as mob grazing result in more carbon being returned to the soil than is lost through cows farting. In general, healthy soil means a healthy atmosphere. Intensive agriculture is resulting in degraded soil, and contributing to a polluted atmosphere.
It took a year to get myself up to Scotland, and when I eventually got there I had a great time but it soon became clear that moving there permanently wasn’t going to work. Nevertheless I helped with looking after the sheep, and I got to know the neighbours and went to visit their cattle. I got to understand that frequently moving grazing animals on has other advantages: the grass need never get shorter than about six inches, and the soil underneath remains moist – where I was staying in Scotland most of the farmers were worried about the lack of rain and nothing growing, but that’s because they graze the grass practically to death. Also pests including intestinal worms only live in the six inches of grass close to the ground, so moving animals before they eat the grass off lower than that helps to avoid infestations.
But mostly the cattle just looked happy, especially with their herd structure and family connections all intact. I found myself looking at a cow that was suckling its new calf at the same time as licking the head of its calf born the year before. Most Regenerative Agriculture projects involve livestock, so after being vegetarian for 50 years, would I not only be leaving Glastonbury but becoming a meat eater? I decided that I would if that’s what was best for the soil. If cattle live in huge sheds and eat cattle cake, even organic cattle cake, they produce toxic slurry and plenty of atmospheric carbon. If they live in fields and eat grass, especially grass with plenty of herbs in it, they build up the soil rather than depleting it.
I was recommended a book called ‘For the Love of Soil’, which makes clear that whether you are grazing cattle or growing fruit and vegetables, the basic principles of having healthy soil are exactly the same. It’s a very complicated book, it’s a real science – but there we are, the corporate chemical companies are selling people what they claim are quick fixes and easy answers. The truth is that although they may have worked in the short term, now we are losing our topsoil, it’s washing away tons and tons at a time and ending up in the sea. A recent UN report warned that we are down to 50 or 60 more harvests and then, if agricultural practices haven’t changed, there will be no more soil, no more food. But this aspect of the climate and ecological crisis is hardly mentioned.
It’s funny how things work out. When I got back from Scotland I connected with the lovely group of people who are planning to set up ‘Bridie’s Farm’: a community food and regenerative farming project. As I write they are waiting on some land that they have been promised becoming available [it’s now secured]. I hope I can get involved in some way – if I can, after thinking I was going to leave Glastonbury after 40 years, it seems like I’ve found what I was looking for – here all the time! In fact, after studying the map closely I’m pretty certain that one of the rhines that goes along the edge of their field is actually part of the original course of the River Brue (which has been my chief area of interest for the past eight years). So I’d be back where I started at the same time as going where I wanted to go in the first place … or something like that.