There are many ways to farm and many consequences, both good and bad, of the choices that a farmer makes. Our approach is commonly termed ‘regenerative’ or ‘agro-ecological’ but rather than get bogged down in semantics, let us describe how we farm here:
Diversity vs Monoculture
We embrace diversity. Our market garden grows around 50 different vegetables. We have 6 different walnut varieties and a similar number of cob nut (hazel nut) varieties. We have apples (100+ trees and 20+ varieties) as well as plums, gauges and pears. We also have soft fruit bushes (blackcurrant, redcurrant and gooseberry). This diversity at the plant level leads to resilience at the farm level: if one crop fails, we still have plenty of others to rely on. This diversity also helps the biodiversity as a larger range of plants provides a wider range of habitats (enhanced by the beetle banks, pollinator strips and wildflower sowings we are doing).
We also have diversity in our cows; we started out with a small herd of Herefords. A breed that is from the neighbouring county but one that was bred to be able to live in colder weather and on poorer grass. We have introduced some dairy short horn and, more recently Parthenais crosses to the herd to develop the herd’s resilience to a changing climate.
Finally, we have a large number of people for such a small farm. This diversity of ideas, backgrounds and experiences means that we are more likely to hit on the right solution to a given problem them the more stereotypical farmer who is mostly alone with only themselves as counsel.
We run a beef herd of approximately 30 cows. They are managed regeneratively which means they are part of our approach to improve the land, increase biodiversity and sequester more carbon (see below). We believe that they should be able to display their natural behaviours as much as possible. This means that we:
- Out-winter them. They are a hardy bunch, very happy in cold weather and so we don’t bring them in to a barn but leave them out in the fields. This allows more natural behaviour than if they were cooped up in a barn all winter.
- Mob graze them meaning they are never on the same bit of paddock for more than two days at a time. Pests and diseases don’t have time to build up. They are not standing in their own muck.
- Allow them access to hedge rows. While cows certainly love grass, their ideal diet is far broader than just grasses. Depending on the time of year, they can enjoy nettle and dock as well as hedge trees such as hazel, elder and oak. We are lucky enough to have some mature hedges that they can access (but not for too long otherwise there won’t be any hedge left!). As a result we don’t use mechanical flails to keep our hedges under control either!
- Certified Pasture for Life: we are certified with Pasture for Life which demonstrates our adherence to the highest of animal welfare standards.
We monitor our soil health on a regular basis with simple soil tests that we can then track over time. We use an awesome app developed by the clever people at Vidacycle called Soilmentor. It helps us to document and analyse our soils and then, with the help of their collaboration with the equally awesome Nicole Masters, suggests ways in which we can improve our soils.
A key part of the regenerative approach is to look after soils by keeping them covered. Having a healthy sward of grass means that the water has time to infiltrate rather than run off. This helps to avoid soil erosion from rain and also from wind.
In the market garden we have an 8-year crop rotation which includes fallow years where the land is rested and a green manure (such as a clover) is grown to provide nutrients to the soil without harvesting a crop.
We use mob grazing, having completed The Savory Institute’s Holistic Planned Grazing, as a means of ensuring that we are moving the herd through the land quickly, avoiding set stocking them where they can eat the grass down very low and thus expose the soil to the elements. Mob grazing in this way also allows the grass a very long rest period (our minimum is 60 days) which results in more above-ground biomass and below ground root structure which, in turn, allows more carbon to be sequestered. Learn more here.
Energy and Emissions
Conventional farming can be a big emitter of green house gases through the use of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilisers. Our regenerative and organic approach to farming is quite different. We don’t use any fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilisers and thereby avoid the embedded carbon in these products and their transportation as well as the side effects of putting poisons on the land.
We don’t have any large machinery and the small tractor, loader and UTV that we do have are all 100% electric. Our electricity supplier is 100% green energy sourced (the house uses gas for heating and cooking and that is also 100% bio-gas). We also have a 20kW solar array on one of the barn roofs. We do have a petrol-powered sit on lawn mower but hope to phase this out soon.
As a result, our carbon emissions are negative. I.e. we are sequestering more carbon than we are emitting. In 2022 this amounted to a net 31.51 tonnes sequestered!
Farming, particularly more intensely grown produce such as vegetables, salads and soft fruit, can need lots of water. We are lucky to be in a wet part of a pretty wet country and so the pressure to irrigate is lower than it is in other places. Nevertheless, we do sometimes need to irrigate (and in the polytunnels it is a must).
Our approach is to be as efficient as we possibly can with water treated as a scarce resource. We have invested in irrigation infrastructure so that we are directing the water accurately to where it is needed. We avoid overhead irrigation in favour or ground irrigation and are mostly using drip irrigation which allows the slow emission of water from ‘leaky’ hose through a series of small holes at low pressure. This slow and steady approach uses less water and ensures that the roots have time to take it up.
We have also worked with Stroud District Council’s Natural Flood Management Office, Chris, to trap a spring and we are now using that supply, fed with the power of gravity alone, with drip irrigation, to water our 50 pear trees, 50 walnut trees and 1,000m of soft fruit bushes! Using spring water reduces the demand on the local water board, reduces the energy required (to clean and pump the water and maintain the infrastructure) and reduces the need for chlorine.