Andy Cato from Wildfarmed at the Writtle conference (Image: Sarah Chambers)
Using regenerative farming methods could help, some of the leading pioneers told farming people at an event in Essex.
Writtle Farmers Club hosted a meeting of farmers, professors, farm students and apprentices to discuss food security in the context of growing environmental issues.
The Writtle University College conference on Wednesday, February 7, drew speakers from across the industry.
Proponents of a regenerative approach to regeneration included Grammy-nominated music star turned farmer Andy Cato, Josiah Meldrum, co-founder of British pulses and beans brand Hodmedod – based near Halesworth – and farmers John and Joanna Cherry, host. of Groundswell, a highly regarded festival of regenerative farming in Hertfordshire.
Suffolk food brand Hodmedod has gone from strength to strength, with retail sales up 40 to 50% year on year, and wholesale sales up 30 to 40% – largely due to new customers.
It now supplies 13 products to national retailer Holland and Barrett.
“We were very nervous working with Holland and Barrett as a much bigger retailer but I have to say they really understood the challenges we face if we’re going to offer them those more complex products and have the supply business to build with the organization. a kind of continuity that you would otherwise expect,” Josiá said.
“It’s amazing. It’s unbelievable, but among the farming community there’s a lot of desire to do this but also the customers really get it in a way that they didn’t even five or six years ago.”
He told the delegates about the “failure of food systems” rather than the failure of farming which was the cause of the health time bomb. The UK had the lowest life expectancy in Europe with young people contracting diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Biodiversity was suffering as a result of a “diminishing” cropping system. But there was no silver bullet or one answer to the “broken” food system, he said.
Andy – one half of electronic music duo Groove Armada and co-founder of regenerative farming group Wildfarmed – described his trial and error journey towards creating a viable regenerative farm in France.
His decision to buy a farm on what he later realized was degraded clay soil without any knowledge or understanding was a “lonely and insanely naive decision”. But encouraged by agroforestry experts and others it began to change.
As a result he was awarded the Laureate Nationale 2020 for innovation in agroecology and the Chevalier de l’Ordre du Merite Agricole. He later returned to England to become a tenant farmer for the National Trust and began to apply his principles there, as well as co-founding Wildfarmed.
“By bringing nature and food into the same area we can unlock other income streams so we can increase margins for farmers without raising the price of food,” he said.
Wildfarmed has created a community of like-minded farmers from Cumbria to Cornwall. “It struck me how few farmers ate the food they grew,” said Andy. But they sent sourdough recipes and got farmers to bake using their own wheat and then sell bread to the public.
“It is very important that we start to see the arable landscape as something that is not separate from nature,” he said. “We’re saying can you please pay a little more for this because the farmers are doing something ridiculously different.”
Few members of the public still understood what regenerative agriculture was, but already some big names were coming on board and supporting the Wildfarmed brand – from retailer Marks and Spencer to Manchester City Football Club, he said.
Keynote speaker Tim Lang, former hill farmer and Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at City University London’s Center for Food Policy, discussed food policy and how it serves the environment, health, social justice and citizens.
“We must make farming Britain’s fundamental industry. If we don’t grow food what on earth are we doing? Britain has the default assumption that other people will feed us, it was the Empire then it was Europe. It’s time for us to grow up and start growing our own food,” he said.
John and Joanna described how a trip to America and an endless farming conference organized by Kansas farmers inspired them to set up their own home. It impressed them that they were not operating in competition, but cooperating and helping each other.
“There is great good news with farmers changing one field at a time, but the knock-on effect is greater,” said John.
“If it can happen on a landscape scale the improvements that happen from regenerative farming are amazing.”
Joanna said there was a great desire to evangelize when you participated in regeneration methods. “There is a built-in understanding of competition that is, of course, part of the system,” she said. “What’s interesting in the DNA of this movement is that it’s collaborative and it’s about sharing.”
Farm student George Leonard of Home Farm Nacton in Ipswich helped provide a younger person’s perspective as he explained how his farm grew organic and conventional vegetable crops.
George – who was not from a farming background – did a farming apprenticeship at Home Farm Nacton and graduated in regenerative agriculture from Writtle.
Among his studies was looking at how to create a regenerative potato crop. Working on the farm showed him how organic and traditional practices could be blended to create a “middle ground,” he said.