“Toil of the tilth”

Graeme Matravers

17 December 2012

Since 2008 the organic market has seen a retrenchment, with wider economic problems having a direct impact on the nation’s shopping habits. The same period has seen weather conditions that have veered between too little and, this year especially, too much rainfall. In this piece Graeme Matravers, who with his wife Vivienne is an organic farmer at Manor Farm in Leicestershire, reflects on the challenges that recent years have brought, how he has kept his sense of perspective, and why the future is bright for his farm.

My wife Vivienne and I have a shorthand for when things get a bit tough on the farm: “toil of the tilth” we say. Well, that phrase has been uttered a disproportionate number of times over the past few years. Alongside the recession and the big decline in organic sales we have had a dramatic drought which took an age to get into the public psyche, and left us with little grass but a lot of questions over whether it was the weather, us as farmers, or the organic system itself that was to blame. Then, just as we had planned for another dry year, the rain started, did not even stop after 40 days, and I am yet to see a rainbow. So this year, with plenty of grass, and ground conditions similar to mid-winter, we faced a new set of challenges, one of managing soils, trying to get the harvest in, and avoiding getting the combine stuck; none of which we achieved. Oh to turn the clock back, to when we seemed to have normal weather, though I am sure time has dimmed some equally awful years.

Besides all this, away from our own concerns on the farm the world is facing some big environmental challenges which seem to grow more pressing with each year. Despite this, however, we are not discouraged. We have learnt a great deal from the challenges of the last few years, and we believe there is much to look forward to and a brighter future ahead.

Global issues

Organic farming, or whatever it might be called in the future, has a vital role to play in tackling the bigger issues of our time. Climate change and food security are now taken seriously by most and it is clear organic farming can help with some of these challenges. We do need more research to develop better organic practices that allow us to optimise yields while not jeopardising all the other benefits of the system. There can be little doubt that if as much money as has been spent on producing the fertilisers and chemicals of today had been spent on, for example, Albert Howard’s composting systems, we would have a much more productive system of farming all round – one which does not lead to the creation of dustbowls and tonnes of the world’s fertile topsoil being deposited in the oceans.

Quite why we organic farmers are always asked about our system’s ability to feed the world is puzzling in many ways; it is in the present industrialised model of food production, with its dependence on fossil fuels and rapidly depleting nutrient resources, that the real risk to global food supplies lies. Having said that, it may be that without an (unlikely) change in diets, there may soon be too many people in the world to feed through any kind of agriculture, organic or otherwise. What is clear though, is that our values and methods will continue to be vitally important to help find a solution to our world’s future food needs, and we will all need to evolve or become extinct.

Focusing just on output as a measure of effectiveness is often contentious, as I saw first-hand when in Japan looking at that nation’s small-scale farming systems. Conventional rice growers measure their productivity solely on the amount of rice produced from their paddy field, and usually “yield” more than their organic counterparts. But while the organic grower may produce less rice, he also produces both meat and eggs from the weeding gang of ducks, and plenty of leafy green veg from around the perimeter. The organic movement must be careful to ensure that it continues to champion sustainable farming and growing systems of this kind, which grow plenty of food, keep farmers on the land and keep consumers in touch with the reality of food production. We must not become just a brand that can only be afforded by the few in a world of global agribusiness.

Home comforts

Back on the farm we have a lot to be proud of over the past few years, including sticking to some fundamental organic principles of sustainable production and local marketing. We do have some fertility and weed challenges, but it is now a rare sight after 15 years of organic management to find either a blackgrass or wild oat plant on the farm. We were plagued by both of these and even our most prolific weed – docks – seem, in some fields, to be reducing.
Modern technology, government grants and a far-sighted landowner have enabled our farm shop and bakery to be about as carbon neutral as you can get and our livestock sheds are covered in solar panels, providing all the power needed to run both. What’s more, we try to use wheat grown on our farm and milled locally by wind-power, to make all our breads.

All this happens in a countryside that has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. We have planted new woodland and shelterbelts, ensured that there are field margins everywhere. We have undertaken hedge management, including new plantings, restoring historic boundaries and laying those suitable. We have also planted a new hay meadow with numerous wildflowers, which is beautiful in the summer as the different grasses and flowers result in it constantly changing colour. This activity is necessary because we are organic, and we rely on rotations and working with nature. And it results in a vibrant countryside which everyone can enjoy.

We welcome visitors and walkers and have permissive paths linking all footpaths on the farm, allowing people to feel part of the farm and the landscape as well as to find out where and how their food is produced. Thousands of school children have also benefited from a visit where links between what we eat and its effect on the environment and farming are explained and demonstrated.

Evolving practice

While the benefits of farming organically can literally be seen by the children who visit and walk the footpaths, a question that non-organic farmers might ask is whether any benefits can be seen in our accounts by our bank manager? In all honesty I have never done a direct financial comparison to where we might have been if we were not organic. But what I will say is that since taking the tenancy and starting the conversion in 1995 we have built up a strong business which has weathered a couple of recessions as well as all the other surprises nature comes up with. We employ four full time local people, a couple part time and have a large, happy and supportive number of customers. Being organic has allowed us to do what we wanted to do; that is run a successful and profitable farm full time along with providing local people with fantastic food and an environment which they can enjoy. If we had not taken the conversion step back in 1995 I suspect that at best we would now be part time farmers, with no staff and no innovative and pioneering business to be proud of. Organic farming can be challenging but it is also very rewarding to us, our customers and the environment.

And though there is much to be proud of, keeping this vibrant system in optimum balance continues to keep us busy. For example, we now include chicory in all our grass mixtures, and while management can be challenging (as chicory likes to produce an inedible stalk) it was the only plant to remain green throughout the driest periods or recent years. Without it growing in one field on the farm our lambs would have been a lot thinner. We have also experimented with different cereals like rye and spelt and tried a stubble turnip and forage rape mix to try and negate the effects of drought. Thank goodness we have a hardy breed of cattle that do well even in tough times and still taste and look fantastic. There is nothing to beat the Leicestershire Longhorn grazing the native grassland pastures that his ancestors have grazed for decades. Our farm, in Long Whatton, is only a stone’s throw from Dishley Grange, the home of Robert Bakewell. He pioneered livestock breeding in the 18th century and is remembered, among many other things, for his work on Leicester sheep and Longhorn cattle.

We direct sell all the meat produced on the farm through our farm shop and so have first-hand experience of the recession of the last few years. Businesses both large and small have closed and people are not confident about spending but people still care passionately about where their food comes from and how it is treated when alive and dead. Unfortunately the word ‘organic’ has suffered as well, with most customers not being clear about its values, and equating it with expense. In response we now rarely use the ‘O’ word and concentrate on its intrinsic values of free range, sustainable, high-welfare, holistic food – which are the reasons consumers give for buying ‘green’ groceries, and the reason we farm like this in the first place.

We are not too worried about feeding the world as we see a system, to paraphrase Lady Eve Balfour, which produces healthy plants, sleek blossoming animals and happy healthy customers – all dependent on a soil that is building in fertility and carbon content rather than diminishing it. The difficult bit is doing all this and turning in a profit. This may be a dirty word in some quarters but it is essential in our current economic system for farmers both large and small scale to survive.

One of the outcomes of dealing with the last few years is we have had to become more business-like, studying both business management and marketing to keep the enterprise afloat. This new knowledge increases our resilience as an enterprise, and will help us move forwards with a degree of confidence. The future is bright but will rely on an increasing enterprise mix of both farming and non-farming income streams. We will remain relevant and eventually even the myopic will see that there are other paths to go down: some that lead to a fairer, just, world where all creatures are valued and have a place, as well as there being enough food for all, rather than too much for some and little for others. We will continue to follow one of these paths but are always prepared to take a diversion as research points to better ways of doing things to achieve our goal of leaving a vibrant farm to the next generation.

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.

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