‘Progressive’ farmer or ‘real’ farmer – What’s in a name?

‘Progressive’ farmer or ‘real’ farmer – What’s in a name?

Mike Gooding

20 September 2013

In the Spring issue of Living Earth writer and academic Colin Tudge contributed a piece about the Oxford Farming Conference., in which he questioned the veracity of the establishment's status-quo approach to farming, and argued for a low-input approach to farming, which he coined "enlightened farming". In response Mike Gooding, a Soil Association licensee and chair of the 2013 Oxford Farming Conference, has penned the following piece, arguing that if we, as both the organic movement and society more widely, are to deliver sustainable food and farming, we need to move away from what he perceives as banner waving towards an environment of mutual support. “We should celebrate those who do good things”, Mike says. “Standing on the side-lines and shouting ‘I’m right and you are wrong’ does nothing to help achieve sustainable food, nor does it further the cause of organic agriculture.” 

We farm a multi enterprise mixed farm in Oxfordshire under organic certification, where we use fertility building lays of clover rich swards to produce forage for cattle, sheep and pig production; we are obsessed with the soil and use the muck from the animals to improve structure and add nutrients. We produce wheat for bread, oats for porridge and peas and beans to replace soya in our animal feeds. We work with the natural environment around us, produce poultry meat and eggs, and are working to develop improved aquaculture systems.

We manage tenanted land under a Higher Level Stewardship scheme that has helped to deliver environmental benefits; we generate the electricity we use through solar energy, pollard willows to provide fuel for heating, and provide employment and housing for eight full time staff and a number of part-time positions. Oh. . . and we manage 10% of England’s lowland wet meadows as sites of special scientific interest, welcome 2,000 school children a year to the farm to conduct projects on sustainability, deliver a programme for adults with learning disabilities, and play a full and active role in our local community. I consider myself a progressive farmer actively looking for solutions to our challenges, but some may not even call me a “real” farmer.

No farming system is perfect whether organic, conventional, traditional, precision or even “real”, as Colin Tudge phrased it in the Spring issue of Living Earth. According to his definition I am not a “real” farmer because the farm we manage is 1,800 acres – it is large rather than small, and we farm both in Brazil and the UK – so we are international and not just local.

Nobody, and no organisation, has a monopoly on virtue and it is counterproductive to polarise the important debate on how we must meet the challenges ahead. Progressive farmers are challenging themselves to develop truly sustainable agriculture by doing and not by talking, and are not wedded to any one solution because it doesn’t exist. We focus on working with science and with a pragmatic approach that understands and values the economic, environmental and ethical aspects of developing sustainable production. We reject systems which do not consider all three E’s as equally important.

We need to be open-minded, value other people’s opinions, constantly learn, be open to negotiation, and continue delivering food. We can’t stop feeding people while designing the future of farming.

We are committed to farming organically, but an uncomfortable truth for many in the organic movement is that some of the practices we undertake may not stand up to scrutiny. Take, for example, the millions of litres of diesel used to top thistles and nettles, and compare that to the prudent use of herbicide with a weed-wipe. Which has greater environmental impact? Or consider the extension of withdrawal periods on animal health treatments that may result in perfectly good organic stock being marketed as conventional. Do we really want to risk people failing in their duty of care for animals simply to retain organic status? Of course not.

We need to challenge ourselves to find out the facts. The mature response is to continue to develop our understanding of sound evidence based science, honestly evaluate the consequences of our actions, and openly embrace change where it is appropriate.

For those of us working on farms today, our circumstances are quite different now from what they were just a few years ago. What happened in China when I read Agriculture in the 1980’s had little or no effect on farming in the UK. Today, what happens in China directly affects my farming decisions on a daily basis. The reality is that the world has never before had seven billion humans to feed. It is simply not the case that we have experienced these conditions before and we cannot therefore draw conclusions based on history alone.

To move towards sustainability requires open minded producers who are prepared to challenge the perceived wisdom and, most importantly of all, who are prepared to try. By definition, as the circumstances in which we live change, practices that are sustainable have to continually adapt. It is time to reject the ‘them and us’ rhetoric, to move on from the organic versus non-organic argument, and take a pragmatic approach to developing truly sustainable food production. This does not mean an end to organisations such as the Soil Association, who play a vital role in challenging understanding, in sponsoring research and scientific findings, and supporting consumer and producer education; but it needs to mean an end to feelings of superiority. The actual impact of climate change and population growth is not certain, so if we don’t really understand the questions – how can we be so confident about the answers?
As for me, I will continue to work towards progress on all three areas of environment, ethics and economics. It may not be revolutionary enough or fast enough for many, but our ability to deliver sustainability will improve if we keep our minds open rather than tying ourselves to specific farming systems.

Mother Earth journal cover


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