02 November 2020

Regenerative Agriculture

Written by Published in Food

Photo by Max Colson

Photo by Max Colson

Photo by Max Colson

We all understand how the food we eat has an impact on our bodies, but I’m interested to learn about how different ways of producing food can have different impacts on the environment. Last week, I was privileged to have the opportunity to visit a farm that is at the cutting edge of regenerative agriculture, creating food in a way that actually replenishes the richness of the soil.

Tim May of Kingsclere Estates, one of the UK’s leading proponents of regenerative agriculture, was kind enough to show me around his farm for the day. It was a fantastic, eye-opening experience of a farm brimming with activity and innovation.

Tim’s approach is one that recognises the sheer complexity of nature, in a world in which people, plants and animals co-exist on the land. Where possible, the idea is to create harmony within the ecology. By introducing circularity into the system, rotating animals as they graze and fertilise the land, Tim aims to nurture the soil, restore the land and create fantastic produce in a truly sustainable manner. I’d heartily recommend his excellent website for more information on regenerative farming and much else.

There are lots of ways in which Tim embeds these regenerative approaches into his farming, and walking around with him is like spending time with a farming encyclopaedia. His mind flits from crafty inventions he’s introduced at Kingsclere, to sharing technical insights into companion cropping or soil texture – all the while trying to cast light on some of the little pieces of nature’s jigsaw that he is putting back together on his land.

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The mobile dairy station, where our visit began, is one such ingenious idea. Tim’s cows are milked on a platform that can be transported around the farm at will. This allows him to move the cows around the fields on different days, ensuring all the land is fed with fresh, organic nutrients and avoiding ‘hotspots’ of over-fertilisation. Even the little details matter to him, like encouraging the animals to traipse back up hills and across fields after milking to get their feed, recreating as much as possible the natural relationship between animals and the land.

A mobile chicken coop on the farm works off a similar principle, helping the birds to peck at the land and the bugs that inhabit it. They are the most free-range of chickens. In turn, they offer another dimension of fertilisation and different minerals to enrich the land. Once again, variety, diversity and complexity are at the heart of everything. It’s a life-affirming way of managing the land.  

And that’s what I loved about meeting Tim: watching his joy at nature and passion for the land and its produce. Where the naked eye sees just a field of grass, Tim spies a vast, outdoor salad bar full of peppery herbs, bitter chicory and sweet edible flowers. There is a Willy Wonka-like delight in seeing him pulling up sugar beets the size of your head, which contain so much sucrose they are too sour for us to eat, but make an excellent treat for the cows during winter, stored in nature’s pantry, the ground itself. 

I also greatly admire Tim’s willingness to collaborate. He knows that there are countless ways to use the land and none of us has the time to do everything.

So he opens up the land to work with others, who can bring new uses to it. That gives Tim the chance to concentrate on managing the whole show and all the moving parts involved in the production – while also making time for his family and the local community.

Because that’s the other thing in farming: people matter, communities matter. Although farming ought to be an immensely fulfilling career, it can also be an extremely challenging one. It was particularly poignant meeting Tim shortly before World Mental Health Day. Rates of suicide among farmers in the UK are some of the highest of any occupational group. As much as we talk about looking after nature and the land, we can’t forget to look after ourselves. Regenerative farming must ensure that people are part of the equation.

In the coming weeks, I hope to have more news for you about my own plans to start off in the world of farming. I’ll be taking Tim as an inspiration when I do and I want to thank him greatly for his generosity in sharing so much of his time with a newcomer like me. The future of our farming must be sustainable and regenerative; it’s time we gave more credit to some of the people making that a reality.

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