Evangelist preacher with congregation

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It won’t be long until the pre-Christmas parties start. I can’t wait to share my new passion with the city types of Harpenden.

This year’s festive gatherings have no obvious hot topics of conversation. The commuter belt loves a recurring thread to roll out week on week, but with the election a distant memory and the Rugby World Cup off limits, I desperately need to be armed with a change of subject to offer up at drinks parties.

Sympathising with the bankers who will have to muddle by on a meagre six-figure bonus wears thin. And fending off rhetorical requests from my suburban neighbours who expect to walk their dog over every last corner of our HLS margins becomes quite tiresome.

So I have decided to become a cover crop nut. A volley of enthusiasm about phacelia, vetch, japanese oats and oil radish will be sure to shake off the most persistent of cocktail party bores.

We have drilled multiple species of cover and catch crop mixes across the whole farm – what fun. I have dragged Fream’s Agriculture out of the loft, and blown the dust off Lockart and Wiseman’s Crop Husbandry in an effort to identify unfamiliar plants as they emerge out of the ground.

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Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a Leaf demonstration unit. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday

Fat ones, thin ones, pink ones, red ones. Every morning walk is like unwrapping a birthday present. Prising back the soil to see the depth of the roots, the mycorrhizal fungi and the worm activity. Some wrigglers are the size of small adders, which is of great concern to my daughter, who has a dreadful phobia of snakes. My crop-walking has a renewed metaphorical and physical bounce.

When I wax lyrical about cover crops, I can’t help but think about a post on Twitter earlier in the year. “Cover croppers and no-til farmers are just like vegetarians. They have to tell everybody what they are doing.”  I have never been a vegetarian, but I am happy to shoulder the criticism. In a kind of evangelical way, I can’t help myself. It makes perfect sense. And the more I hear people pooh-pooh the concept, and the more I learn, the more sense it makes.

Cover crops certainly have their critics. How can you justify the cost? They are just a fad, too expensive, more work. One agronomist even suggested they were contributing to the explosion of cabbage stem flea beetle.  

But it was a single comment that crystallised my belief that there is a mindset we need to change. “Why would you grow something if you can’t measure what it adds to the bottom line?”  Well, farming is about outcomes, not just output. With so many variables at work, farm strategies must consider their resilience.

There is a very unflattering hypocrisy that grumbles away in some farming communities. A resistance to change that dovetails perfectly with an overwhelming desire to see new ideas fail.  

For example, too many farmers spraying pyrethroids willy-nilly on resistant flea beetle is a justifiable expense, but investing in cover crops isn’t. Go figure.

Conversely, the apiary in the corner of the field or the hosting of school visits on your farm are unquestionably positive, but equally difficult to measure.

I am well aware that it won’t just be the bankers and dog walkers at drinks parties who think I am slightly unhinged in my obsession with cover crops and healthy soils. And yes, they are hard to measure. 

It is, however, very easy to measure the cost of unhealthy soil.