When I was a teenager, field margins hadn’t been invented.
Land is bloomin’ expensive in South Lincolnshire and while I was growing up I was taught to crop every square inch of it. It was considered good manners, like clearing your plate. As one of Thatcher’s children, these capitalist sentiments struck a chord with my younger self; I farmed that way for a year or two. Over the 20 years between then and now, my philosophy has become more altruistic.
When you include our ditches and drains, nearly 10% of our total land area is now managed wildlife habitat and we are in an environmental stewardship agreement.
If the young me could see the farm now he would think that I had turned into Swampy. I have become such an evangelist for environmental good that, when we had a visit on the farm from the M&S trading executive yesterday, I made him plant a tree.
My conversion to eco-warrior was a gradual process and began for practical purposes. I always hated ploughing the field corners and we started leaving land uncropped near watercourses to avoid spray drift. I couldn’t believe it when I heard that an ELS agreement would actually pay us to take this land out of cultivation. Hard cash in exchange for a few squiggles on a map – it was a no-brainer; I couldn’t get my coloured crayons out quickly enough. This tied in with our decision to implement LEAF Marque standards across the farm, a move which has given us access to better-paying customers.
I like to think that using awkward field corners as habitat is a bit like giving your old clothes to a worthy charity. The fact that we are seeing increasing numbers of birds and plants around the farm is almost an incidental benefit.
With such a positive personal experience, I am surprised by the poor level of support elsewhere for the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. I am utterly baffled as to why farmers haven’t embraced environmental stewardship more readily. Short of paying farmers to fall off logs, I can’t see how Natural England could have made it any easier to obtain their money.
If I can find sufficient ELS points on a small farm on some reclaimed marshland then it is inconceivable that farmers in other parts of the UK could possibly fail to meet the criteria.
The background issue here is the promise that the farming community gave to the last government to voluntarily deliver measures to improve biodiversity. If we don’t honour this contract then there is a good chance that set-aside will be re-introduced under stricter cross-compliance regulations.
Farmers that have so far failed to embrace environmental stewardship must be blissfully unaware that their Single Farm Payment is being steadily reduced as money is moved from Pillar One to Pillar Two measures.
We should all be seizing these opportunities from the green agenda. The argument that we need to cultivate every acre of the UK to feed the population is a feeble one. Polytunnels and broiler houses demonstrate that there are plenty of methods for placing efficient production inside a sustainable and biodiverse environment.
My younger self would be surprised, pleased even, that these environmental activities have not made our farm any less profitable or productive. I would be pleased to show him that farming every square inch of your land does not necessarily mean cultivating every square inch. I would also pick him up on his use of imperial measurements.