Opinion: Dacian Ciolos could learn a lot from ‘Turnip’ Townshend about crop rotation

When Charles “Turnip” Townshend devised the Norfolk four-course rotation in the 18th century he was hailed a pioneer of the Agricultural Revolution.

Based around the perfect meal, Townshend treated each year of his rotation as a serving on a menu. The starter was clover; year two, the main course of wheat; turnips were his pudding; with barley concluding the meal in year four. This carefully devised rotation of legume, root and cereal gave the soil balance, structure, break and nutrition.

Three centuries later and Commissioner Ciolos is implementing his own degustation of three crops with a seasoning of ecological focus area (EFA). But rather than having the balance of a four-course meal, this serving from Brussels is a dog’s dinner of dishes that don’t complement each other.

As farmers were eagerly planning rotations and cultivations, the Commissioner was pontificating over which ingredients he wanted to put in his greening. Even after the announcement from Liz Truss last week (14 August), some options are awaiting more information in November.

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The key to the success of Townshend’s rotation lay in its name. His wasn’t a rotation for the whole of East Anglia, nor was it trying to dictate what was right for 28 member states of the EU. He was merely proposing a rotation that would suit the soils and farmers of Norfolk.

In trying to reduce mono-cropping of maize in Germany while improving poor environmental stewardship across a plethora of countries, Ciolos has devised a “one-size-fits-no-one” hat.

For 20 years UK farmers have strived to find the balance between enhancing biodiversity and improving operational efficiency. Ciolos’ plan goes against the forward-thinking ways of the UK.

His three-crop rule is clumsy and stifles efficiency. Take the ambitious British farmer who has accumulated land by being prepared to farm a patchwork quilt spread over a wide geographical area. Depending on the specifics of each individual agreement, he will no longer be able to block-crop his farms.

But if the three-crop rule is short sighted, the rolling out of EFAs and the effect this will have on uptake of NELMS (new environmental land management agreements) is equally myopic.

It is no secret that Defra was lobbied hard by environmental NGOs wanting to have a greater percentage of EFA (now set at 5%). But the battle appears to have been fought over percentages of land with little regard given to the consequence this may have on stewardship renewals.

Far from enhancing stewardship in the UK, the environment will be the greatest casualty of this overhaul. The NELMS are due to start on 1 January 2016. Between now and then, some 20,000 ELS agreements will expire. With budgets slashed and pressure from environmental groups for NELMS to deliver more value, the schemes’ funding will be both reduced and more competitive. Many environmentally committed farmers will come out of stewardship because they will be unable to justify additional land over and above that required for EFA or failing to fulfil the necessary criteria for NELM. Defra itself projects that by 2020 the land area under stewardship may fall from 70% to 35%.

It is not just the land area that will be lost, farmers emotional commitment may also wain. What a travesty it will be if two decades of beneficial environmental stewardship are undone by a combination of prophylactic dictats, bureaucrats and environmental NGOs. None of whom have remembered the idiom by which Turnip Townshend lived: “To benefit the land and the farm, one must remember the needs of nature and the farmer”.

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