The future of farming is indoors

I have always thought of myself as the “outdoors type.” That’s why I’ve got such a ruddy face. Well, that and the gin.

Proper farmers never take their shirts off however hot it gets, but I’m tanned on every part of my body that a polo shirt and jeans won’t cover. I’m also noticeably browner on my driver’s side than on my passenger side – that’s crop walking with the window open for you.

Recently, however, I’ve been spending more time indoors. This is because we have started growing some of our crops in polytunnels. We resisted this move for many years on the grounds of cost and aesthetics, but now that we have made the leap I have become almost evangelical about the benefits of growing food under cover. It is so clean, calm and controllable that it’s almost like being an office worker.

Polytunnels are relatively cheap and I accept that some people find them ugly. I agree that they are not always suitable in scenic locations. The way that they fit in with their natural environment needs careful consideration. I’m certainly not suggesting that we throw a polythene sheet over Stonehenge to grow courgettes for the early market.

The good bit about intensive production is that it’s concentrated so therefore you don’t need as much of it. Nanette Newman would love it in that respect.

Think of all the land that intensive production systems could free up for carbon sequestration, power generation, wildlife habitat and recreational activities such as mountain biking and sheep farming.

My theory is principally based on my experience in horticultural situations, but I guess that the same applies to keeping livestock. A protected environment is surely more comfortable for most animals. The outdoors is a hostile place; there are pests and diseases, low temperatures, wind, rain and drought to contend with. You could argue that it is more humane to keep animals in more consistent conditions.

I’ve got a wacky theory that in the future most of our fresh food will be produced indoors. Controlled production environments allow farmers to manage their inputs, particularly water, and to programme their supply with far greater accuracy. It is easier to manage the risk of diffuse pollution than it is in more extensive farming systems and it allows the possibility of predators for pest control. Most importantly of all, it is equally practical to produce food indoors in urban locations as well as rural ones. Most consumers live in towns so why do we continue to produce food so far away from them?

This vision will sound far-fetched to some people and it will make Daily Mail readers as mad as a wet hen. Most of us believe that crops should grow in soil and that animals “belong in fields.” The inefficiency of those practices could make them unaffordable in the future.

We accept many unnatural things in our everyday lives because it suits us to do so. Electric lighting, aviation, Playstations and flushing toilets would all have seemed pretty bizarre to our great, great grandparents (if you are of average farming age then you might be able to knock off at least one of those “greats” and possibly a “grand”).

Instead of fearing these changes, we should remain open-minded. Farming systems will always evolve but great farming principles like welfare, hygiene, prudence and planning still apply. We must retain these values.

This is why farmers must embrace these new ideas rather than leaving it to corporate industrialists.

Matthew Naylor farms 162ha (400 acres) of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father, Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a Nuffield scholar.

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