The Devon dairy farmer’s daughter – who left the Pacific to come home and start a little revolution with Village Farm – on the way we see food, raise stock and treat our environment…
“Farming has always been making a mess of things. That started long before the modern era, although the speed of destruction has been vastly accelerated by the energy and power provided by fossil fuels. As the World Wildlife Fund states: “Unsustainable agricultural practices present the greatest immediate threat to species and ecosystems around the world.”
Farming has been driven by technology since the invention of the plough. Since some 10 millennia ago, every new agricultural technological innovation has been a direct response to a problem created by the last. Our ability as a species to overpower natural systems for our immediate gain has far exceeded our understanding of those systems.
A food-buying panic in Hawaii drove things home. I was working in Hawaii filming the increasingly rare wildlife of the islands when there was a minor shipping strike, that meant the tankers that brought the food from mainland US wouldn’t arrive.
The Hawaiians were 100% self sufficient when Cook arrived in 1778. They were surrounded by a vast array of wildlife. Now the current population of Hawaii is not that much more than back then, yet nearly 90% of all grocery items come from the US, 2,400 miles away. And this is despite the tropical climate islands having year-round growing seasons and fertile volcanic soils.
I gave up my globetrotting career as a BBC camerawoman and went home. I realised the vast majority of people in the western world are not in control of their own food or water supply – and that this same system is extremely fragile and utterly dependent on oil and energy resources.
Devon is home. For me, it’s sticking to the place where you know the soils, the weather, the climate and the people. It makes life a little easier when taking on a new farm, you don’t have to start completely from scratch.
I campaigned to have plastic bags banned in my town, Modbury. I had been horrified by what I’d seen, finding dead birds and turtles killed by ingesting plastic waste. This led to similar campaigns elsewhere and a country-wide movement.
On our 175 acres at Village Farm we farm with nature. Many farms are ‘wildlife friendly’, where they leave strips of land for wildlife. We differ in that we don’t really distinguish between the wild and the domestic, the entirety of the land is managed for both.
We see our farm as a living breathing ecosystem. We view our soil microbes, fungi, earthworms, herbs, flowers, trees, insects, wild birds, mammals (including such usual farmer foes as foxes and badgers) to be as important as 750 head of sheep, 400 breeding ewes, 8 breeding sows and a boar – probably the only 100% pasture-reared pigs in the UK – and 4 hives of rare native British black honeybees. All sustain the wealth and health of our land and business.
Our land practices are devoted to increasing species diversity and naturally nourishing the soil’s fertility. This is somewhat counter to the path agriculture has taken over the last few centuries which has been to simplify both the ecology and physically limit the species allowed through mechanisation, cultivation and chemical use.
We can’t solve any of the other problems we face on an empty stomach. Being able to feed ourselves and access clean drinking water using minimal amounts of energy is clearly a logical place to start.
Kit and the Widow’s ‘What’s your excuse? The Swan’ moves me to tears and moves me to action. To think we’ve lost half of all the world’s wildlife in my lifetime and the chief culprit is agriculture, to me that is such a call to arms. In my little way, on this stamp of land, I have to try and redress that.
What gets me up early every morning (apart from the cockerels) is the thought of learning from the natural world. I know I could have twenty lifetimes and never learn a fraction of nature’s secrets but it’s addictive to try.
Every UK school should have a headmaster like mine. If everyone had Gordon Waterhouse as their headmaster, what an amazing eco-literate nation we would be. He has such a passion for the natural world and wildlife and he instilled it into so many of his pupils. He’s now in his late 70s and retired but still at the weekends is educating children and parents about the natural world with the same zeal and passion.
On the farm we like to make a firm distinction between science and technology. These terms are often mistakenly conflated. As farming is ultimately working with natural biological systems, the more understanding and knowledge you have of those systems the less you find the need for technological intervention. The distribution of knowledge through the internet is the most important aspect of technology to our farm.
It’s inspirational seeing the wildlife returning to this land. Whether that’s dozens of swallows hunting over the flock or watching a hundred goldfinches feeding on the wildflower seed or seeing a little harvest mouse bounce out the way of our path, I’m very lucky to live the way I do and take inspiration from the wildlife surrounding me.
Everything evolves at the rate the land can sustain. As the fertility and biology improve, so we add more production. The regeneration of the land is already gathering momentum and we’re finding the opportunities for producing great food are expanding faster than we can cope with. So we are bringing in more people (younger and stronger people than us!) to join the team. The countryside needs new people with the right mindset as much as it needs more wildlife.
There are decades of work still to do here. I don’t think we’ve even begun to scratch the surface of what truly regenerative ecology and sustainable food looks like on this land. I know as we learn more so our goals will change and our plans will evolve.
Hopefully I will still be here. If I am, no-doubt I’ll be bending the ear of some whippersnapper about finding their role within our surrounding natural world. Governments could help farmers grasp the future by scrapping farm subsidies and levelling the playing field.”
Rebecca Hosking was talking to Chris Moss. Read more about other Atlas agriculture projects here.