This article first appeared in the May 2022 edition of Birdwatching Magazine
There are three types of farmers. There are money grabbing agri-businesses that put profit above people and would rather greenwash than change. Then there are farmers who see themselves as temporary custodians of land, making a living for their families while treating their stock well and having a weather eye open for the wild things they love to see on their land. In between are, perhaps the largest group, farmers who follow the law, take advantage of subsidies, and farm to produce good food at the lowest cost they can, using pesticides and herbicides, fertiliser’s and every inch of the ground they can make productive.
I have an ingrained dislike and distrust of agri-businesses that often use tenanted farms and will scour the land to stop all competition from nature and grow the same monocrop year on year. I admire those guys who make a living from the land but care for it and all the critters who they share it with. These are the guys who dig ponds as much for the birds and beasts as they do for thirsty cattle. They love the lark song and curlew call, the meadow sweet and corn cockle the seasonal displays that mother nature lays on for their pleasure.
I doubt that I can ever influence the faceless moneymen behind vast, hedge-less acres and would be preaching to the converted if I called for care from the field-friendly farmers who already do so much good for wildlife and our planet. However, I think it is up to all of us to make inroads into the practices of the middle group, farmers who are adding to the problem, not the solution through ignorance or habit. We need to press government to make doing good profitable.
The good guys have been re-planting hedges, leaving field margins to the wildflowers and being generous with their pond digging and tree planting. We need government to make those things add a premium to the average farmer. We need to press for the most dangerous pesticides and herbicides to be banned and give subsidies to crop rotation, and quality produce, hedge laying and margin planting for the birds and the bees.
The pandemic has taught us how nature heals us, how much we need green space and the chance to breath the stress relieving, unpolluted air. If farmers encourage our access and enhance that experience they should be rewarded. Subsidies to them, would mean better quality would be more affordable for us. Organic farming should pay as much to the farmer as maximising yield does now; that cannot be left to the free market who will sell us battery chickens made edible through chlorine washes. Making quality unaffordable to most of us and uneconomic to the producer.
The economies of scale can be disastrous, whether it’s nitrogen run-off into our water supply or culling of pigs when mass slaughterhouses cannot attract overseas staff. Let’s trumpet that lesson. Local producers, using small-scale abattoirs that distribute to local consumers are the farms surviving Brexit and Covid. Cooperating farms running their own dairies and selling direct to the public make a living while others fail, undercut by imported milk in supermarkets.
We can change how we shop and eat seasonal produce in season, produced close to home. We must demand better labelling on everything we buy, which shows when bee-killing pesticides and planet killing herbicide are used.
Only the lucky few own ponds for nest mud and wildflower fields of insects for nesting birds, but we ALL can drive the economy in a direction that makes farming for nature viable.