A Farm For The Future - BBC2 Permaculture on Friday

Gerrard Winstanley office at evnuk.org.uk
Mon Feb 16 15:25:14 GMT 2009

• Rebecca's film A Farm For The Future will be screened on BBC2 at 8pm 
on Friday and repeated on Sunday, February 22.

Daily Mail, as the paper of opposition, doing a fine job right now. 
Guardian Env. editor John Vidal please take note.
Small farm shop wages David and Goliath price war by undercutting 
Tesco by 50%

Now my farm will help teach the world to live without oil, says woman 
who banished plastic bags from her town
By Rebecca Hosking
Last updated at 12:04 AM on 15th February 2009

Now my farm will help teach the world to live without oil, says woman 
who banished plastic bags from her town

By Rebecca Hosking
Last updated at 12:04 AM on 15th February 2009

Non-farmers tend to romanticise agriculture. When I tell people I grew 
up on a small South Devon farm that has been in our family for seven 
generations, they picture an idyllic childhood spent gambolling with 
spring lambs and wandering through freshly cut hayfields on golden 
summer evenings. 

Ours is a traditional livestock farm, worked for the past 50 years by 
my father and his brother, Phil, and, in reality, what farm life means 
to me is hard work bordering on drudgery. Dad says farmers are just 
'glorified lavatory attendants'. 

I may not have especially fond memories of cleaning out steaming 
cattle barns, but I did have a wonderful childhood. It was the farm's 
wildlife, rather than the cows and sheep, that fascinated me. 

Wild at heart: Rebecca and her father, Roger, on their farm

Dad has always gone out of his way to protect all the birds and 
animals on the land 'for the sheer love of nature', he says. 

Before cutting the hay grass he will walk the fields to identify where 
the skylark nests are so as not to cut too close, and every year he 
fences off large parts of the flower meadows for the butterflies and 
to stop the cattle trampling the orchids. 

He's the only sheep farmer I know who actually encourages foxes on his 
land. The foxes help keep the rabbit and vole population in check. In 
half a century, they've never taken a single lamb. 

Waifs and strays from the fields and hedges were constant companions 
as I was growing up. Abandoned jackdaws, orphaned fox cubs and injured 
barn owl chicks were all looked after, nursed back to health and, 
whenever possible, released back into the wild. 

However, my parents wanted something better for me than the toil and 
financial insecurity of farming. 

Given Dad's passion for wildlife and Mum's interest in botany, it was 
no great surprise that I became a wildlife film-maker for the BBC. 

For more than a decade, my job took me all over the world, allowing me 
to film some extraordinary creatures and work with some incredible 
people, including Sir David Attenborough. 

I even found myself on the other side of the camera in 2007 when a 
campaign I started to ban plastic bags from my home town of Modbury, 
and which I wrote about for The Mail on Sunday, eventually led to 
supermarkets reducing the number of bags they use and the Government 
considering legislation to ban them. 

As much as I would love him to, Dad can't carry on farming forever, so 
I recently decided it was time to return to what I think of as the 
most beautiful spot on Earth. 

I was under no illusion that being a farmer would be easy, but last 
year's fuel crisis, with oil prices continually rising, was a wake-up 
call for me. 

Our costs went through the roof - animal feed, diesel for the 
tractors, agricultural contractor bills - but the biggest rise was in 
the price of fertiliser. We use very little chemical fertiliser, but 
many farms were driven to bankruptcy. 

With this in mind, I decided to make one last BBC documentary to find 
out if, and how, modern farming could survive the 21st Century. 

By seeking advice from experts, pioneer farmers and growers, I heard 
plenty of dispiriting news, but also discovered how nature holds the 
key to farming in a low-energy future. 

All farms, even organic ones, run on fossil fuel, particularly oil. It 
powers the machinery and is used to create the fertilisers and 
pesticides on which modern agriculture is so dependent. 

Rebecca, aged six, with a barn owl

Now that the price of oil has collapsed, the temptation is to think 
the crisis is over. But, as Toyota Motor Sales USA said recently, 'it 
was a brief glimpse of our future'. Worrying words from the world's 
biggest car company. 

It was a reference to 'peak oil' - the point when the maximum rate of 
global oil extraction is reached, after which the rate of production 
enters terminal decline. 

Globally, we use about 30 billion barrels a year to keep our 
industrial societies functioning. Yet 33 of the 44 oil-producing 
countries are now in decline. Britain's own production has been 
falling since 1999 and we are now a net oil importer. 

The ultra-cautious International Energy Agency says: 'The threat to 
the world's energy security, especially on oil and natural gas, will 
reach serious dimensions in the next ten years.' 

These aren't yogurt-weaving hippies predicting a global energy famine 
but hardnosed companies and organisations. And if they are concerned, 
then so am I. 

An energy famine could easily lead to a food famine, even in Britain. 

Most of our food here is dripping in oil. It is used to grow food, 
protect it and transport it. As well as being an oil importer, Britain 
is also a net food importer. Without oil, we'd starve. 

So if our farms and machinery are so energy-hungry, what are the 
options without oil? 

A return to manual labour on farms seems unlikely. Most British 
farmers don't have the physical strength for one simple reason - their 
average age is 60. And there are only 150,000 left. As an industry, 
British farming has effectively been left to die. 

Experts agree that we've left it too late to develop enough 
alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and biofuels. They 
won't be ready to replace all the power currently provided by oil when 
it runs out. 

So we need to rethink how we farm. 

Our farm's biggest use of fossil fuel is the annual hay harvest when 
we collect winter feed for the cattle. We have to put them in a barn 
over winter - otherwise they would turn the land into a muddy swamp in 
the wet weather. 

However, I visited Fordhall Farm in Shropshire where the cattle stay 
out on the pasture all winter, with little need for additional feed. 
As a result, the farm hardly noticed last year's oil spike. 

Fordhall Farm's secret is very special grass. The owners have 
developed pasture land much more like a natural wild prairie. 

It is made up of a huge variety of different grasses that improve the 
resilience of the land surface, making it much more able to withstand 
the hammering of cows' hooves in the winter. 

Charlotte Hollins, who runs Fordhall with her brother Ben, told me 
about another theory developed there. 

Her father, Arthur, had noticed woodland on the farm was far richer in 
wildlife than the fields he cultivated. He concluded that ploughing 
destroyed the nutrients in the soil by exposing them to sunlight. 

Farmers have been ploughing for 10,000 years, so not doing so is a 
radical idea. But the damage it does with powerful modern tractors is 

The flocks of gulls and crows squabbling behind the plough for worms 
and beetles is just a childhood memory for me. Today, the birds don't 
follow the plough because the soil is dead and there is nothing for 
them to eat. 

The only reason modern agriculture can get away with killing the life 
in the soil is through another use of fossil fuel - by turning it into 
chemical fertiliser containing nitrates, phosphates and potash. 

Fuel threat: Despite its North Sea rigs, like this one off Great 
Yarmouth, Britain is now a net importer of oil

More than 96 per cent of all the food grown in Britain is reliant on 
synthetic fertiliser. Without it we'd be in serious trouble. 

But without artificial fertiliser there's not enough nutrients for the 
crops to grow, and without ploughing there is nothing to aerate the 
soil. So how can we manage without them? 

The answers are in nature. As Charles Darwin pointed out, earthworms 
have been ploughing and aerating the soil for millions of years. And 
as for fertilisers, just look at how a forest flourishes: by using the 
natural fertility created by billions of living microbes, fungi, 
plants and animals. 

The non-destructive, low-energy methods used at Fordhall are elements 
of a wider system known as permaculture, which challenges all the 
normal approaches to farming. One of its central principles is that 
you work with the land, rather than against it. 

Britain used to be a forested island, so a lot of the energy we expend 
in farming is just to stop it reverting back. 

The farmland I am used to seeing is clumps of trees surrounded by 
fields. But a permaculture smallholding I visited in Snowdonia was 
just the opposite - a collection of small clearings in a mass of 

On this site Chris and Lyn Dixon produce all the fruit, vegetables and 
meat they need and the fuel to cook it - with surprisingly little 

When they arrived two decades ago, the land was degraded marginal 
pastureland. The Dixons let much of the land return to its natural 
state and it is now a thriving woodland ecosystem. 

The fertility has returned to the land, and observing the forest as it 
regenerated offered all the inspiration the Dixons needed to design 
their smallholding, which Chris describes as highly ordered chaos. 

'We see it as untidy, but nature doesn't see it like that,' Chris 
explained. 'Every plant here is doing something useful.' 

Some deter pests, some help drainage, some encourage bees for 
pollination, and others have long roots that pull up minerals deep 
from the soil. There is gorse, for example, which helps fix nitrogen 
in the soil. 

The largest clearings in the woodland are kept as pasture for the 
livestock, but the animals here don't just eat grass. Nutrient-rich 
willow and ash are all used as fodder crops. Hedgerows, traditionally 
seen as a land division between two fields, have potential as fodder 

Inspiration: Land Girls helped Britain beat the U-boat blockade as 
part of the Dig For Victory Campaign

The smallholding was teeming with wildlife and Chris told me that 
biodiversity was very important.

'By encouraging the habitat for birds, for instance, we're encouraging 
phosphate cycling through the system,' he said. 

'Phosphates are a crucial plant nutrient and you find them in things 
such as insects and seeds. Birds that eat insects and seeds are 
accumulating phosphates and the excess comes out in their droppings.' 
So, no need for sacks of fossil-fuel derived nutrients. 

Just up the road from our farm I found another example of 
permaculture. Martin Crawford's forest garden has more than 550 
species of plants all growing together. 

Forest gardens are inspired by nature. The reason natural woodland is 
so productive is because it grows on many layers, rather like having 
half a dozen fields stacked on top of each other. 

A forest garden imitates each woodland layer, but uses more edible 
species. The garden floor is covered with fruit and vegetables, and 
above them, the shrub layer is equally abundant. 

A bit higher up are the fruit trees, such as apples, pears, medlars (a 
fruit rather like the crab apple) and quinces. 

And then there is the canopy where those trees that aren't producing 
food are serving other essential functions such as recycling nutrients 
through their root system and leaf litter. 

Some plants are selected primarily because they attract beneficial 
insects - hover flies, for example, which eat aphids - so no 
pesticides are needed. 

Surely this requires endless attention and work? 

'Over a whole year, an average of one day a week,' said Martin. 'A lot 
of that is harvesting. In terms of maintenance, it's about ten days a 
year.' Compared to running a conventional farm, that is virtually 

But how much food does it produce? 'One designed for maximum yield 
could probably feed about ten people an acre,' said Martin. That's 
roughly double the number we can currently feed from an average acre 
of conventional arable farmland. 

The thinking is that a host of vegetable plots, allotments and 
smallholdings that require a minimum of maintenance because they 
follow nature's own design principles could make up for the loss of 
industrial-scale farms. 

The slogan on a reusable bag proclaims Rebecca's successful campaign 
against plastic bags in her home town

But it will work only if we have a lot more growers. Some reports 
estimate it's going to take as many as 12million, although currently 
we have 11million gardeners. 

A food-growing system based on natural ecology appeals to my 
naturalist side. But the farmer's daughter in me needed a bit more 
convincing. Could permaculture feed Britain? 

I asked Patrick Whitefield, Britain's leading expert in permaculture. 

'Good question,' he said. 'A better question would be, "Can present 
methods go on feeding Britain?" In the long term, it is certain that 
present methods can't because they are so entirely dependent on 
fossil-fuel energy. So we haven't got any choice other than to find 
something different.' 

The more permaculture people I met, the more hopeful I became that we 
can find a way out of this mess if we start preparing for peak oil 

Rising to the challenge of feeding the nation in difficult 
circumstances is not new to us. We dug for victory when we were faced 
with a German U-boat blockade during the Second World War, so there's 
no reason we can't do it in the face of declining oil. 

'The dominant demographic trend of the 21st Century is going to be re-
ruralisation,' said Richard Heinberg, of the Post Carbon Institute in 
California. He has advised businesses, industry and governments on how 
to cope with oil depletion. 

'That is not to say that the cities will disappear,' he added, 'but 
the proportion of people involved directly in food production is going 
to increase. We will also need a lot more full-time farmers - 
otherwise what are we going to be eating?' 

Just last week, the think-tank Chatham House produced a report saying 
Britain could face a 'food crisis' unless it revived farms. The report 
also warned that 'the global system will reach breaking point unless 
action is taken'. 

What is our Government doing about this? Not a lot. It appears to be 
in denial. In response to the Chatham House report, a spokesman 
insisted that the UK 'enjoys a high level of food security'. 

For my part, weaning our farm off fossil fuel is all I can do. People 
have suggested I sell the farm and make more money in a heartbeat than 
in a lifetime of working the land. 

But how can I turn my back on the place that made me who I am, and my 
father and his father before him? 

Despite the fact that I'm taking over at a time when farming is facing 
unprecedented challenges, I'm going to do my best to make this into a 
farm for the future. 

• Rebecca's film A Farm For The Future will be screened on BBC2 at 8pm 
on Friday and repeated on Sunday, February 22.

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