The culture of farming is being challenged by the so-called regenerative agriculture movement, with its role in shaping resilient and profitable agricultural futures at the heart of the debate, heard a packed audience of Future Farmers of Yorkshire at the Great Yorkshire Showground.
Around 240 farmers and like-minded industry professionals took part in a lively spring debate hosted by the Future Farmers of Yorkshire network, a group supported by agriculture charity, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society to bring together like-minded farmers, vets and industry advocates likewise.
Farmers were asked to consider whether they can continue to farm in the same way they have for decades, at a time when agricultural input costs have reached historic highs and existing farm support payments are being phased out , amidst an ever-growing population and the challenges posed by a changing climate.
Regenerative agriculture approaches have been adopted by some farmers as a way to adapt to these challenges, with ‘regen ag’ perhaps best defined by prioritizing soil health on farms. Its key principles are to avoid soil disturbance, keep the soil surface covered, maintain live roots in the soil, grow a wide range of crops, and incorporate grazing animals.
At the spring debate, a panel of industry speakers looked at these principles by answering the question ‘Is regenerative agriculture the future for all UK farmers?’
Opening the debate as chairman, Andrew Meredith, editor of Farmers Weekly, acknowledged that regenerative agriculture is a controversial topic. Andrew, a former cattle and sheep farmer in Mid-Wales, said: “If we’re being honest with ourselves, farming is definitely a club, but sometimes it’s a bit of a clique, and if I was guessing your motivations why you come here tonight, is because regen as a topic has attracted a lot of controversy; it is seen by some farmers as something of a challenge to the clique.
Alastair Trickett, who runs a mixed arable and sheep farm near Leeds, defined regenerative agriculture as ‘a way of farming that seeks to mimic nature as closely as possible whilst at the same time making a sustainable profit for your farm “.
Alastair, co-founder of Grassroots Farming, which supplies regeneratively farmed beef to restaurants, argued that all farms will be regenerative in the future because of the political will to incentivize environmental outcomes on farms and achieve net zero goals, interest audience for the environment and climate change mitigation and corporate business direction.
Alastair said, “Over the past three years, companies with combined annual revenues of $1.4 trillion have publicly committed to sourcing from regenerative farms. This should make each of us think and think ‘am I going to get swept up in this or am I going to be a little island of my own?’”
Bradley Sykes, a first-generation farmer based near Selby who has a contract and farm growing potatoes, carrots, wheat, barley and peas, said regen ag is a reinvention of old farming practices. He stressed the need for regeneration practices to equate to profitable agriculture.
“If you look back at our ancestors and what they were doing with rotation, incorporating manure, crop rotation; all they’ve done is what we’re told to look at now,” Bradley said, adding that he believes he already farms regeneratively, for example, by not plowing to plant potato crops.
As a rancher in Aberdeenshire, Nikki Yoxall works with landowners to help them achieve regenerative goals by using livestock as ‘ecological engineers’ to increase plant species diversity, habitat creation and carbon sequestration.
Nikki believes the benefits of regenerative agriculture are becoming apparent. She said: “Over and again we hear from farmers that switching to regenerative systems has reduced the need for inputs, both for land and animals.”
Doug Dear, a fourth generation farmer at Osgodby Grange near Selby, explained why he felt it was vital to remain adaptable as a farmer amid evolving trends and challenges, and why he would not be dogmatically bound to the principles of regenerative agriculture.
“One phrase I use is ‘adaptive till’, so min and max till, some direct plowing and drilling on my farm. Whatever suits the day’s crop and land. Nothing is set in stone. Everything is geared towards efficiency. A covered acre for the lowest cost is the way forward. Our main driver in business is profit.”
Andrew Meredith concluded that a major frustration of regen’s supporters was that too often his principles get lost in the “culture war of agriculture”.