Some farmers are looking towards older practices in a bid to improve the quality of the meat they produce, boost the soil health in their fields, and help to mitigate climate change.
The cow pats on Peter Grieg’s farm are “the real deal”, he says. Squatting in a field, he examines dozens of holes excavated by dung beetles in just a few hours.
“Inside that cow pat there is an absolute industry. There are billions of bacteria, hundreds of species of life, working away at what real farming is about.”
His farm, Pipers Farm, nestles beneath the wilds of Exmoor, in the fertile Devonshire hills, where his herd of native breed Devon Red Rubies graze fields rich in wildflowers and clover. The cows are outside all year round, grazing unsprayed land.
Peter and his wife have been working this land for the last three decades. They farm regeneratively, an approach inspired, he says, by the wisdom of pre-war farmers, when hedgerows were wild, livestock mingled in the fresh air, and industrial chemicals were a thing of the future.
He describes it as the engine room of food production. Well-fertilised soil produces good quality grass, which feeds the cows and in turn humans, who eat the nutrient-rich meat.
He believes modern, intensive farming, with its use of synthetic chemicals, antibiotics and processed animal feed, all work to destroy this delicate balance. Agriculture has moved away from the “basic common sense” of acting in harmony with nature.
“It produces massive quantities of an industrial commodity, which is so destructive to the natural world and does not deliver the basic building blocks of human nutrition.”
Regenerative farming has its roots in traditional small-scale farming methods. The approach focuses on restoring soils, which advocates say saves water, mitigates climate change, improves crops, and encourages biodiversity.
The basic principles include not disturbing the soil by avoiding ploughing and reducing the use of chemicals. The earth can be protected from the elements by planting cover crops, such as clover, and use grazing animals for natural fertilisation. Nature will do the rest, proponents say.
Peter has expanded his business to work with around 40 family farms in the Devon valley, helping to move them away from more intensive systems and selling their produce under the Pipers Farm brand.
Companies such as Nestle, McCain, Unilever, PepsiCo and Danone are publicly backing the approach. By comparison, organic farming is a stricter system, with rules banning weedkillers and artificial fertilisers, alongside stringent animal welfare standards.
He is trying to encourage “young blood” on to these family farms, so they can “put in to action the wisdom handed down from their grandparents”.
“They had no alternatives,” he says of older generations. “They didn’t have the chemicals. They didn’t have big machines. They didn’t have the industrial fertilisers.”
However, there are challenges. Some crops produced at a large scale – such as potatoes and sugar beet – normally need the land to be ploughed.
For a farmer to change to a different system would cost money – and currently farmers aren’t necessarily paid more for food that is produced to higher standards.
Richard Bramley, an arable farmer from Yorkshire, is the chair of the NFU Environment Forum. He says the distinction between regenerative and industrial farming isn’t helpful – there is no black and white answer. Many farmers have been using regenerative practices for years, he says.
“As a farmer, I know I need to produce food that is needed, that not only has less impact, but has an improvement in the health of the soil and biodiversity.”
He says there needs to be a “collective effort” to change the food system to meet the environmental cost. “We can’t unfortunately remove ourselves from the economic side of things. We are often under increasing pressure to produce food for less. It’s a direction of travel that can’t continue.”
“I think it’s important to have a very objective view to consider all scientific possibilities, and somewhere in amongst that, you will find a bit of a sweet spot where you’re able to achieve all those asks that are put on farms.”
Brothers Mark and John Snell, in their 30s, used to have a dairy herd, now they rear turkeys and pigs for Pipers Farm. Mark says most would like to farm regeneratively if they could, but warns there isn’t “a hope in hell” of feeding the world on it.
“The ultimate problem is food waste. It is too cheap. It has driven farmers to industrial farming. Farmers get a bad rap about how they farm a lot of the time, but it’s the general public and the government that has driven it.”
John says there will always be a need for industrial farming. “Industrial farming has got to be somewhere, it’s better off that it’s here where the welfare is better, rather than importing everything where you don’t know how it’s reared.”
However, the government is putting the focus on improving soil health as part of its plan to re-shape the farming landscape, now the UK has left the European Union. As part of the post-Brexit subsidy system, farmers will be able to earn up to £70 per hectare for “actions to improve the health of their soil.”
And the move towards regenerative farming is going global. In June, the world’s largest producer of frozen potato products, McCain, committed to embracing its principles across its whole food chain by 2050.
Sue Pritchard, chief executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission says there are “hundreds of years of science” behind regenerative farming, adding that it has never been “a hippy side-show”.
“Our research shows that a shift to regenerative agriculture will provide a net reduction of 66% to 77% of greenhouse gas emissions.
“The nature crisis and the crisis in health, and wellbeing and a green recovery following the pandemic, means that the whole of the farming system really does need to take up this challenge.”
Peter says any type or size of farm can change. “It’s about saying to the younger generation, remember what your granddad said about nurturing your farm when you were sitting on his knee.
“The critical thing is that they are guardians of this magical wisdom.”
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