The regenerative farm working to improve soil without fertilisers

As the Ukraine war and climate crisis act as a wake-up call for the industry, one UK farm is leading the way

Lettuces are sprouting, the wildflowers are in bloom and a buzzard is circling above the meadow on a sunny spring day at Huxhams Cross Farm near the village of Dartington in Devon. From the top of a hill, Marina O’Connell can survey most of the 15 hectares (37 acres) she has dedicated the past six years to transforming.

When she took over running the farm in 2015, she recalls, the farm contractor called this a “miserable bit of land”. Now the fields and hedgerows buzz with wildlife, and young farm workers chat as they sow carrot seeds and plant out early spinach. Further downhill, chickens peck about near polytunnels full of vegetables and soft fruit.

This idyllic spot has been completely redesigned, and indeed reborn, since it was bought by the charitable community benefit society the Biodynamic Land Trust, with the goal of creating a sustainable and “regenerative” agricultural system.

Regenerative farming usually refers to an approach that involves improving the health of soil and water, while reducing tilling, growing a diverse range of plants and produce, and keeping organic matter in the soil to help crops grow.

While such farms are still few and far between, more and more food producers are considering whether it is an idea whose time has come, as many of them are buffeted by cost headwinds, loss of subsidies and soaring costs. The “three Fs” – fertiliser, animal feed and fuel – have all surged in price since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Unlike regenerative farming, other modern farming systems rely on synthetic fertiliser to restore nutrients and pesticides to rid plants of pests and disease. Farmers will soon pay much more for these inputs amid the biggest shake-up in agriculture in a generation, as the EU farm subsidy scheme – known as the common agricultural policy – is replaced post-Brexit.

The soil at regenerative farm, Huxhams Cross. It took two years to restore the soil biome at the farm through regenerative methods.
The soil at Huxhams Cross. It took two years to restore the soil biome at the farm through regenerative methods. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

The government’s new environmental land management schemes will focus more on the impact of agriculture, as farmers are increasingly encouraged to consider the climate, biodiversity and their stewardship of nature.

“We’ve got climate change in real time now and I think farmers are also aware the weather is changing,” says O’Connell. “The increase in nitrogen fertilisers has just woken up everybody to the urgency of it. So what was a transition that was going to happen over maybe 10 years, has suddenly been accelerated.”

Before 2015, Huxhams Cross was nominally part of a dairy farm owned by the Dartington Hall Trust; barley was grown on half of the fields for feeding cattle, while the wetland meadows were effectively abandoned. The new owners called on O’Connell, involved in sustainable farming since the 1980s, with the challenge to create a financially independent farm, and nurse the land back to health.

She and her family moved from Essex to pursue the project. “It had been farmed using chemicals and the soil was essentially dead,” O’Connell says. “We spent two years repairing the soil biome,” she adds, the ecosystem of plants, animals and microbes living below the surface.

As an illustration, O’Connell proffers two plastic food containers. One contains a pale, hard, desiccated ball of earth that she collected on arrival at the farm, while another is filled with the soil now: aerated, dark brown and made up of different size particles.

One of the first jobs for O’Connell and her team was planning the workflow on the future farm, and the crop layout, planting rows of trees across the sloping land and installing a rainwater-harvesting system.

Lettuces grow at Huxhams Cross farm.
Lettuces grow at Huxhams Cross. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

They planted legumes and clovers, which fix nitrogen in the earth, to start restoring the soil. These “green manures” are grown for a couple of years before crops can be sown, ideally grazed by animals who add their own droppings. At Huxhams Cross, the henhouses are wheeled across the field each week, while the farm’s two cows, Daffodil and Daisy, act as “giant lawnmowers”.

Such a time-consuming process might disappoint farmers looking for a quick fix to free themselves from rocketing fertiliser costs. “It’s really a two-year transition phase in my experience,” O’Connell explains. “It’s got to be planned for. If you’ve got a large farm, you would probably want to make a transition one block at a time rather than the whole, because it would cause a cashflow problem.”

This is one criticism of regenerative farming, which O’Connell concedes: on farms where fields are left empty for perhaps one year in three, the yield is lower than those farmed in more industrial ways with crops fed by synthetic fertilisers. If all food was produced in this way, critics say, people could go hungry.

Indeed, the global risk of food shortages has once again reared its ugly head, particularly after Russia’s invasion of key agricultural producer Ukraine. The dangers of a rushed agricultural transition have been highlighted in recent months in Sri Lanka, after last year’s sudden and unexpected ban on all chemical fertilisers by the country’s president, leading to warnings from farmers of financial ruin and reliance on foreign food imports.

“If you switch from one system to another suddenly, it is going to create problems,” says Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex. Despite this, he is convinced that regenerative farming should be taken seriously: “Taking a mix of old principles, having a diverse and compelling system with lots of elements and modern design components to make it work.”

Regenerative farm workers at Huxhams Cross in Dartington, Devon.
Regenerative farm workers at Huxhams Cross in Dartington, Devon. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

The fruit, vegetables, eggs and wheat grown at Huxham Cross now fill the plates of 300 families each week, and are mostly sold locally at Totnes farmers’ market. The farm is financially self-sufficient; the food production is profitable and employs six people along with three apprentices, while its finances are bolstered by a wellbeing centre, providing therapy to children, run by O’Connell’s psychologist husband.

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Advocates of regenerative farming believe such systems could feed the UK without problems if people were to eat a diet containing more fruit and vegetables, and less meat, especially from cows fed on grain rather than grass.

The National Farmers’ Union has the ambition of reaching net zero food production by 2040, and said its members are working to do more to work the land in a climate-friendly way. As it stands, Pretty says, there are only an estimated 2,000 farmers practising the technique in the UK.

Back at Huxhams Cross, O’Connell is taking stock of all they have achieved in the first five years. “We are what they call carbon negative, so we sequester five tonnes of carbon per year, over and above what we use. Our biodiversity levels have gone up, we’ve got 400% more worms, 30% more bird species.”

And the word seems to be getting out: O’Connell now runs courses on regenerative farming methods and proudly tells how one local dairy farmer in his 50s has just made the switch. “A lot of it is just about having the confidence to understand how it works and to make the leap.”


Joanna Partridge

The GuardianTramp

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