Farming with nature, not against it
Richard Perkins is a sympathetic advocate of farming that works together with nature rather than fighting a full-scale war against it. From his Ridgedale farm in Sweden, he argues that what he calls regenerative farming is not only much healthier: it is also more productive.
Fresh from a recent tour of Luxembourg, where he gave a series of talks to small farms and at institutions, such as the Agricultural School in Ettelbruck, he talked about the many young farmers he got to meet who want to work with nature. It is these entrepreneurs who earn both white-collar salaries and incredible quality food - sold directly to local consumers.
Raised in rural England, Perkins grew up in a family without farming connections, but with a strong emphasis on "free range". Nature shaped his childhood, rather than the TV. Growing up without the distraction of media, he spent his formative years observing and learning from nature. Aged 15, he says, he already knew he wanted to be a farmer. Yet on completion of agricultural school, he was left with more questions than answers. Ever since, he’s been on a quest to find solutions to the massive issues plaguing modern agriculture.
The world's staple food supply is now made up of a very narrow range of crops, and a combination of global commodity markets and government subsidies make it hard for industrial size farmers to transition to a different model.
"Most conventional farmers are not making money at all, they are just surviving on subsidies, and the cost of the predominant model of extractive farming is the destruction of our soils, water-cycles and natural habitats - it is a failed system," Perkins said. A recent UN report called to repurpose billions of dollars in global farming subsidies that destroy wildlife habitats and fuel the climate crisis and the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy system of farm subsidies has been criticised for the same reason.
Let the microbes do the work
Traditional farmers work as technicians, Perkins says, overusing pesticides, prioritising monocrops and genetically modified seeds, feeding livestock unnatural feed and holding it in unnatural living conditions. He sees the farmers of the future becoming "stewards of the landscape". Small farms support communities, create local jobs, improve the health of the land and are the bedrock for a more resilient food system.
The foundation, literally, is healthy soil. The majority of "diseases and pathogens [in nature] are pretty much always asleep, they only wake up when given the opportunity, when we till soil or add agrochemicals". Soil microbes, like bacteria, protozoa and fungi, are the ‘essential workers’ of the farm industry, he says. Their virtues unsung, they decompose dead matter and recycle nutrients to build better underground communities and increase soil vitality. Small really is mighty.
He advocates for a simple solution: find what is best for the land, rather than changing the land to suit.
Using the example of an apple tree, Perkins illustrates his point. Apple trees originate from the forests and foothills of mountains in Western China and Kazakhstan. They prefer mixed woodland where the soil acts quite differently than the grassy fields we tend to plant our orchards in. While many many eco-organisations are touting tree planting as a quick fix to complex climate problems – and making money from it - it’s worth noting that the right tree in the wrong place is never going to work. You need to know the flora and fauna you are working with, Perkins said, to know that what you are doing really will have an impact.
In Luxembourg, Perkins met several small so-called Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) businesses, such as Terra and Krautgaart. They are good examples of enterprises making a solid living off the land - even by Luxembourgish standards. The growing season here is longer than in Sweden and land is used effectively, doubling productivity.
"The CSA movement really is inclusive in Luxembourg," said Perkins. Many small farming businesses have an open door policy, making them well-liked in local communities. The ‘Private. Keep Out!’ signs familiar to us from farms of old have been replaced with welcoming spaces where parents can bring their children to select fresh food that, invariably, the whole family eats as a result.
For something so essential to our daily lives, we know remarkably little about how our food is produced. What we get at home is sterile, and wrapped in plastic. Regenerative farming gives the farmers behind that food a face. Perkins talks about putting the nobility back into farming and this is where regenerative agriculture makes a difference: suddenly, it’s Pit’s parsnips we are eating or Kate’s flowers we use to decorate our cakes.