I often ask myself what it is that makes our countryside so special. Shakespeare called it a ‘fortress built by Nature for herself’ and travelling round his ‘scepter’d isle’, I find it fascinating to watch how dramatically the landscape changes and how those changes affect the character of people, making the British countryside the unacknowledged backbone of our national identity. It is as precious as any of our great cathedrals and we erode it at our peril.
What I intend to celebrate in this edition of a publication I have long admired is that this rich, natural tapestry does not just happen by itself. The way it looks, the food it produces and the architecture arising from it are the work of those who care for it. That is why our rural communities are of such enormous importance. These remarkable people, often family farmers who have lived on the land for generations, help to make the countryside the magical place it is.
Consider the skills of Joe Relph, one of the people I have nominated as a Champion of the Countryside (page 132). A Cumbrian fell farmer, he has over nine miles of dry stone walls to maintain, much of it inaccessible even by tractor. He has to airlift the stone in by helicopter, but that cost is dwarfed by the value of his skill in rebuilding those walls to ensure the fells retain the unique character enjoyed by countless visitors. We cannot afford to lose such skills and this is one reason I launched my Countryside Fund (page 166) in 2010 with its aim of giving grants to support those who care for the countryside.
It is no surprise that farmers are one of the biggest groups to benefit because farming is facing some of the toughest challenges. It concerns me greatly that the average age of a British farmer is currently 58, and that a recent survey by the Royal Agricultural Society of England suggested we will need 60,000 new farmers in the next decade. I fear it is a target we will not meet and it is why, amongst many other projects, my Countryside Fund is supporting a series of apprenticeship schemes for young hill farmers.
Sadly, farming ranks as one of the least desirable careers for young people and, despite the opportunities on offer, not enough quality talent is prepared to give it a go, which is something the Bright Crop initiative, developed by my Rural Action Programme at Business in the Community, is addressing. What, I wonder, would happen if school science lessons in urban areas made clear that science and engineering are fundamental to a career in agriculture? I know from years of experience with my Prince’s Trust that there are many young people who prefer to work outdoors, so there may be those with no family connection to farming who would take to working on the land.
Farming, of course, is much more than just a job. It is a way of life and most farmers accept that they will not earn as much as they would elsewhere. This does not mean they should be penalized for choosing such a vital profession, and yet small farmers find themselves in the iniquitous position of taking the biggest risk, often acting as the buffer for the retailer and consumer against all the economic uncertainties of producing food, but receiving the least return.
It cannot be right that a typical hill farmer earns just £12,600, with some surviving on as little as £8,000 a year, whilst the big retailers and their shareholders do so much better out of the deal, having taken none of the risk. This has far-reaching consequences. Such is the squeeze on farm incomes that many small and medium-sized farms, and not just in the uplands, cannot afford to make crucial long-term reinvestment, and I fear this will create huge problems in the near future, especially in the dairy sector.
Farmers have taken a battering in recent years. From sheep farmers to soft-fruit growers, hard winters and this year’s very late spring have taken their toll. The pressure from global competition, the effects of climate change and the spiralling costs of fuel and feed only add to the difficulty, not to mention the raft of serious diseases blighting livestock, from the Schmallenberg virus to the scourge of Bovine TB, which can quickly wipe out a treasured herd—and there is nothing more distressing to watch, I promise you, than a family farm going through that experience. Our ash trees are under threat and so, too, our bee population, which suffered a huge decline last year; a third of hives was lost.
The plight of our pollinators, on which agriculture depends, was one of the many reasons I decided nearly 30 years ago to convert the Duchy Home Farm into an organic operation. I could not see how the logic of conventional farming stacked up in the long-term. Bees are insects, so I thought it very short-sighted to spray fields with lethal insecticides. They have now become more selective and, thankfully, attitudes within agriculture have changed in the last 30 years. The farming community as a whole can be a formidable army of committed conservationists and I know that there are considerable numbers of farmers who do all they can to nurture bee stocks, but still we are losing our bees. At the same time, we are not farming in a way that enables nutrients to return to the soil naturally. And this matters.
Research by University of Sheffield this year suggested that if we continue to farm as we do, there are only enough nutrients in the soil for another hundred seasons, so it is plainly not possible in the long term to disconnect plants from the beneficial micro-organisms in the soil. And yet, in the main, this is what we do. Our food production is predicated on a system more dependent upon chemicals than it is upon the management skills of farmers, which is only efficient until you factor in the hidden costs—the damage to the soil and water supplies and its impact upon human health.
We need to remember that to make artificial fertilizers requires vast amounts of fossil fuels and colossal amounts of water—60 tonnes of water for every tonne of fertilizer. Crops engineered to withstand pesticides tend to be far thirstier, and then there are things not yet on the public radar, like the speed at which we are using up the world’s reserves of phosphorous. Within the next century, we may well run out altogether, and that matters because phosphorous is a vital nutrient for agriculture.
If the soil is fertilized naturally in a mixed system, based upon a careful rotation of crops, then nutrients are not so easily washed away, never to be retrieved, thereby avoiding the need for expensive artificial inputs. Nature wastes nothing, nor expends energy on anything that does not serve the well-being of the whole, and we should acknowledge this rather than regard it as a quirk. It is the living part of the soil, the biomass, which does the work. Micro-organisms and tiny bacteria fix nitrogen in the soil and massively extend root systems so that a plant’s uptake of nutrients is increased dramatically. It is these vital creatures that are destroyed by chemicals, and this is why I am such an advocate of a system that puts the health of the soil and the biodiversity it depends upon at the heart of the process. This approach will not solve the crippling short-term problems so many farmers face, but I do believe an agro-ecological approach offers enormous benefits in the long term.
This is why last year I launched a new project to help British farmers improve their productivity using a sustainable approach. The Duchy originals Future Farming Programme aims to put scientists and farmers together to study how to build soil fertility and control pests and diseases using techniques that are free of the escalating costs of fossil fuel-based agrochemicals, but still improve both yields and nutritional quality.
Science is fundamental if we are to make sustainable agriculture more productive, but I believe it is the combination of the best of traditional techniques with the best of modern knowledge that will make the difference we so urgently need. This major research project is funded by profits from the Duchy Originals brand, which is given a profile in this edition (page 186) to explain a little more why and how I started it and what it is trying to do today.
Critics argue that this approach is rather naïve when we have to produce enough food to feed what will soon be nine billion people, but before we automatically apply yet more pressure to the industrial throttles, might we just reflect a little on how else we might fix the problems? For instance, if there is a food shortage, why does the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that in both the developed and developing worlds roughly 40% of the food produced goes to waste? That translates worldwide into £470 billion worth of food every year, which is six times the amount spent globally on development aid. In their most recent report, they found that food produced but not eaten uses up as much water as the annual flow of the River Volga in Russia, it adds 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere—around 6% of total global emissions—and costs producers $750 billion a year. The UN found that much of the problem in the developing world lies in the way food is badly stored and handled before it ever reaches shops and markets, so there is much that could be done before we push Nature’s life-support systems over the brink. And they will be, if we are not mindful in our approach.
I happen to believe we have some of the best farmers in the world. They manage some of the finest grassland, which creates excellent milk yields and produces very high-quality meat, but we cannot go on taking as we do from the Earth without giving something back, nor ignoring what Nature gives us, hence the need to conserve rare breeds.
Some critics suggest my 27-year Patronage of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (page 152) is some sort of romantic attachment to a bygone age, but again, my reasons are rooted in hard-nosed science and face the future. The preservation of these breeds and the characteristics in their genes could be crucial to our ability to farm sustainably. It is worth remembering why such breeds are on the endangered list. Subsidies and cheap grain-based feedstuffs persuaded farmers to move away from cattle reared just on grass, with hill cattle falling out of favour completely.
For very understandable reasons, farmers invested in continental breeds that produce massive carcasses, but these demand huge quantities of grain and protein-based feed. Similarly, the choice of dairy cow switched from one fed largely on grass to a very high-yielding animal that depends on a complicated and expensive ration. It also has a woefully short life.
If you consider that in Nature genetic diversity is a strength, then it is surely very dangerous to narrow down the genetic pool as we have done. In the last century, up to 90% of food genetics have disappeared. You only have to consider the causes of the Irish potato famine to see how vulnerable we become if we depend upon fewer and fewer genes. With all the pressures on farmers to produce more food and with climate change increasingly making its presence felt, I have no doubt we will need the genetic traits in our native breeds so that they can flourish on our grassland and uplands, and even on some of our bleakest Scottish islands, which is why I invited Rupert Uloth to visit Birkhall on the Balmoral Estate and Kate Green to see my work in this area at the Duchy Home Farm in Gloucestershire.
I also asked Robin Page to consider whether our approach to certain wildlife needs serious review (page 180). We simply cannot abandon fragile species that need protection—and not just from intensive agriculture, but from predators too. We have to find ways for everyone involved in the management of land who cares about the future of vulnerable species to work together in genuine collaborations to create far-sighted stewardship regimes that restore to beneficial levels wildlife like upland waders, ground-nesting birds, butterflies and the many songbirds that are now so threatened by predation.
Ultimately, what I hope will be clear in this edition is that a truly sustainable system of farming and a vibrant rural community are mutually dependent. I remember witnessing a powerful example of this in 2001 when I visited the Royal Welsh Winter Fair just after the restrictions on movement had been lifted following the horror of the Foot and Mouth outbreak. It was the first time many farmers had come together for nigh on eight months and I remember officials struggling in vain to persuade them to stop talking so I could give my speech. In the end they gave up—which amused me greatly!
It was a moving demonstration of the social as well as economic importance of farming. It is the bedrock of our rural communities, making post offices, pubs, public transport and local health care absolutely vital to the production of our food and the protection of the landscapes we all benefit from in so many ways. This is why the countryside’s contribution to the national good has to be cherished and sustained. Without it, we will all be very much the poorer.