Regenerative farming must be profitable in a changing world
Farming’s culture is being challenged by the so-called regenerative agriculture movement, with its role in shaping resilient and profitable farming futures at the heart of the debate, a packed audience of Future Farmers of Yorkshire heard at the Great Yorkshire Showground.
Some 240 farmers and allied industry professionals took part in a lively Spring Debate held by the Future Farmers of Yorkshire network, a group supported by farming charity, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society to bring together like-minded farmers, vets and industry supporters.
Farmers were asked to consider whether they can carry on farming in the same way they have done for decades, at a time when farm input costs have reached all-time highs and existing farm support payments are being phased out, amid an ever-growing population and the challenges posed by a changing climate.
Regenerative agriculture approaches have been adopted by some farmers as a way of adapting to these challenges, with ‘regen ag’ perhaps best defined by prioritising soil health on farms. Its key principles are avoiding soil disturbance, keeping the soil surface covered, keeping living roots in the soil, growing a diverse range of crops and incorporating grazing animals. At the Spring Debate, a panel of industry speakers examined these principles as they answered the question ‘Is regenerative agriculture the future for all UK farmers?’
Opening the Debate as Chair, Andrew Meredith, Editor of Farmers Weekly, recognised that Regenerative Agriculture is a divisive topic. Andrew, a former beef and sheep farmer in Mid-Wales said: “If we are honest with ourselves farming is definitely a club, but sometimes it is a bit of a clique, and if I was guessing as to your motives for why you have come here this evening, it’s because regen as a topic has attracted a lot of contention; it is seen by some farming people as a bit of a challenge to the clique.”
Picking up the topic, Alastair Trickett who runs a mixed arable and sheep farm near Leeds defined regenerative agriculture as “a way of farming which seeks to mimic nature as closely as possible whilst also achieving a sustainable profit for your business”.
Alastair, a co-founder of Grassroots Farming which supplies beef from regenerative farms to restaurants, argued that all farms will be regenerative in the future because of political will to incentivise environmental outcomes on farms and meet net zero targets, public interest in the environment and climate change mitigation, and the direction of corporate business.
Alastair said: “Over the last three years, corporates with combined annual turnovers of $1.4trillion have made public commitments to procure from regenerative farms. That should be making every single one of us sit up and think ‘am I going to be swept up by that, or am I going to be a little island on my own?”
Bradley Sykes, a first-generation farmer based near Selby, who has a contracting and farm business growing potatoes, carrots, wheat, barley and peas, said regen ag is a reinvention of farming practices of old. He emphasised the need for regen practices to equate to profitable farming.
“If you look back to our ancestors and what they were doing with rotation, incorporating muck, crop rotation; everything they did is what we are being told to look at now,” Bradley said, adding that he believes he already farms regeneratively by, for example, not ploughing to plant potato crops. Bradley concluded: “If regenerative farming helps our system to create profit, then we should do it, but if it doesn’t, why are we bothering?”
As a grazier in Aberdeenshire, Nikki Yoxall collaborates with landowners to help them achieve regenerative goals using cattle as ‘ecological engineers’ to boost plant species diversity, habitat creation and carbon sequestration.
Nikki believes the benefits of regenerative agriculture are becoming clear. She said: “Again and again we hear from farmers that moving to regenerative systems has reduced the need for inputs, both to the land and animals. Animal losses have reduced, fertility is up, systems are more resilient, and the business has more scope to cope with shocks and change. For the last century, farmers have stressed the top line and prioritised increasing production. Regenerative agriculture addresses cost and sees profit as more important than production.”
Doug Dear, a fourth-generation farmer at Osgodby Grange near Selby, explained why he believed it was crucial to remain adaptable as a farmer amid evolving trends and challenges, and why he would not be dogmatically tied to regenerative agricultural principles.
“A phrase I use is ‘adaptive till’, so that’s min and max till, some ploughing and direct drilling on my farm. Whatever suits the crop and the land on the day. Nothing is set in stone. Everything is geared towards efficiency. An acre covered for the least cost is the way forward. Our main driver in the business is profit.”
Doug, whose family run arable and animal feedlot businesses, already use manure as a natural fertiliser for a wide variety of cropping and uses crops to graze sheep and as feed to finish about 3,500 cattle year. Doug said: “Mixed farming has been rebranded as regenerative farming. What am I going to do when the planet shifts, which it does on a regular basis? I’m going to adapt to survive in whatever form that might take and I’m going to move on.”
Andrew Meredith concluded that a key frustration of regen advocates was that too often its principles get lost in “farming’s culture war”, adding: “This is a brilliant debate within farming, how to achieve margins and business resilience, and I think that’s a debate we should seek to continue to have in the future.”
- The Future Farmers of Yorkshire brings together younger farmers, vets and industry professionals. To join the group, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Registered charity, Yorkshire Agricultural Society (YAS) supports and promotes the farming industry through health care, business, education and funding scientific research into rural affairs
- YAS is supported by its family of businesses including Fodder, Yorkshire Event Centre, Pavilions of Harrogate and the Harrogate Caravan Park as well as events Great Yorkshire Show and Springtime Live
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