• Shillingford Organics Fields of Rainbows

Martyn Reflects on 2018 and Looks Forward to 2019

2018 was a challenging growing year. Firstly, we had not one but 2 ‘Beasts from the East’ in March.  The first being the most damaging, destroying 3 of our polytunnels. Then it continued wet until mid-April, so we were planting our early crops a month late.   Then we had a drought and extreme heat through June and much of July.  At one point we had 55,000 plants waiting to be planted with the soil too dry.  Finally, it rained on July 21st and we planted all the plants in the following 2 days.

The net effect was some poor crops through June and July, e.g lettuce, calabrese, etc., but the ‘Mediterranean’ crops like cucumbers, courgettes, tomatoes did exceptionally well.  After the delayed planting we had enough rain to keep the crops growing, topped up with irrigation. The Autumn/winter crops had done well and are now looking as well as ever.  One of the bonuses of a dry summer is less slugs!

I will be 60 next year and after 18 years of growing organic vegetables, I am going to take more of a back-seat role and the others will be running the day to day work. 

This process has been happening for a while as we have been through a 3-year restructuring ‘self-management’ process, where I am no longer the ‘boss!’   Basically, we have shared out the growing of the crops between ‘the growers’ who are responsible for their own crops from seed to market; with the Box scheme / on line shop and deliveries being run by Irma and Vitalis. 

It is a process of me letting go of responsibility and the others taking on more and more. We have 8 heads all working together instead of one.  And it is proving to be a more effective way of running things.

The Farm School is now a separate CiC and is also running all the events and ‘activity’ days

I am extremely fortunate to be surrounded by passionate and dedicated people with common values.

The soil still gets better and better with time and this year the drought has highlighted the importance of an active, healthy, living soil giving real resilience to the system.  The key is to always have something growing or at least a minimal time with bare soil.  This allows that magical interaction between growing green plants and feeding the soil organisms, thus building ‘fertility.’  We are still ploughing for most of our cultivations, which theoretically damages the soil life however our crops are better than ever, so we are reluctant to change the system. We use the plough because it leaves the soil free from weeds and debris which makes sowing, planting and weeding far more effective. I think the success of this system is largely down to skilled operators, who have years of experience at timing operations.

Politics and farming is full of uncertainty at the moment.  There is no Brexit deal, let alone any trade agreements. You would think that growing most of our produce and selling locally we would be immune from global issues. Unfortunately, if there is tariff free imports there is no way we can compete on price with producers that pay their employees a few dollars a day. And the competitive structure of the supermarket retailers, where price is the key marketing tool will lead to sourcing from wherever the food is the cheapest.
At the same time the Agricultural Bill is passing through parliament, which is seen as a once in a generation chance to structure farming and food in a more sustainable direction.

Subsidies, tariffs and taxes distort the market.  This could be used to positive ends and Michael Gove’s strategy is to give payments for actions for ‘the public good.’

The issue here is that all three need to be viewed together.  At present being part of the EU, we have a subsidy system which pays farmers ‘Basic Payment Scheme-BPS.’  This ends up in the hands of the landowners, either directly or through increased rents. Thus, tax payer’s money goes to Landowners.  This combined with the tax breaks on land ownership of Inheritance Tax relief and Agricultural Property Relief (APR) means together there is a good incentive for affluent people to buy land, not as farmers or growers, but as ‘investors.’  And this is what is happening making the price of land so high that it bears no relationship to the financial ability for a business to pay for the land.

Taken together the mix of taxes, subsidies and tariffs in the context of a globalised food economy has been disastrous.

The net effect of this is that:

Much of the land is farmed by large, existing farmers, who buy or rent in extra land for their arable or dairy enterprise.  To compete on the global market the land is farmed intensively as monoculture, with practically no biodiversity

land is out of the reach of most new entrants or young people with new ideas, drive and enthusiasm.

We have a tax system which taxes people and employers. Yet it does not tax artificial fertilisers or pesticides or large tractors or loss of habitat or pollution.  Pollution costs are externalised, e.g. production of Nitrous oxide, Methane, CO2 and pollution of our water ways are not costed.

A future model would need to have any taxes and tariffs aligned with producing a healthy diet in a sustainable way which is good for the people, planet and ecology. And these subsidies would pay for benefits to society.  
Any subsidy system needs to pay for results, i.e. positive, measured benefits. and avoid being bureaucratic and costly to manage.

30% of the worlds climate change gases are released by the agriculture sector. The Climate change report that came out in the Autumn gives us 12 years to drastically reduce CO2 emmisions. https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/session48/pr_181008_P48_spm_en.pdf.  Reality is hitting home.

The future for us with this context is to keep doing what we are doing, focus on producing good quality and tasty vegetables, harvesting fresh and minimising wastage and selling locally. We plan to engage more with our communities, through our events and activity days, encouraging people to come out to the farm. 

We realise we have to produce food so it is affordable, and we are constantly trying to reduce costs so we remain profitable and hence sustainable.

We are extremely fortunate to be stewards of this wonderful land, in a beautiful location, so near Exeter.

Wishing you joy and love for the future and hoping to see you at the farm in 2019.

Martyn Bragg