Farming needs innovation. Ground up, fresh thinking. The type of innovation that comes from naivety, ignorance and enthusiasm. What we really need are new entrants to farming, with new ways of thinking and new ideas. But as a country primarily built upon a principle of hereditary farming, how can this be enabled?
George Young is an agro-ecological mixed farmer from Fobbing, South Essex, UK
My farming vision
“A micro-supply chain farm-to-fork model for food and fibre production, where vibrant, innovative new-entrant producers are fairly valued, and the end product has the highest welfare, best ecological output, and lowest environmental impact.”
The food system needs thorough reinvention. The current norm are long supply chain models where the primary producer (farmer) is a valueless part of the chain. And where that chain dilutes provenance and nutritional value, eliminates seasonality and decimates food culture. Food as fuel only – not as the lifeblood of civilisation.
It saddens me to hear of families eating individual meals (often heavily processed), propped on their lap in front of the television where natural signals to do with fullness can be easily ignored, and where personal taste whims are not challenged, and even potentially encouraged.
To fix the food and farming system, I propose a solution based on synergies and collaboration, with micro-supply chains, communal working, and delicious nutritional seasonal fare as the end product. But most importantly where the few producers in the chain are all valued and all able to make a sensible, but never extortionate, margin.
It is always exceptionally difficult to motivate an employee to do something they don’t want to. It is also similarly difficult as a business owner to really strive to be passionate about an area of business you just don’t love.
My farm as an example
Taking myself as an example: I absolutely know the necessity for livestock within a flourishing, ecological farming model. And indeed on our farm we have ‘store cattle’. But store cattle are only ever a commodity product – despite the fact that the animals on our farm are 100% pasture fed and fully extensive (naturally outdoor all year round).
We buy the animals that the cattle market has to offer at approximately 8 months of age, and when we struggle to grow them further in our extensive system (within the constraints of not taking them over 30 months of age [i]), they go back to market as large store cattle. They might then be purchased by intensive ‘finishers’, to fatten them further, maybe with grain.
This breaks my heart in so many ways: welfare might no longer be as good as I would like it to be; the nutritional quality of the meat is hampered (grass fed animals are high in omega-3 unlike grain fed); and as soon as they are fed grain their environmental impact goes up massively (increased levels of methane produced [ii], and arable crops grown for animal feed rather than human food).
I will clarify here that much as though these welfare standards are not high enough for me, they are considerably better than very many other countries (but I will continue to strive for my gold standard).
To change this type of livestock farming I would need a herd on the farm. This would be a closed herd, where the breeds have been carefully selected for taste, weight (so as not to be too heavy to damage my soils), and time to maturity.
Then I would be able to accredit my herd with ‘pasture for life’, legitimising the nutritional, environmental, ecological and welfare nature of the meat. It would be a product that could be directly marketed with some fantastic USPs. But as I insinuated, I am not a livestock man. I would never be sufficiently interested enough to get to grips with all the nitty gritty detail of managing a herd as well as I would want it to be.
One solution is consequently to hire in a livestock manager. However, this is fraught with issues. For one – try finding a livestock manager! But the issue which worries me most (and would worry many farmers) would be to do with ownership.
Let’s look to new entrants
Just because you have a livestock manager doesn’t mean that the animals aren’t your responsibility. Indeed, as the farmer, you still must know everything about how the herd is run, because you own the cattle. There is nothing tying that livestock manager to stay – they could leave at any time, and the responsibility is on your shoulders. You also have to find the money to pay them!
So instead, how about we look to new entrants in farming and an entirely fresh approach. The common adage is that if you don’t own farmland, you can’t be a farmer. This is a myth we must work hard to debunk. I want somebody to come on board my farm with vibrant out of the box ideas as to how a herd could and should be run.
Someone who can build a business in synergy with my arable business. It is imperative that the enterprise is the new entrant’s own business though. This will motivate them to work hard, produce exceptional products, and have the best welfare.
A ‘stacked’ farming system
These new entrants into a stacked farming system wouldn’t necessarily require their farming enterprise to be a full-time job. There are a number of examples of excellent part-time farmers around the world, and a herd could easily dovetail nicely into certain careers (especially when run extensively). It might also be that a new entrant comes in and runs two or three enterprises on the host farm.
This synergistic model would look vastly different for each of the farmers operating it. It could be as simple as a farm taking land out of arable production for four years, and letting a grazier use it with free reign (and that land rotated around the land owner’s holding).
Or it could be more complex and controlled: where anthelmintic [iii] use is banned, mob-grazing necessitated, and more of a partnership established.
I am not just looking for a beef herd though. My ambition stretches well beyond that. I am looking to create the highest welfare, most broad and diverse, food production system on my farm. I want:
- A calf-at-foot style beef & dairy enterprise, where the calves always stay with their mothers and only the excess milk is taken. The beef portion of this enterprise would be a by-product of the dairy;
- Pastured broiler chickens;
- Pastured layer chickens;
- Sheep (if any new entrant is really passionate about them…from experience definitely not me!);
- Likely some other poultry;
- Pastured pigs;
- Fruit & nut (and sugar) production (I am beginning agroforestry this year);
- An apiary (or likely multiple) for honey production;
- Arable farming (grain, pseudo-grain, seed and pulse production) – this is naturally my baby;
- Market gardening;
- Fibre production for furniture and building (from timber, hemp, flax etc);
- Agro-tourism in the form of glamping / camping, team-building away days, weekly organised farm walks / runs, regular educational school visits (with an education centre), etc;
- Some things I have never even heard of yet!
Alternative financial arrangement
One big issue for new entrants could be a lack of funds to start a business. The capital cost of purchasing a herd could be quite high for instance. To combat this, it would be great to be able to offer a series of arrangements / contracts for how the synergistic relationship between land owner (LO) and new entrant (NE) could function.
The simplest could be where NE doesn’t require funds or has already secured them from the bank. In this instance, a very simple ‘per acre’ contract could be established, with constraints provided by LO (such as avoiding poaching, moving animals daily, certain stocking densities, etc).
Or potentially NE has no funds but some great ideas. In which case LO could invest (Dragon’s Den style) in NE’s new business, possibly with no acre fee whatsoever, but rather a profit share agreement.
I am sure there are lots of other models in between that could all be figured out. [iv]
An online matching service that leads to change
To enable this, I would like to create an online system to link up new entrants with land owners looking to diversify their farm (and most importantly linking land owners and new entrants based on ethos).
This online system would host a series of solicitor accredited contracts to cater for the different models of relationship between NE and LO. And could all be easily tweaked to accommodate different percentage models, acre prices, etc (whilst not undermining the legitimacy of the underlying contract).
What I think could be game changing with this model is the ability to enable change for large LOs for whom such seismic shifts in their farming business could normally be concerning.
Most arable farmers would agree that mixed farming is a much more regenerative farming model. However, personally they are concerned about the logistics of adding stock into their system.
Putting aside my (very idealistic welfare driven) model for a moment; large scale arable LOs having the ability to easily take land out of crop production, allowing it to regenerate, restructure, re-fertilise and most importantly rest over a few years would be revolutionary to our current high input system with its burdensome grass weeds, nematodes, etc. And if it paid better than a standard break crop, everyone would be happy!
Extending to more rural businesses
My ambitions don’t stop at bringing fresh new blood onto farm however. I, like many farmers around the UK, run a small commercial business estate in the redundant (i.e., too small for modern agriculture) farm buildings in the yard.
I hate the fact that conventional farming doesn’t pay, and this form of diversification makes my current ecological farming business (primarily commodity based) sustainable, so it is a requirement.
There are a couple of exciting aspects to this business that I do happily embrace. The tagline to my commercial yard is ‘Enabling local small-businesses to flourish’, and it is not just a marketing line, but something of which I am very proud.
The homes of approximately 60% of my yard businesses are within a ten-minute walk of their workplace (apparently Fobbing and the surrounding area is pretty entrepreneurial!).
And what’s more, the synergies between these businesses are really cool: Someone working in large scale air-con installations teaming up with an insulation installer for instance. So how can that commercial yard model be moved into food production: primarily secondary and tertiary production.
Creating ‘yard’ business for food
In a similar manner to looking for NE in farming, I am also looking for NE in food. And to keep the supply chain short and the food local, those new businesses need to be within the farm yard. The environmental benefit of reducing (and maybe even eliminating) food logistics could be massive.
And so, to list the ‘in yard’ businesses I am looking for:
- Grain processor – dehulling / decorticating, milling, flaking, etc. As it happens, in my instance, this is a business that I am looking to create. But it could be a NE on other farms;
- Mobile abattoir. This will require a huge amount of work with authorities. However, the idea is to have a mobile abattoir that never leaves the farm but is moved to the herd(s) every week or so. And on every visit the entire herd walk through it, to ensure that it is a totally normal, stress-free thing to do (good for both welfare and meat quality). However, every now and then, one animal doesn’t come out the other side;
- Mobile milking parlour;
- Box veg (and fruit & nut) scheme for the local community – from the market garden;
- Cheese maker (plus yoghurt / cream / butter…);
- Furniture maker;
- Jam / preserve maker;
- Juicer / cider making / brewing;
- A tannery / leather worker working with the by-products of meat production;
- Potentially even someone creating hempboard / strawboard for building.
The natural end point is then a farm shop [v], and potentially even a farm pub / restaurant. A long way down the line!
Clearly, many of the primary producers in the model described would suit well to a direct market system (in synergy with the abattoir / butchery secondary producers). I would like for all my producers to have access to a centralised distribution network, but with the focus on the local area wherever possible.
Whether they are dictated to sell under the ‘Fobbing Farm’ umbrella or not I am currently unclear [vi]. I am sure this is something that will vary between different adoptions of my model.
What I am asking of potential customers of the ‘Fobbing Farm Food & Farming Hub’ is to trust me. Trust @FarmingGeorge as the overall auditor of any food produced at the farm. It would be a stamp of approval relating to welfare, ecology, mindful land use, environmental impact and appropriate pricing for all parts of the food chain.
The antithesis to the supermarket model
Just take a minute to think on this food and farming model; the complete anathema to the supermarket model. At most there are three or four stages to each of these supply chains – with every member of that chain living locally, contributing to the micro economy, and creating food with a tiny environmental impact.
What’s more, it turns my farm into a producer of every food stuff (and potentially most building materials too) that we need. Rather than current modern farms that may just produce three combinable grains over several thousand acres.
All the buzz words!
This is a model that I want to test on my farm, but make available online to every farmer and every potential new entrant in farming and in food production. And at a cost and contract resilience that land owners will have the confidence to have a go, even if they just start on a small scale.
The benefits of this model of food are so great. For a start, just look at the increase in the number of people who would be directly working on or adjacent to the land. Think of all the people they would be able to tell about this amazing integrated food model.
Entire food chain education, on farm
For me, the seismic change this could begin would be for education and food culture. With my farm set up like this, I would be desperate to get groups through my door for them to witness the entire food chain. School kids. Groups of adults. The whole gamut.
The general populous of the UK (and many developed countries) need to reconnect with food; need to value it, to stop wasting it, and treasure it for the nutritious, cultural, seasonal delight that is should be.
Proper food, prepared together by family and friends, eaten together (all the same meal) around the kitchen table; stimulating discussion and revitalising culture.
The health ramifications of this can also not be understated: obesity, heart disease and cancer can all be food related. Local, seasonal, unprocessed food will dramatically help with all of these, and take a huge financial burden off our NHS.
Unfortunately, we have at least two generations that don’t fully appreciate the value of food and will be difficult to educate. It is likely that they have somewhat irreversible health conditions that will need to be funded in the short- to medium-term by the NHS.
But this is a long-term plan to alter our food culture and population’s mentality, with health benefits to future generations who grow up alongside this new way of farming.
Questions of cost
One criticism about this kind of small food model is always cost. I absolutely appreciate that.
However, currently the farmer (primary producer) is not able to make a living from their land. They grow a crop with their fingers crossed, not knowing yield or price of that commodity at the end. I don’t know a single businessman who would run their business in that model.
My system would have an uptick in primary production cost of the raw material. However, a combination of tight supply chains, a communal view to equipment use at the secondary and tertiary stages, and thoroughly reduced logistical costs, should mean that the final cost of the food is not massively higher than the supermarket equivalent. Potentially only as much as 10-15%? I think at least a proportion of consumers could stomach that.
Better food security
Personally, I also have other beliefs as to why this model is required going forward. Currently we are about 50% food secure [vii] in the UK.
We are leaving the EU. In all likelihood we will be losing our farm subsidies (which will be replaced by ‘public money for public good’ – which does not include food production). And there is no way that we can compete with the rest of Europe who will continue to be subsidised.
Consequently, I see our food security dropping potentially as low as 10%. However, with the likely influx of US products (produced to much lower food and welfare standards than the UK), I see the demand for well-produced, highest welfare, local food with provenance growing from about 5% to 15-20% of the market. That is where I see this model (and others like it) sitting.
Interlinked micro food networks
The base for this model is obviously a decentralised, un-commodified micro food network. Long-term, I envision all of these food networks to be loosely interlinked. Food security is obviously a major component of what I am trying to achieve, and at a micro scale this simply won’t be possible with any kind of surety.
Therefore, to some extent, sensible overproduction (food waste?) is necessary. But a good network could communicate over and under production, and at that stage work out the most environmental logistical solution in order to keep the population fed. That might even sometimes be trading with other countries – however, that should be the exception, not the norm.
I also understand that swerving the gravity of the supermarkets is an exceptionally idealistic idea. And so, much as though I would like to positively disrupt the food market away from their influence, I realise that is very unlikely.
What is not unlikely is the chance for this disruptive model to influence and improve how supermarkets function, which could only ever be for the environmental and ecological better.
Semi-wild areas with food production
From a whole farm systems approach to ecology and education, I wish to establish a (somewhat) ‘wilded seam’ down the centre of my entire farm. This seam would encompass the footpaths on the farm [viii].
The plan is to create a seam which enables wildlife to traverse the entire farm, with 100% cover all year round. This seam would link up to all the hedgerows (some of which need replanting / extending / widening), and these would run into the agroforestry tree runs.
The end goal would mean taking between 25% and 30% of my farm out of conventional production, but most importantly keeping it in production (ecological, food and fibre).
For instance, there could be semi-wild native orchards within the seam, where at max 50% of the fruit is harvested. And the same can be true of hedgerows planted up with fruits and berries.
Working with scientists
I am consequently also looking to work with universities / research institutes on this project. Much as though I am ecstatic about the boost in ecological life on my farm since my introduction of zero-tillage and zero-insecticides, this is not a scientific measurement.
The establishment of agro-forestry (6m tree runs every 30m with arable cropping or livestock in the alleys between the trees) across the whole farm over the next 5-10 years along with the wilded seam and introduction of all the other stacked primary enterprises (and imminent conversion to organic) should provide some amazing and exciting scientific data.
I am looking for soil scientists to be checking the life in my soils, entomologists to be reviewing insect life, ornithologists, mammologists, and any other scientists who would be keen to research the environmental impact of my model.
This would also include (perhaps most critically in today’s world) carbon scientists to perform grass roots analysis on the carbon impact of pastured livestock, and super low input organic cropping, along with micro supply chain food systems. With importance staked on how interlinked these enterprises are.
The final hurdle for this system will be accommodation for the food and farming enterprises. My farm in Fobbing doesn’t have any additional tied cottages – in fact there is just the one (relatively small) farmhouse where I live.
I would like to see a sensible relaxation of planning laws within the greenbelt (and especially the ‘metropolitan greenbelt’) to enable the construction of housing for people working in these businesses.
It is critical for the model to function that people work and live on (or very close to) the farm. This is important for micro-economy reasons – ensuring that the local pub is frequented once again as the hub of the community; hopefully opening up the opportunity for other small businesses to start within the village and really make the village a functioning entity in its own right, rather than just a commuter village.
There are numerous reasons as to why I think this vision for a potential future farm are so powerful. For one, it puts a fully diverse, resilient, ecological and environmental food production system at its heart. It also acts as an opportunity to recalibrate away from the ‘big food’ conglomerates, and produce food that is delicious, nutritious and of exceptional welfare.
It re-instigates a generations-lost idea of a farm being the centre of a village, from a food and employment perspective, and also educationally. Education is the final winner – and potentially the most important. Having a food and farming hub capable of hosting educational visits and alter the populous’ attitude to food would be amazing, and have untold impacts to the wealth of our country.
George L. Young
A G Young & Sons
07792 508 611
[i] Since the BSE crisis, beef animals could no longer be allowed to be killed after 30 months of age. This rule has been somewhat relaxed now: it is fine to grow an animal past 30 months, but the animal’s slaughter then has additional costs in the removal of the spinal column. Consequently, this is undesirable by the commodity trade, and there is a significant price decrease after 30 months. What is daft is that the animal has not fully grown at 30 months, and its meat is not as delicious as it could be. Also, to put a vegan hat on, it is easy to argue that the animal could carry on being efficient at converting grass to dung (and sequestering carbon) for at least a year more, and it is the waste of a life to be killing it early. It would be interesting to have the environmental analysis performed to find out the optimum age of an animal in terms of carbon sequestration / nutritious meat production within a pasture for life system.
[ii] This is science in its early stages. But I would love to have the methane production of ruminants on my farm (run as a future livestock enterprise) tested and measured against grain-fed, intensively reared stock.
[iii] A type of livestock wormer, commonly used.
[iv] As it goes, an online system to link new entrants to existing land holdings has recently been set up in Austria. I don’t believe it has quite the ambition for a food chain reinvention that I am talking about, but it is exciting that other people are trying to open land up to new farmers with new ideas. www.perspektive-landwirtschaft.at
[v] I am contemplating adding this in sooner rather than later. One idea would be to start with meat and less perishable dry items (dried pulses, buckwheat groats, flours, etc). Meat is useful since it suits freezing and pre-sales well. I could set myself up in my little corner of Essex as a purveyor of the finest welfare meat in the UK, with the best ecological footprint. Environmental footprint would be compromised, but local from the UK isn’t too bad. As and when Fobbing Farm meat products then become available, these less local items could be phased out.
[vi] Potentially there could be some uniform Fobbing Farm branding co-existing with their unique branding, so as to ensure they feel the requisite connection to the product they are selling.
[vii] Food security – the proportion of food consumed in the UK that has been grown within the UK.
[viii] Footpaths are the bane of farmers’ lives – I am currently undecided as to how constricted the footpaths should be within my wild seam. They historically linked conurbations (before everyone had cars). However, their use is primarily recreational now. This is great…in theory. In reality, footpaths are abused – people assume that riding a bicycle or horse is perfectly reasonable behaviour and are often aggressive if challenged. Similarly, they use the farm like a park, letting their dogs off the lead to run riot – regularly disturbing ground nesting birds and other wildlife (dogs on a footpath must legally be kept on a lead or walk to heal if off the lead – this never occurs). I wonder about a solution being to sheep-fence a 3m section of footpath in the middle of the wilded seam and create a number of bridges over the course of the footpath to ensure that wildlife can cross under to access the entire farm. Much as though this causes additional expense, the ecological benefits would be tremendous.