Last talk of our winter series focuses on the challenges of farming… and also the joys
The final talk of our CPRE Essex winter series, entitled Challenges of Farming: Past, Present and Future, was presented by Christy Willett, formerly billed on these pages as an AHDB farmer but who had in fact given up that role in 2020.
No matter, she stressed her time with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board – she had run her site as a monitor farm since 2017 – had been wholly worthwhile and she had learnt much.
Ms Willett farms 475 hectares (almost 1,200 acres in old money) at Galleywood near Chelmsford with son Hew, a fifth-generation farmer.
Ms Willett was herself following in her father’s footsteps – she was one of four daughters and there were some misgivings at her choice of direction, not least because farming in Essex can be so hard.
The family had moved to the county in the early 1900s – her parents were from Ayrshire and Lancashire and part of a movement that followed the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.
This action had seen the axing of tariffs on imported food and cereals – a situation exploited by the United States, which took advantage of cheaper shipping costs in allowing it to export large quantities of cheap grain to this country. Such was the effect that our dependence on imported grain grew from 2 per cent to 80 per cent.
Swathes of agricultural land were laid waste as tenant farmers moved to the cities. Accordingly, farmers were offered land rent-free or very cheap, sparking a movement of people from the West Country, northern England and Scotland to the South East.
Her family took on Galleywood’s Parklands Farm, buying it from a gentleman named John Rimmer, who subsequently emigrated to Australia.
It was notable, said Ms Willett, that farmers were supported during both world wars, for example with the Dig for Victory in the Second World War.
Among the anecdotes she shared were the tale of the Scottish sheepdog brought down to Essex. Her father had kept his links with Scotland and asked for a trained dog from the old country. The dog duly arrived but failed to respond to any of the traditional commands, simply standing still… until eventually her father tried clicking his fingers. That did the job!
Her father also had milking cows but, with a national surplus of milk, farmers were being offered £1,000 a cow to ‘get out of milk’. This made sense as it was becoming a struggle to find staff to carry out the milking. In 1982 the last of the cows departed Parklands Farm.
Today there is very little machinery on the site and no spraying unless absolutely necessary. Some choices are almost made for them – for example, fertiliser now costs £700 a ton, up from £72 in the 1990s.
Son Huw has embraced regenerative farming and is not afraid to try new things, whether it be different crops or ways of cropping. He will always ask why do we do that, for example the castration or docking of lambs. The why question, of course, we can ask ourselves in life generally.
Sheep assist with the regenerative farming, while cover crops mop up nutrients and the roots improve the soil, which now has 4 per cent organic matter – a tough thing to do. The land is not ploughed – rather, seed is planted directly into stubble. This approach also contributes towards net zero.
As ever, agriculture faces challenges. One is Veganuary and the criticism from many in the vegan movement of beef production – however, they were looking at the American feedlot system [where animals are kept and raised in confined conditions] rather than the grass-fed animals of the UK, said Ms Willett.
There is much talk of rewilding, but we have to be careful how big an area we ‘lay waste’ to agriculture.
As for solar farms, should they really be sited on good agricultural land?
Ms Willett lamented the fact that everywhere you went in Essex there seemed to be a new roundabout and houses, as well as new roads. We needed a balance in the way we looked after our land.
By 2027, farms will lose their final EU support payments – something Ms Willett backs.
There will be greater payments for environmental stewardship, but there should also be compensation for such measures as taking field corners out of production and leaving them for wildlife.
Market volatility could make things difficult – wheat, for example, could range from £88 a ton to £260 a ton.
So what of the future?
Diversification would have a big part to play. The latest initiative at Parklands Farm is a two-acre dog field. It has proved highly popular, with dog-ownership having increased so much during the pandemic but not everyone knowing how to train their newly-acquired pets.
A 6ft fence ensures Fido and his pals won’t be able to make a break for it, while a picnic table and shelter allow the owners to relax… all for just £12 per hour.
Happily, we were told, people using the dog filed tended to be responsible, picking up any mess, shutting gates and arriving and leaving on time. Win-win!
A challenge for agriculture, though, is the need to feed more people from less land, with yields having plateaued.
The country is 100 per cent self-sufficient in wheat and about 60 per cent self-sufficient in food generally. However, we can’t take this figure too high as there will be years of poor harvest, so we need to keep import links.
Returning to energy, Ms Willett said we needed alternatives to fossil fuels, noting that just one rotation of a wind turbine can power an average house for a day.
A term we have all been hearing recently is Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), which is effectively a trade-off where developers can only win planning permission if they agree to an area for BNG that they will enhance for wildlife. Ms Willett has been approached a number of times by interests wanting to buy the farm for such purposes.
She stressed the need for a reconnection between town residents and country dwellers, who need to tell their story. Social media could of course help with this, while Jeremy Clarkson’s TV series Clarkson’s Farm had proved engaging and entertaining.
As many took to the countryside during lockdown in 2020, the footpaths on Ms Willett’s farm had been busy, giving the opportunity to talk to visitors, many of whom were seeing lambing for the first time.
In similar vein, we were told about the excellent work of the Country Trust, which brings out youngsters from inner-city London who had never seen a farm before. This was also a reminder of how privileged people in the country are to have space.
Yes, farming has challenges, but there is joy as well. And of course we’re on the land for just the blink of an eye…
Questions from the audience ranged from the possibility of farming new crops in response to climate change to the role of women in farming.
Ms Willett said that as we had a temperate climate we would always be able to farm a crop regardless of change. Soybeans might be a future possibility, but as yet we did have quite the necessary temperatures.
Meanwhile, there were now more women in farming, although there were still some misconceptions. With so much now being done by machines, there was no need to be “big and beefy”.
We talked about the changing world, with war-torn Ukraine producing 10 per cent of the world’s wheat and the fact that now just 15 per cent of household expenditure was on food… but we have always seen change in agriculture.
Ms Willett said she didn’t think ‘profit’ should be a dirty word and she pointed out that farmers carried out such tasks as clearing ditches and trimming hedges.
Asked about the impact of intensive development on Essex’s water supplies, Ms Willett said she didn’t irrigate her farm and was fortunate that it was sited on London clay – most years there was sufficient water. There might be a point, though, where farmers could be encouraged to dig reservoirs.
And so our final farming talk reached its end. It had been another fascinating evening, enjoyed by an audience of 22, and our thanks go to all those who had shared their wisdom and experience with us. We’re keen to ensure this isn’t the end of things, however, and we aim to strengthen CPRE Essex links with the farming world. One possibility, for example, is a group visit to a farm, while we’re open to suggestions… you can always email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Enjoy the spring!