A few months ago, Kate Moore reported on Rishi Sunak’s ‘Farm to fork’ summit. One man who attended was Martin Lines, Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network. His organisation campaigns nationwide for a different approach to farming from the one that prevailed at the summit – and he’s based on our patch. A third-generation farmer, Martin has practised at Papley Grove in South Cambridgeshire for thirty years. I spoke to him by Zoom.
Aidan Baker: How long has the Nature Friendly Farming Network been going?
Martin Lines: We started talking to farmers in 2017. And then we launched in January 2018. We have a steering group in each part of the UK. So, we reckon we represent farmers from across the UK.
Nature the stakeholder
AB: What are the key differences between your methods and conventional farming?
ML: Most of the real difference is seeing nature itself as a stakeholder within our businesses. We recognise that having healthy soil and managing biodiversity will improve productivity and profitability. As an arable farmer, for example, I try pollinating crops, or hosting predatory insects that may aid my crop to increase yields. If I have a more diverse pasture that feeds the livestock a richer diet, the animals become healthier and grow quicker, with fewer vet bills.
It’s finding the sweet spot with each farm – the production they can do whilst also managing the consequences of farming for the environment and climate. Any farming activity will have a footprint, and we need to soften that up.
AB: Do farmers joining have to go through any sort of accreditation process with you?
ML: No. We ask them to sign up to the manifesto. We give them information and support them to see other ways of doing things. It’s all about bringing a collective of farmers, other organisations and supply-chains together to find solutions for how we move forward.
ML: Reaching out to other organisations; evidence papers; bringing conclusions forward with farming practices on the ground. These showed success for the environment, for climate and business because they were minding businesses and trying to put forward solutions that farmers can deliver.
A wide spectrum
AB: What’s the process for an organisation to become one of your allies? Who more often approaches who?
ML: In the early days, some organisations reached out to us, and we were reaching out to other organisations. Over the last 12-18 months we’ve had a lot of people coming to us, to ask us to engage with them. Or they want to support what we’re trying to do.
AB: Your members are obviously going to have a range of views on things like vegetarianism, and energy sources, and right to roam and other environmental dilemmas. What best keeps the peace among them?
ML: Sensible, open conversations. Our membership is a very wide spectrum from fully organic to those taking those early steps of seeing nature both as an asset and their business, and doing nature-friendly farming actions. Farming can deliver many of the solutions, but we need to do it in a sensible, pragmatic way.
AB: Alexandra Topping in the Guardian quoted you, saying farmers would have to “stack enterprises”. What exactly would that mean in practice?
ML: The last generation of farmers had an area-based payment for the amount of land they managed. We are moving away from that to ‘public money for public goods’, and for action payments. So, I’m getting rewarded to do some cover cropping, or improve my soil health, or put some pollinators in the landscape. And we put different options of income and activities in amongst the business and amongst the landscape. So, as a farmer, myself, I’m no longer just thinking about the grain I produce.
I’m producing the grain, but I’m also thinking, ‘Can I slow the flow of water down?’ ‘Do I get a payment for that?’ ‘Could I add some pollinators in?’ ‘Would someone pay me for some carbon that I might be able to capture?’
Then we can set up those enterprises to where we’ve added cover crops. I’ve now bought some sheep in and somebody else can pay me to graze some of my land in between the cropping windows, so that’s another income stream.
There’s much more to get your head around! Not everything stacks well, and you don’t want to top it off to one side.
Bag or bum?
AB: George Monbiot is quoted in that article, too. He dismisses regenerative agriculture as “rebranded ranching”. What’s the best answer to that?
ML: If you’re in East Anglia, to grow a cereal crop needs fertiliser. That either means that I have to buy it in a bag, and that’ll be based on fossil fuel, or I can bring some manure in that comes out of us or an animal. Fertiliser is better out of the bum than the bag.
So, I can reduce my carbon footprint, but the livestock – managing the soil and the cover crop on the grass – produces another food product almost for free because it’s eating things produced within the system. And the livestock also hugely increases biodiversity. Where we have introduced some livestock on the farm, we’re seeing more insects, so we’re seeing more swallows and swifts that feed on those insects.
Nature had a complex system of harvested periods and then fallow periods. A proper regenerative farming system is working within the system of what nature provides. Sustaining where we are with a depleted landscape will not work. We need to rejuvenate and regenerate. And use that language to help inspire farmers to shift practices in supply chains. Rather than telling them, as George and many others do, that everything is bad and you must stop doing what you do, we need to help them to move to better systems and practices. And that takes time.
A more regenerative system seeds that complexity of nature. It works within the landscape. It delivers better food products, better access to nature, a better landscape. We can tackle climate change, we can add biodiversity back into our landscapes, we can do flood mitigation. And change our approach to what farming delivers.
Nature Friendly Farming Network welcomes farmers who are interested in experiments along the lines Martin describes – and also non-farmers who see the point of these. Its website has pages offering training, farmer stories, advice on nature-friendly shopping, and other resources. Worth a look.