John Cherry, Hertfordshire farmer and director of Groundswell farming conference.
Our job as farmers is not to feed the world, despite what the ‘yield is king’ lobby might tell you. Our job is to feed our families, make a profit and produce food people want to eat.
Will Michael Gove’s recent decision to back a full ban on neonicotinoids make it harder for us to do this? I do not think so.
If you ask the average punter whether they like the idea of farmers using neonicotinoid seed dressings on our wheat which can get into the wider environment and potentially harm bees and other pollinators, the normal response is they would rather we did not. Which begs the question why we would want to use these dressings.
Our soil is not some inert medium for growing plants in. It is, in addition to the physical make-up of sand, silt and clay, a hugely complicated ecosystem comprising of billions of bacteria, fungi and higher creatures, all working away to make our lives easier. If we let them.
It has been calculated the ‘good’ bugs outnumber the ‘bad’ bugs by a factor of 1,700:1. So the chances are collateral damage by insecticides will take out a lot of the guys looking after our wheat and controlling potential pests.
Many farmers now find they are routinely applying slug pellets. Could it be they would be better off allowing ground beetles to control them? It may be coincidence, but on our farm we have found since we stopped using insecticides on wheat, our need to pellet for slugs has all but disappeared. We have not been ravaged by barley yellow dwarf virus either. Maybe we are just lucky.
We converted to 100 per cent no-till on our arable land seven years ago, after 30 years of trying to beat the land into submission. What started out as a straightforward cost saving exercise soon morphed into an obsession with our soil. This, it seems, is a common side-effect of ‘going no-till’.
We started the Groundswell event last year to cater for the groundswell of farmers who want to make their ground well, but lack independent advice on how to do it. Talking to a lot of them, we realised this soil obsession is a nationwide, even worldwide, new guiding principle of farming. Except it is not new, but the ability to farm no-till is.
We are now finding the longer we have left the soil alone, the better it gets and the less we have to spend on our crops to get a decent yield. We have had to change our rotations a bit and our mindsets a lot, but it feels like we are now farming properly.
Someone told me the other day farming should be a conversation with nature, not a battle against it, as it is certainly a very valuable ally. Introducing neonicotinoids into our farms is unnecessary, expensive and damaging. There is another way.