GF Blog 24 – Week 14

April 5th

Conversations and Correspondence, mostly about land management. But also Godiva, Olivia and Capulet Stories, nothing to do with history or Shakespeare!

Farmers Weekly article
Farmer comment – it breaks my heart to see this

My first conversation – with Bridget Whell, dairy farmer and Chair of the NFU in Cornwall

When our Valentine’s Day walk was cancelled in February Half Term, because of the dreadful conditions underfoot, my colleague Heimke and I offered to run the event on Easter Saturday. At that time we were assuming that – by early April – wet ground would be a thing of the past. But (you know what I am going to say) … we were totally wrong! Easter Weekend was a damp squib, a few hours of sunlight but still largely miserable. And, as a result, few of us have been able to make headway in the garden, or – with more serious implications – on the farm. 

Bridget sent me her photo and explained, for a dairy operation the impact of all this rain is even worse than it might be for a beef farm. Cows need high energy feed, high in sugars, and such grass is at an early stage of growth when being grazed. Even though the air temperature is warmer now and grass is growing fast, neither animals nor stock handlers can get in to graze it or cut it. They dare not put cows out in many of the fields, and have to eke out the remaining sileage feed. Oh, and the slurry pit is constantly full 🙁  

There was more to our conversation, but before I tell you the rest, I wanted to establish if this situation is only in the West Country. And it is not. There are similar problems all across this country and threatening many others, around the world.  

India 2019 – incessant rainfall caused extensive crop damage across the states of Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka
Limpopo South Africa, 2022 – received nearly 4 x as much rain in December, as it normally would

Lincolnshire report in Farmers Weekly – echoed this evening on Spotlight TV

Further heavy rainfall over the last fortnight is increasing farmers’ concerns of an impending harvest catastrophe. Following relentless rain since October and more heavy rainfall on the horizon, harvest prospects are looking bleak.   https://www.fwi.co.uk/arable/further-wet-weather-raises-fears-of-harvest-catastrophe

Farmers who were unable to plant winter crops in the autumn had been banking on a decent dry spring to be able to plant those same fields with springs crops. But the prospects of establishing spring crops are looking increasingly slim as fields are waterlogged and the soil structure is severely damaged by continuous wet weather.

Spring crops planted late always pushes back harvest, which has an impact on the grower’s ability to establish next year’s crops in the ground on time. Late-drilled spring crops also tend to perform badly in terms of yields and quality.  Crops sown last autumn are now needing nitrogen and other ‘ag-chems’, but the current wet ground conditions mean these operations are not happening in some cases. This will have a further impact on crop yields and quality.

Prospects for drilled winter wheat crops are poor due to waterlogging and some of these fields will need to be replanted with spring crops. Last year’s spring was similarly wet, which meant some crops were late drilled, as was the case for Lincolnshire grower, Andrew Ward.

The majority of Mr Ward’s spring crops were not planted until 20 April and the following two months were very dry which was disastrous for yields. But reasonably high commodity prices cushioned the blow. However, this spring farmers are facing rock bottom commodity prices which will hit farm profitability hard. “We are fortunate that we have a farm on Lincolnshire heath which has free-draining sandy soil over limestone,” said Mr Ward. “We have been constantly changing cropping in order to fulfil current malting barley contracts.”

But this is in stark contrast to the high clay and silt soils on the main farm at Glebe Farm, Leadenham, where only 50% of the planned winter wheat was drilled. Mr Ward has always intended to plant spring wheat and spring oats in any fields not planted with winter wheat. But he has “real concerns” about the prospects of establishing these crops with the current soil conditions not improving.

Any fields not planted with spring crops by 10 April will remain fallow following last year’s bad experience. This will enable a lot of remedial cultivation work to be carried out in the summer, which in turn would mean an early start to drilling for next year’s winter wheat crops.

Reading further in the article, there were a few less gloomy developments. For instance, last year the sugar beet suffered the same abnormal conditions, but still managed to return a reasonable yield. And a new crop, being trialled in partnership with a Warwick University study saw planting of the first ever beans for the UK baked bean market. This proved such as success that the area planted is increasing from 6ha to 77ha this year.  ‘As the beans do not need to be drilled until early May, Mr Ward is confident these will go in on time.’  I think his optimism should be cautious. What if it just continues in the wet mode endlessly?

British Beans – new market opportunity, for Capulet, Godiva and Olivia!  

https://www.farmersguide.co.uk/arable/can-british-grown-baked-beans-fill-the-break-crop-gap/#:~:text=Capulet%20is%20a%20small%20white,cooking%20market%2C%20predominately%20for%20curries.

September harvest, dry pods
Oxford Uni excellent little film, of BeanMeals

With processors paying up to £985 per ton for imported haricot beans to make into baked beans and the UK consuming 2m tins per day, the market opportunity for farmers is clear. The challenge is to learn to grow a crop traditionally produced in the prairies of America and Canada with little reference to how it grows best in our maritime climate. There are more than 40,000 varieties of beans in the world to choose from, so which should we try for our climate?

Professor Eric Holub at The University of Warwick recently set up tests of three haricot bean varieties bred for the UK climate – Capulet, Godiva and Olivia. Capulet is a small white bean, traditionally the preferred type for baked beans. Godiva has a blonde colour, and Olivia is black. Both are larger than Capulet and tend to be used in the cooking market, predominately for curries.

This new trio of dry beans could serve as important ingredients to help our food system deliver for new trends in public health using British seed, soil and sunshine. Known in the market as Navy Beans, until now the British staple has involved thousands of tonnes of dry beans being imported each week from the US, Canada, Ethiopia and China.

Previous attempts to grow navy beans commercially within the UK were unsuccessful due to incompatibility with growth in the British summer. However, Professor Holub has now registered the 3 new varieties of ‘URBeans’ in his trials, as being fully adapted and suitable for growth in this country.

Two of the URBeans in their unprocessed form, Godiva and Olivia, will already reach shelves in 2024, to be sold from independent zero plastic stores in the Midlands. By evaluating consumer uptake, results will show the scale of production required as well as the wholesale and retail prices for profitable small and medium-sized enterprises along the supply chain.

A key ingredient to serve public health

Leading into this next section, to my surprise I learn that an estimated 25% of UK adults are now following flexitarian, vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan diets. Which is why this ground-breaking agricultural achievement could be important as source of alternative ingredients.

Flexitarian is about including 5 food groups in your diet – the “new meat” (non-meat proteins like beans, peas or eggs); fruits and veggies; whole grains; dairy; and sugar and spice.

Arising from these recent trends to diversify into more climate-friendly ingredients, demand for plant-based proteins is on the rise. In response, currently, the food industry is heavily focused on marketing meat substitutes. Often these products fall into the ultra-processed foods (UPF) category which are typically associated with high levels of fat, salt and sugar (FSS) and a lack of essential nutrients such as soluble fibre.

Improving the nation’s gut health

High FSS and fibre deficient diets are linked with obesity and associated co-morbidities including type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. Emerging research is also indicating that consuming high amounts of UPFs could be damaging to our health, particularly that of our gut.

In 2021, it was estimated that over 25% of UK adults were living with obesity yet were not meeting the recommended nutritional intake. This decreased health span is a huge burden on our health services and poses a major complex global issue.

Unlike a significant proportion of meat substitutes, pulses are low in fat, salt and sugar and don’t contain any cholesterol. They are also naturally high in protein, iron and prebiotic dietary fibre recommended for maintaining gut health. The average person in the UK consumes only 60% of the recommended dietary fibre intake. Therefore, UK production of dry beans could provide a key, easily implemented and plant-based ingredient to serve public health.

Increasing food diversity

Until now only 2 types of pulses, fava beans and dry peas, have been grown commercially here. Therefore, the newly developed URBeans could provide an easily accessible and locally grown alternative.  As the entire cycle from planting in May to harvest in September only takes 100 days, this is a new crop that can be integrated into rotations, with benefits from fixing nitrogen so quickly.

In the context of UPFs, there is a preference for the dry beans, now included in another trial called

BeanMeals

Capulet and Godiva currently feature in ‘BeanMeals, as part of the £47.5 million Transforming UK Food Systems (TUKFS) Programme, which is funded by UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund in collaboration with Oxford University and schools in Leicestershire. If you watch the film, it shows children engaging with a new, informative board game called BeanTopia (? I think), which the children seem very happy to play. And their smiling faces indicate they approve of the meals, as well.

https://ukfoodsystems.ukri.org/research-projects-training-reports/thinking-beyond-the-can/

Most challenging’ winter in living memory

Back on the land, and still in Leicestershire, Joe Stanley, head of sustainable farming and knowledge exchange at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT) Allerton Project, described this winter as the “most challenging” he had ever experienced in farming.

Travelling around the country, he says farmers are in the same boat of “waterlogged fields, atrocious winter cropping, huge areas of unplanted stubbles and green cover”. Soil erosion is at an unprecedented scale and tramlines “look like they have been hosting tank manoeuvres from snatched fertiliser applications”. With climate change set to make winters warmer and wetter on this model, farmers are really going to have to think hard about how they can make their system stack up under this sort of pressure.”

Bridget again

I asked her if she is aware of an upcoming film event at the Newquay Community Orchard, TR7 2SL, called Six inches of Soil – https://www.sixinchesofsoil.org/story-of-the-film  (Thanks to Bruce of Cambridge for sending me this). As expected, Bridget was already aware of the project and the Cornish farmer involved. She is keen to see the film so we may well head to the screening together next FRIDAY April 12th, 7 – 9.30.  Perhaps see you there?  https://newquayorchard.co.uk/whats-on/six-inches-of-soil-film-screening-panel-discussion/

Six Inches of Soil is a story of 3 new farmers on the first year of their regenerative journey to heal the soil and help transform the food system – Anna Jackson, a Lincolnshire 11th generation arable and sheep farmer; Adrienne Gordon, a Cambridgeshire small-scale vegetable farmer; and Ben Thomas, who rears pasture-fed beef cattle in Cornwall.

As the trio of young farmers strive to adopt regenerative practices and create viable businesses, they meet seasoned mentors who help them on their journey. They are joined by other experts providing wisdom and solutions from a growing movement of people who are dedicated to changing the trajectory for food, farming and the planet. Our farmers will have to navigate a broken food system, farm in a landscape degraded by industrial agriculture and learn how to reconnect people with the soil, where their food comes from and how it is produced.

The regenerative approach to farming is always painted positive, but Bridget had to admit that these conditions are so extreme even the pastures for beef, with more mature and stronger grasses involved (shown below) may not be coping well. She mentioned mob-grazing, which is when grazing animals are moved on almost daily – Moved to fresh pasture every day or so, they don’t return to the same grazing area for weeks or even months. Grazing grass in this way, as the old farmers knew, benefits not only the animals but also the health of the land, the wildlife, and the wider ecosystem.

The topic of mob grazing involves far more information than just moving animals. It is a topic to which I hope we can return another day, but right now – to find out a little more, at Bridget’s suggestion, I typed the name Dr. Hannah Jones, of Farm Net Zero into a search. The result at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cornwall-65808350  is a very interesting BBC report, if you have an interest in this amount of farming detail.

Mob grazing area, fenced off for the group
Fortunate break between the rain, in Fowey

When summer finally comes …

I think, at our centre, we will have good news at last. The proposed schedule of ‘Story Walks’ in Fowey and Par were both put into first gear this past week, with a book launch on Tuesday and a story telling/tree planting in Par the following day. Both sets of stories contain a final section on climate hope possibilities along with lots of history. Both went down well, so having an attractive, hard-copy item in my hand may be an easier option to sell than guided walks or centre visits. Fingers crossed, this new approach can prove successful.

Wildlife Trust strategy to 2030

In her role as Chair of NFU Bridget attended an event at Helman Tor nature reserve, to set out future aspirations by the landowner, Cornwall Wildlife Trust. You may recall that I was working with their beaver officer last autumn, walking to think about future introduction of beavers in 2 quarries and that is when I realised the special temperate rainforest status involved. Well, those wild beavers have jumped the gun. ‘Someone’ has released one or 2 (most likely a breeding pair) illegally. In the local papers the trust share a statement:- This is not how we wanted beaver reintroduction to happen at Helman Tor”. There is now careful surveying of the site underway, including the use of wildlife camera traps, to confirm that the animal is present.  

Yesterday I met another lady who attended the Helman Tor Strategy day, that was Susan Allen. Over tea in Truro, she told me how she volunteers at the headquarters of the trust each week and reminded me of her own specialism, butterfly preservation.

We both agreed it is vital that the trust proceed as swiftly as possible with work to protect St Austell Bay against Desalination damage:-

St Austell Bay, home to one of the largest known subtidal seagrass beds in the UK, which – despite its importance for marine wildlife and carbon capture – has no formal protection.

Work here will be complemented by activity in the Par catchment to reduce pollution entering the sea.

Winding up a pleasant hour of conversation, I am happy to say the outcome was our agreement to jointly offer another happy/hopeful summer activity, a butterfly walk from Meadow Barns .. probably in July. I am thinking we might also involve Ecology Training group, and possibly give the walk/talk a title in dedication to a gentleman farmer, who loved this area of nature and heritage and passed away last week. Praying now, for his family and – every night, for a weather turnaround and arrival of proper, decent sunshine!

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