As I look back over the records of the past 70 years at Mindrum, I see some changes, and some things which have changed less. Mindrum has always been a relatively marginal farm, and we have always managed it with an ear to the ground. At a strategic level, our core business model has changed little in the last 70 years, we are still an extensive mixed farm which produces Sheep, Cattle and some Grain.
Granted, we use more technology and evolved doctrine now; chemical, ecological mechanical advances have changed the way that we work at a tactical level, but our overall business model has changed little.
It is, perhaps, interesting to note that though our strategy has been relatively constant over the past, government policy and resultant view of “best practice” has changed significantly, and not in a constant direction.
I note that in the 60s, 70s and 80s, our attempts to conserve hedges and plant balanced woodland were frowned on by followers of best practice. Records show that in 1949, Government intervention directed the farmer of the time to plough out 5′ Roman Earthworks – something that would never be considered now. Over the past two and a half decades, policy of successive governments (and the associated “best practice”) has moved far the other way and now acknowledges much of the work that has been done. This is exciting as a number of the schemes in place enable us to do more than the market has allowed in the past. This having been said, overly prescriptive policy is still often a limiting factor which fails to take into account local conditions.
As an example, some years ago, an RSPB report produced by my Natural England Field officer concluded that ground within 500m of a wood was not suitable habitat for lapwings, brown hares or grey partridges (co-incidentally some of our target species). This was picked up by some of our Natural England advisors and presented a problem for us; we have many small woodland blocks, adjoining every field on the farm and as a result have no ground which is deemed appropriate. This came close to overturning one of our environmental projects.
Further investigation showed that the survey in question had been conducted in a part of the country where woodland is rare and widely spaced. This created a concentration of predator species in the isolated woods and created the impact area that was described. By attempting to apply this finding, out of context, in an area where predators were widely but thinly spread, “Best practice” very nearly overturned what has become a stunningly successful agro-environmental project over the past 10 years. Only 3 weeks ago, whilst leading a farm walk, we saw a flock of over 400 lapwings (they have now packed together) flying between our flooded mosses.
The world is a diverse and dynamic place
Agriculture is at an inflection point, facing a range of pressures from market, society and the environment. The future contains much uncertainty but also much opportunity. Farming has always been about managing a balance of strategic, regional and local factors.
In today’s world, we face a number of strategic challenges ranging from climate change to food security, from soil health to bio diversity. We shouldn’t forget that farmers also need to make a living if they are to be sustainable. Some of these challenges are as old as history, some are relatively modern.
It is easy to generalise about agriculture, but those of us privileged to work with the land know that we ignore the view of the land at our peril. Global generalisations will always fall if they fail to acknowledge local conditions. This simple fact lies at the heart of many of the climate challenges the world is facing. We do have global challenges, but many of the solutions are local, and different localities will provide and require different solutions.
We are lucky at Mindrum in that much of our ground, whilst well suited as permanent grass, is not suitable for many other arable applications. This extensive grass, carefully managed with minimal artificial inputs, provides a sustainable food production system that benefits the environment.
There is much more we can do, however and we are running a number of Research projects to try to further improve the balance we are adding. These include a number of Silvopastoral projects which seek to increase the number of trees on pasture. This not only further enhances the balance, but provides significant health benefits for the animals grazing the ground and Island Ecosystems to enhance the overall biodiversity of the farm.
We are also looking hard at the use of BioChar and have developed a Flame Cap Kiln model which enables us to produce Charcoal effectively on a Farm Woodland Scale. This charcoal, or BioChar is introduced into the cycle through food and bedding and serves to enhance the wellbeing of the animals, enhancing soil health and providing an effective method of carbon sequestration (much more long term than planting trees).
Our existing woodlands (every field on Mindrum has some form of Agroforestry in, on or beside it) are also at an exciting stage. The Majority were originally planted as shelter belts from the 1960s onwards, and are now being enhanced to provide a range of diverse habitats, whilst the thinnings providing sustainable fuel for the farm biomass boiler and biochar kiln.
We are also looking hard at our production models with a view to changing our operation to suit the needs of the market. We are changing our suckler (Beef Cattle) herd to smaller British cattle, producing the smaller, quality cuts of meat that the market is now demanding. Shorthorns, for example, originated in the North East of England before becoming a global breed, so there is a pleasing cycle.