Mandy Barber is researching and growing perennial crops, which don’t have to be dug up and replanted every year. Image: Riverford Farm
Standing beside a polytunnel in the middle of a farm in rural Devon, I’m holding a cucumber I’ve just plucked from the vine. It’s more compact and firm than the long, watery kind you’d usually find in a supermarket, but as I take a bite, the only word I can conjure to compare the enhanced taste to these standard varieties is: “more cucumber-y”.
My unrefined palate is hardly surprising. Like millions of other Brits, I grew up in an urban environment that left little room for thought about where my food came from, let alone how it was grown. Ed Scott, the man who had lovingly grown the organic cucumber I was now eating, admits that he used to be the same.
“Before I came to work at Riverford Farm, I didn’t know cucumbers actually had a taste,” he chuckles.
Scott has worked on Riverford organic farm in Devon for almost two decades. During this time, he and a small army of horticulturists, pickers and sustainability experts have endeavoured to produce fruit and vegetables in a way that doesn’t wreak havoc on the planet. It’s been no small task.
With so many people so far removed from food production, much of this damage has continued quietly and under the radar. Yet with a food, climate and biodiversity crisis now in plain view, farming is being forced into a rethink.
Across the UK, farm businesses like Riverford are attempting to turn the tide, learning to grow food in a way that works with – not against – nature, while conserving biodiversity and avoiding food waste.
Their success or failure will have huge implications for all of our futures. Down one road, we risk losing fertile land altogether. Down the other, we may just find the key to food security without destabilising the planet.
‘The biodiversity on farms is gone’
Though debate still rages over how much happier or healthier farming made human beings, without it, the society we know today simply couldn’t exist.
Yet as population grew, so did demand for food, and modern farming has largely been a story of increasing intensification and mechanisation in search of ever-higher yields for ever-lower prices.
From insect-killing pesticides and river-killing fertiliser to the release of carbon through tilling, multiple harvests, intensive livestock farming and the compaction of land with machinery, modern farming techniques have destabilised the soil and the natural environment, leaving roughly a third of the world’s soil acutely degraded today.
Many people hold onto a childhood image of a friendly farmer with a pig, a cow and a field of crops. Yet most farmers today are forced to specialise, says Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Farm.
“The direction of travel since after the Second World War has been towards single-enterprise farms,” he explains.
“Even within horticulture most people don’t grow a range of vegetables, you’re a specialist fruit or salad producer. That means the biodiversity on farms is gone.”
The situation has arisen out of “the cheapness of food and economies of scale”, says Singh-Watson, with farmers facing enormous pressures to produce high yields in order to make their operations economically viable.
This pressure to produce leads to a whole range of environmental headaches, even for the most seemingly innocent of crops.
You might think buying British-grown tomatoes is the right thing to do, but chances are, they’ll have been grown in an artificially heated polytunnel or greenhouse. They may also have been treated with fertiliser, which can run off into rivers and starve ecosystems of oxygen, or sprayed with pesticides that kill off beneficial insects alongside the pests.
Once harvested, the crop might then have been razed out of the ground, waste burned, and a fresh crop planted straight in, giving the soil no time to recover.
Then, they’ve likely arrived at your supermarket in plastic packaging, which often ends up in landfill even if it is recyclable. At the end of this process, it might actually have been more environmentally friendly to have your tomatoes shipped from Spain.
And that’s just tomatoes. Intensive livestock farming is an even bigger environmental disaster, eating up vast amounts of land, producing tonnes of methane emissions and polluting the natural environment with toxic waste.
Yet it’s only relatively recently that we’ve begun to understand the true extent of the damage farming has done, especially when it comes to soil health.
In the 16th Century, Leonardo da Vinci was quoted as saying “we know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot”. It remains true today.
Singh-Watson sees this partly as a problem of farming seeking simplification instead of working with nature’s complexity.
“I think trying to simplify everything is the root of a lot of the problems. All ecologists will say that stability comes from diversity and complexity. That’s why we’re trying a different form of farming,” he says.
‘The amount of life you’ll see is amazing’
Riverford operates under organic standards, meaning it doesn’t deploy pesticides or artificial fertilisers, but the farm goes much further than the boundaries of this certification, trying, wherever possible, to farm with the lightest environmental touch.
Here, the compost is both the start and the end of a cycle, with all farm – and packaging – waste ending up here to be broken down and reused to help crops grow.
This compost is shared across a wide variety of crops grown at Riverford, from strawberry fields to leeks, spring onions, cucumbers and tomatoes.
Though some veg is grown in plastic polytunnels, Singh-Watson refuses to heat them like many other farm businesses do.
“It’s environmental insanity – heating a single-glazed greenhouse in February to 20 degrees,” he says.
As the crops grow, pests are kept away not with chemical sprays but by the introduction of predatory insects. Rows of wildflowers planted between crops, meanwhile, are part of an effort to build up a natural, self-sustaining population of these insects.
Riverford and its suppliers are experimenting with minimum tillage (avoiding disturbing the soil) to cut carbon release from the ground, while sourcing electricity from renewable sources, using irrigation responsibly and leaving grass strips between certain crops to avoid runoff into rivers.
The business strives to do all this without exploitation of the people making it possible, with 74 per cent of Riverford farm employee-owned and all staff – including pickers – paid at least the real living wage.
Perhaps most exciting of all, Riverford doesn’t just strive to farm with minimum damage – it’s also committed to “regenerative” agriculture wherever possible.
Harriet Bell, Riverford’s regenerative farming lead, says regenerative farming is a broad church, but does have one basic principle: “You’re ideally not just putting back what you’ve taken out – you’re doing more than that, you’re improving things”.
At Riverford, this manifests itself in lots of different ways, from growing walnut trees in a silvopasture system on land unsuitable for veg to the rotation of crops with cattle and fallow periods to allow the soil time to replenish and recover.
At Baddaford, Singh-Watson hosts Mandy Barber, who runs a small business named “Incredible Vegetables”. Here, Barber is researching and growing perennial crops which don’t require pulling up and replanting every year, like many other crops. Eventually, Singh-Watson hopes to carry the methods over to Riverford.
This kind of farming, says Singh-Watson, is the kind he’s “most excited about” – and with good reason.
Perennial crops, which include many types of berry and some vegetables like kale, don’t just avoid the need to disturb the soil. They can actually draw down carbon from the atmosphere, as well as enriching – rather than depleting – soils.
As climate change alters growing seasons and the weather, Barber says she’s seen a “massive surge in interest” for these hardy crops, which will be vitally important for food security in the future.
Best of all, perennial crops are much better at accommodating biodiversity. Standing by Barber’s greenhouse, Singh-Watson points out the evidence in view around us.
“If you look down carefully, the amount of life you’ll see in the grass is amazing. I think it’d be wonderful if we could produce our food in this way, a way that’s complementary to wildlife.”
Asked whether he’s proud of what he’s achieved at Riverford, Singh-Watson pauses. “Some of it,” he says, with a wry smile.
Singh-Watson is open about the fact that he doesn’t have all the solutions, while the business isn’t yet as sustainable as he would like, largely due to commercial pressures.
“I’m very proud of Riverford, but I do think we’re halfway between Incredible Vegetables and a supermarket. We have pressures pulling us either way,” he says.
Singh-Watson admits to “dark corners” of Riverford’s supply chain that he’d like to improve. Usually, this is the result of working with large-scale producers.
Perhaps most controversially for some, Riverford also offers meat and dairy to its customers, sourced from organic farms.
Environmentalists like George Monbiot have argued that organic meat is actually most damaging to the environment due to the large amount of land it takes up proportionate to the product yield.
“[If] meat were to come only from regenerative farms, it would be so scarce that only millionaires would eat it,” Monbiot recently wrote in a Guardian article.
The debate is a huge source of contention among farmers. For Bell, it’s the “how” (i.e. how the meat or dairy is sourced) rather than the “cow” that’s most important, though she and Singh-Watson are in agreement that meat and dairy consumption should fall in general.
Aside from the produce itself, another common critique of organic and regenerative farming is that it can’t be scaled up. It’s a claim Bell refutes by simply pointing out that Riverford is itself “a pretty large and commercially successful example” of nature-friendly farming.
She adds, too, that technological advances are making it much easier for bigger producers to use less damaging agricultural practices as “smaller scale robotics” become more accessible.
And if technology won’t push some, climate change and the economic downturn might.
With the price of fertiliser skyrocketing, Riverford is “laughing” thanks to its reliance on compost, Scott says.
Perennial crops, low till methods and more stable soil, meanwhile, can help guard against carbon release, biodiversity loss and land degradation while – it’s hoped – providing fruit and veg varieties resilient to a changing climate. For those thinking long-term, they may become a necessity.
For hundreds of years, humans have been digging, compacting and ultimately destroying the land, bending it to our will in service of growing food.
By changing tack and embracing the complexity of regenerative agriculture, says Bell, we can start to repair the damage we’ve done – while protecting our basic need for nutrition.
“Regenerative agriculture isn’t just about food. It’s about serving our ability to respond to the climate crisis in a way that protects our nutrition as well as protecting us from extreme weather events,” Bell says.
“The potential of redesigning the way we think about farmland [is huge]. Yes we can deal with the biodiversity crisis, we can deal with the nutrition crisis, we can respond to climate change.
“That’s the most exciting thing about embracing the full potential of complex regenerative agriculture systems.”