Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Farming and health

By George Hosier

Wexcombe Manor Farm, Wiltshire

Wexcombe Manor is a mixed, owner-occupied family farm. George Hosier grows wheat, barley, oilseed rape, peas and beans on around 625 hectares, and keeps a suckler herd of around 50 grass-fed cows plus progeny on 80 hectares of grazing land. He has recently transitioned to a no-till system.

In terms of human health, it all started when I got interested in soil health, and the more I learned about soil health, the more I discovered there is an inexorable link between soil health and human health. It all revolves around the microbiomes of the soil and the microbiome of the gut, which are ultimately pretty similar. Everything we’re doing is about trying to improve the health of the soil.

We started the transition to no-till around 2012. We were trying minimumtill, so we had stopped ploughing and were just tickling the surface, but the seed drill we had couldn’t cope with the residues. While I was looking for a new drill I came across two people who were doing Nuffield scholarships investigating no-tillage systems. One of them put up a YouTube clip of his farm in Gloucestershire, where he was drilling winter wheat into a cover crop of mustard which was about four foot tall, and they were just going straight in with the seed drill. I went to visit these two guys. And then I was powerharrowing at 3 o’clock in the morning, because rain was forecast for the next afternoon and I had to get the field drilled before then. When you’re sitting on a tractor at 3 am and the thing is steering itself, you have a lot of thinking time, and with GPS you can also trawl through YouTube and Twitter. And I thought, why am I doing this? The more I understood about no-till, the more I read around about soil health and that got me thinking about gut health.

Physically, it all benefits my health, and my family’s, because we only eat meat that we’ve produced on the farm, and we’ve stopped spraying insecticides, so we’re not handling as many chemicals. Everyone who works and travels around here, their health is improved by less chemicals being used. And our customers benefit from eating our beef. Mentally, farming is a lot more interesting when you are doing something different, and people are interested in what you are doing. On that front, it’s very good for mental health. What’s less good is when it doesn’t work brilliantly first time, which happens quite regularly. And then we were expecting yields to drop in the transition period, which they duly did, but that came at a time when we had borrowed to put a new grain store up. So my mental health has probably been affected in both directions.

The main reason why more farmers don’t do this is because what they are doing works. Take away the Single Farm Payment and it might not work. Another big thing with the no-till is uncertainty over glyphosate, because our system falls very flat without a broad-spectrum herbicide, and in this country glyphosate is the only one available. Organic farms use cultivation as their weed control – which means disturbing the soil with mechanical means. We don’t cultivate at all, because it upsets the microbiome of the soil, so we spray a chemical instead. After long consultation with various entomologists I’ve come to the conclusion that one spray of glyphosate is significantly better for the soil than any form of tillage. One dose, once a year, just prior to planting a cash crop. I know the problems with glyphosate, and I would never use it on a cash crop, because that’s where the residues can potentially come from.

I wouldn’t have been begun to make any of these changes if I hadn’t been on Twitter. Twitter was the platform that put me in touch with the people who were doing this around the world. Twitter and YouTube were initially the two biggest learning tools, and since then I’ve started reading books. I still have a long way to go to improve the nutrient density of the food I produce, but I feel I am on the right path.

I think there is a need to incentivise people to look after their soil, and I wish there was a really good metric for soil health – it is the key to everything. Animal health is linked to soil health, just like human health is linked to soil health. I would really like to see us working towards improving all three, from soil to animal to human. And we need more investigations into how we can improve the carbon capture ability of the soil. That is a massively untapped service that we could provide as farmers.