Future proofing the farm

“I don't want to rely on government subsidies

6th April 2022

“The basic principles of keeping soil covered, always having living roots in the soil and minimising disturbance helps you make better decisions for the future of your farm.

Doug Christie runs Durie Farms, in Fife, Scotland. Durie Farms is a family-owned mixed farm, operating a 200 ha mixed organic livestock-based enterprise and 340 ha conventionally farmed arable rotation, using conservation agriculture principles. With the aim of reducing fixed costs and future proofing the farm, Doug turned to direct drilling, stopped ploughing, and started using cover crops and intercropping to improve soil health, increase organic matter and boost biodiversity. The James Hutton Institute are interested in the work being carried out on Doug’s farm and have set up trial sites to monitor the soil.

Doug at Durie Farms

One third of Doug’s farm has been organic since 2006 and after visiting some forward-thinking, regenerative farmers in the USA back in 2014, he also started mob grazing four years ago. Doug reflects, “[The visit] really opened my eyes to doing something different with the cattle, keeping them moving, which meant long rest periods for the grass. It’s been a no brainer and worked very well for me.” On the other two thirds of the farm, Doug hasn’t used the plough since 1999: “I’ve been direct drilling for 10 years now. Although it’s important to note that direct drilling in isolation has not been the answer – I quickly realised that. Integrating cover crops and increasing the diversity of the crops themselves makes it all work better.” When Doug first stopped ploughing, he was experimenting to begin with; “I made a lot of mistakes, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do that because you learn from them. Luckily, I was in a situation where I had a little flexibility to make some mistakes, but not much because I don’t have any other income at all on the farm.” Doug hasn’t diversified his farm as he believes there should be no need to do so if farmers are paid a fair price, “Farming should be a primary industry, we’re producing food and surely that’s more important than having to diversify?”

“I made a lot of mistakes - you shouldn't be afraid to do that because you learn from them.

Doug became interested in the soil health of his farm through reading and membership of BASE-UK (Biology, Agriculture, Soil & Environment). He thinks the farmers he learns about through BASE-UK are novel, with many travelling around the world and learning from others. Farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange is important, “I could spend my whole life in a bubble on this farm, but I’ve learned most when visiting other farms and speaking to farmers who are doing things differently.” Doug iterates that he is not solely interested in soil health as things cannot be done in isolation, “it’s just one way of reducing inputs.” Whilst Doug admits he has made many mistakes on his journey to better soil health, he does not view them as barriers but instead challenges to be overcome. “I’m not one for trying something new and saying after a year ‘I’m never doing that again’ or ‘it doesn’t work’. There’s always a reason it hasn’t worked. Perseverance is very important. For example, if we look at direct drilling, you hear of so many farmers after one or two years giving up and saying it doesn’t work, but there are ways and means of making it work. Keep on tweaking your system. Perhaps you’ve got to introduce cover crops or deeper-rooted crops as well.”

“I've learnt most when visiting other farms and speaking to farmers who are doing things differently.

Doug feels what he is doing is not common among farmers. He reflects, “When I first started, I felt a bit in isolation, but there’s definitely more movement to go down this route [of reducing inputs]. I think it’s going to be a slow transition and it’s about mindset change. But it’s not my job to change farmers’ minds, I’m just explaining what I’m doing and thanks for coming along. I’m not wanting to be evangelical about it, I’m not doing it for everybody else, I’m doing it for my farm here. You get comments like ‘you can’t farm green if you’re farming in the red’, and I know a lot of farmers have got themselves wound up with borrowing money so they’re beholden to the banks. They daren’t take the risk of farming differently at this point, if they change things there’s a worry they might go bust.” Although Doug thinks a transition to low input farming could be sped up if fertiliser prices keep rising; “If prices stay high then farmers are suddenly going to realise they will have to change and look into more sustainable and resilient farming systems because the sums will stop adding up and money will run out quickly.”

Doug explaining his journey to better soil health: On-farm event, Durie Farms

Doug’s motivation for reducing inputs and improving his soil health comes from a desire to future proof his farm and ensure his business is sound, without relying on government subsidies. “I don’t really like subsidies and they can be a barrier to change. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great having that buffer every year, but is it sustainable? There are so many other spheres calling for government money that are perhaps more worthy, like the NHS and education. But if government is to support agriculture, I think it’s wrong to support farming systems that degrade the soil - and that has been what’s happened in the past. Much of the UK’s best soil has been degraded over the years and farmers are still reaping subsidies off that land. So, I think public money for public good is important.”

“I think it's wrong [for governments] to support farming systems that degrade the soil.

When asked what advice he would give to farmers considering a transition to low input farming, Doug said, “I think every farm is different. What suits my farm may not suit another. But the basic principles of keeping soil covered, always having living roots in the soil, increasing species diversity, minimising disturbance – whether that disturbance be through cultivation or chemicals – helps you make perhaps better decisions for the future of your farm. It will improve your soil, improve biodiversity and improve the ecosystem benefits which the farm provides to the wider community, whether that be clean drinking water of less diffuse pollution coming off the land. Because if you’re just growing spring sowing crops, why not having something growing in the winter? Why just have something growing half the year when you could use the land for the whole year? For example, putting in an overwintered crop, then introducing sheep or livestock into the rotation provides many benefits to the soil and ecosystem.”

“I'm in it for the long-term and I think farming is a long-term game.

He admits, “I do take a financial hit farming this way. I think I would be able to make more money if I rented the whole place out for vegetables – but at an expense to the soil. If the whole place was rented out for vegetable production over time the soil would suffer, and it would take time to regenerate.” Doug emphasises, “I’m in it for the long-term and I think farming is a long-term game. If I was renting land for 5 years, I might not farm this way. That’s the big dilemma – if someone is renting land and being asked to pay a large rent, they’ve got to be focused on profit all the time rather than experimenting with the soil health of land which doesn’t belong to them. The point is, for now, you can produce crops which degenerate the soil, destroying it over a short period of time. It’s like planting a tree – if you’re a tenant farmer and you plant a tree, you’re not going to see it fully grown. So, if you’re on a short-term lease, it’s understandable why someone may think, what is the point in planting a tree? It’s different if you have land long-term. For example, my father planted many trees in the 1960s which I am benefitting from now, through keeping cattle in the woods or harvesting timber. The whole agricultural setup is complex.”

Doug showing the impacts of his journey to better soil health: On-farm event, Durie Farms

Interestingly, Doug’s biggest hurdle in farming is recruiting strong employees; “I’d like to see a proper education system in farming. Many of the local agricultural colleges have gone downhill, or they’re running equine or greenkeeping courses, not focusing on the more fundamental things like producing food. I think there is a bright future for anyone wanting to go into farming – but land is held by very few people. Interestingly, many of the most innovative farmers I’ve seen are the ones who haven’t come from a farming background. They have no preconceptions about the sector which can hold you back. I’m no different – my grandfather and father both farmed here, and there is a bit of a set attitude. It’s important to get both young people into farming – because of the ageing population of farmers – and innovative thinking back into the sector.” Looking to the future, Doug is considering his options, “I’d like to get livestock back onto the arable rotation. Or perhaps I convert the whole place to organic and therefore shallow plough a bit more. I would also like to do a bit of agroforestry and I’m always looking to reduce my reliance on nitrogen and synthetic fertilisers further. But ultimately, I still want to make money from farming.”

More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.