Maximise the value of land

“Maybe we should be accounting for public goods in equal measure to profit and yield."

10th October 2022

Martin Hamer is a sixth-generation arable and beef farmer and the chair of the NFU in North Oxfordshire. Like many farmers, he was practising agroecological farming long before the term became well known. Why? Because there turned out to be significant value in it – and in more ways than one.

Martin Hamer at Meadowsweet Farm in Oxfordshire.

The aptly named Meadowsweet Farm sits just northwest of Banbury in the village of Horley. Around three quarters of the 150-acre farm is given over to crops such as wheat, beans, barley and oats. A “little of everything” as Martin says. The remaining grassland is grazed by beef cattle.

So far, nothing out of the ordinary. But dig a little deeper into Meadowsweet Farm, and a different picture starts to emerge.

“The cows do their job managing the wet meadows, which we can’t or don’t want to use for crop production.”

The grassland on farm is in fact a wet meadow, a type of wetland where land is flooded for the duration or part of the year. Wet meadows are both incredibly productive, and exceptionally rich in biodiversity – but only if the land is managed for both. The secret to success? Mowing and grazing the floodplain provides high-quality nutrition for livestock and increases species diversity as soil fertility is reduced.

As Martin tells us when we visit the farm, “You’ll see that the cows do their job managing the wet meadows, which we can’t or don’t want to use for crop production.”

When it comes to maximising the environmental potential of land, says Martin, rewilding isn’t always the only option. “If you've got wildflower meadows, and you leave it to become an oak forest, then you've destroyed a habitat by your land management... or lack of it.” He values the diversity of the habitats on his farm too: a mosaic of hedgerows and woodland as well as the “old meadows, some of which have never been ploughed.”

A wildflower meadow at Meadowsweet farm.

For Martin, real value is rarely one-dimensional. Land has the potential to offer multiple, simultaneous and interconnected benefits, if it’s managed with these in mind. Martin explains how a time-saving move into direct drilling ten years ago also brought other advantages: cost savings on fuel as well as significant improvements in soil structure.

“The species count tells us we’re making progress … we’re reversing the decline.”

After entering the High Level Stewardship Scheme 15 years ago, Martin started to try and improve the number of wildflower species in two of his riverside meadows with a small grant to cover the wildflower seeds. And he was making pretty good progress.

But it was only when the Floodplain Meadows Partnership got in touch a few years ago that he was able to quantify the improvements he’s made. They were interested in looking at how he managed those fields from a flood management point of view, but also from a biodiversity perspective. And crucially, they offered him species counts to help track the improvements.

“I thought, well, that’s a great idea because it’s all very well me going down there and thinking that looks pretty, but I’m no botanist.” The Floodplain Meadows Partnership have visited Meadowsweet Farm twice in the past five or six years and have been impressed by the diversity in the fields. “The species count tells us we’re making progress. I remember those fields as a kid and they were full of flowers, but the previous tenant used them more intensively and the diversity dropped. It’s nice to see we’re reversing the decline.”

Now, the wildflowers are a selling point for the farm – hence the name Meadowsweet – and they’ve even started to generate interest from local residents. “There’s a footpath across both fields and people from the village seem genuinely interested to know that we were doing something to improve the area.”

Through regenerative farming, Martin has reversed the wildflower species decline in his meadows.

It’s a great example of how regenerative farming can bring a community together. “There’s a nice buy in from people who live in the village that not all farmers are splashing chemicals around the countryside. It’s about trying to get people to understand what we’re doing – and that there’s a good side it.” In other words, there’s social value to farming with nature, not against it.

“Not all farmers are splashing chemicals around the countryside. It’s about trying to get people to understand what we’re doing – and that there’s a good side to it.”

How can we transition to a farming system where this approach is the norm, not the exception? Some of it, Martin thinks, is mindset. “Straight lines of crops growing right up to the edge might look productive, but the reality is some of your field – like the parts which are wet, steep, under hedges or north facing – are never going to return any profit.”

Another problem is incentives. For years, EU and government subsidies paid farmers according to the area being farmed. “It didn’t matter if the crop was profitable or not, the farmer was paid per square metre.” For Martin, it’s time to move on to a more joined-up approach. “Why bother planting unprofitable, unproductive crops on unsuitable land? Why not do something else on that part of the field, which has an environmental or wildlife benefit?”

The mixed arable and grassland fields at Meadowsweet Farm.

It’s this granular, multifunctional approach that reaps rewards for Martin: “I want my fields to be profitable. I account for what goes into a field, and what I get out of it profit-wise. And sometimes it’s better not to grow crops on that field – or on part of the field – because it's too steep, or facing the wrong way, or it's under a hedgerow.” It’s through detailed accounting that Martin can make more practical, evidence-based decisions on what to do with his land, often finding that solutions which benefit nature make financial sense too.

But as with so many farmers trying to do better when it comes to protecting and restoring the environment, it’s also personal. “I remember playing in those meadows as a kid. I remember what they looked like, and I could see that they were eroding. And I don't want them to disappear for my children and their children.”

Martin’s acutely aware, like many farmers, of the changes happening within the natural environment on his land: the degraded soil, the dwindling biodiversity and the increasingly extreme weather patterns. He believes farmers can act as stewards, restoring the land, if the environmental and social benefits can be valued alongside its role in food production.

“You read about agricultural policy, and you read about public money for public goods. But I think these meadows, and the barn owl and the wildflowers they support are public goods! And maybe that’s what we should be accounting for in equal measure to profit and yield.”

We need radical rethink of how we manage decisions about land. A land use framework would help businesses, communities and decision-makers come to better decisions about land.

Find out more

ore 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.