Nature-friendly farming in the uplands

"I went from revved-up farmer to farming with nature", says Hywel

20th October 2021

“Owning a family farm is like a hot potato. My grandad had it and gave it to my dad, dad gave it to me, I want to give it to my son.

We visited Hywel Morgan at Esgairllaethdy Farm in Carmarthenshire, who is part of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, to learn more about running a nature-friendly upland livestock farm and his concerns with mass tree planting initiatives in Wales. Measuring about 230 acres, the farm is home to Llandovery Whiteface Ewes, Highland Cows and Hereford Cross Cows, and includes 50 acres of conservation grazing, 25 acres of native woodland, as well as grazing rights on adjacent common land (Mynydd Du).

Hywel at Esgairllaethdy Farm

Hywel took over the family farm from his dad in 2005, which had been run conventionally, relying on bought-in fertiliser and feed for decades. It was only through a chance encounter that Hywel learnt about different methods of farming, “I had a conversation with a guy selling trace element. He'd just make up a little packet of minerals and mix it with water and dose it to lambs. The first thing I had noticed was there was no more dagging lambs in the summer, and I thought, this is brilliant.” And his respect for regenerative methods grew from there: “I just trusted him. He was asking, ‘why do you use fertiliser?’ and I would say because I need to grow grass. ‘You don't need fertiliser to grow grass’ he said. ‘Of course, I do’, I said, ‘it gives you more grass’. ‘It gives you more green colour' he said, 'that's about it'. He lent me a book of stories of people around the world growing fantastic crops and food without chemical inputs. I was really fascinated.”

Because of the expense, “I always questioned it - do I need this fertiliser?”

As the years passed, money was tight at times. Because of the expense, “I always questioned it - do I need this fertiliser? But dad's always using it, so I've got to keep on doing it. Because I looked up to him.” Then in 2018, Hywel decided he wanted to do something different. "I applied for the Agri Academy Rural Leadership Programme and got selected. One woman on the interview panel encouraged me to go on a management exchange, funded by Welsh Government, through Farming Connect. For part of my exchange, I visited regenerative farmers in the Cotswolds, did a holistic management course, and went to France, Brittany, to see organic farming out there.”

He’s emphatic about the importance of learning from others: “You're learning and sometimes you think, oh no, I can't do that on my farm but then I think, well there's an element that I could do. The farmer I visited in France, he was the president of the organic society in Brittany. A fantastic, knowledgeable guy and I learnt so much from him. Even though he was growing crops, I could relate to it. And I also went to Groundswell. Listening to these people I've been watching on YouTube for God knows how many hours late at night. That's when I thought, what I believe in, it’s possible.”

“I went to Groundswell... listened to these people I've been watching on YouTube for God knows how many hours. That's when I thought... what I believe in is possible.”

Once Hywel came back from his exchanges, he started doing some trials on his own farm. “Just half of the fields with fertiliser… but I didn't tell anybody, didn't tell dad... and I can remember looking at the field and I knew exactly where the line was, and I thought, I can't see the difference.” After that, he decided to give it up entirely. “It was going up in price, that made my decision easier. For three years now, I haven't used fertiliser. And the year before, I only used half. But the transition has been tough.”

“Turnover and costs are down, but my profits are actually up a bit.”

The decision is paying subtle dividends for the business too, “Turnover is down, but my costs are down. My profits are actually up a bit. Last year, my accountant told me off for cutting back feed and fertiliser… I said, ‘I think this is the way forward.’ She said, ‘No you're totally wrong.’ But this year, she was telling me that, as farmers, we need to cut back on fertiliser and feed. I tried to tell her that last year!”

Hywel at Esgairllaethdy Farm

Whilst Hywel’s transition to more nature-friendly farming is proving a success, he is becoming increasingly concerned about the large amounts of land in Wales being bought up by corporations and investors for mass tree planting, as a method of offsetting their carbon emissions. “We've got nothing against tree planting, but the fact that corporations, city investors, solicitors, lawyers are buying up so much land in Wales - in this 20-mile radius - just to plant trees, it’s not good.” Hywel questions how these initiatives work in practice, “If, for example, British Airways buys land in Wales, plants it with trees to offset their carbon emissions… does that make Wales carbon positive, if the credits are registered in England?” Hywel has strong views on carbon offsetting: “It's just an opportunity for rich city slickers to make some money,” he says, “and it's encouraging them to do that by buying up Welsh hill farms. It's complete rubbish. Those farms mean jobs, a way of life, food on the table for people here, they just mean a quick buck to city investors.”

“I've got nothing against tree planting, but who is benefitting?”

Using land for mass tree planting can also threaten the local community and limit opportunities for the next generation of farmers. Hywel says, “Foresight is one company that’s buying up a lot of land, on behalf of larger companies. I got involved because there’s land coming up for sale near me. I’ve always wanted it… as a child I could see it from my bedroom window. I’ve got a 30-year-old son who wants to take the farm on. Getting a bit more land was part of the plan, but it didn’t happen. I’ve got to compete with tree planting money now. As farmers, we’ve got to compete with this city money. Mass tree planting is destroying communities.”

In some cases, tree planting projects are also subsidised by Welsh government’s Glastir payments. “There’s a businessman, he’s buying farms around here to plant trees, to offset carbon. He’s using Glastir money, applying for grants to plant trees. He’s getting tax relief for buying agricultural land, and then he’s subsidised by the Welsh government. He’s turning this into a pension portfolio. The money goes across the bridge, out of Wales. So, we’ve got to ask: who is benefitting?”

“Mass tree planting is destroying communities... if we plant trees everywhere, what is going to happen to the communities?”

Hywel talks to MPs and AMs about some of these issues, “They asked, ‘what can we do about it?’ I said, firstly, if you live outside of Wales or if you’re not an active farmer in Wales, you shouldn’t qualify for Welsh public money.” Hywel explains that AMs have said they want farmers to plant trees, rather than investors, but they have trouble getting them to. He continues, “There’s a couple of things stopping them. We’re often tied into contracts... which for me, doesn’t allow trees to be planted on most of my fields. Then you’ve got this big hurdle, where a farmer has bills to pay and the farm needs to run as a business. Does this tree planting reward farmers enough financially? After the 12 years or whatever of payments for planting trees, you’ve got this block of woodland. Does that generate enough money? With Sitka spruce, in 25 – 30 years you can cut it and get a cash crop, but farmers can't sit on this money for that long.”

Hywel at Esgairllaethdy Farm

Arguably, agroecology is a solution to this challenge, allowing farmers to plant trees amongst crops or livestock, gaining an income from both tree planting and food production on the same piece of land, building a more resilient business. A Landworkers' Alliance report has shown it is possible to meet government targets to double UK tree cover from agroforestry on farmland alone, which has the potential to sequester the UK’s annual emissions. This has huge socio-economic benefits, as Hywel points out: “Farmers are programmed to produce food, if we plant trees everywhere without integrating food production, what happens to the communities? Is there a need for farmers? All of sudden, there’s no purpose, no work, and that affects our families, our communities.”

Ultimately though, Hywel is working just as much for his family and his community as for his farming business, and he wants both to thrive. “Owning a family farm is like a hot potato. My grandad had it and gave it to dad, dad gave it to me, I want to give it to my son. It’s not easy managing a farm financially. But there’s no point being the richest person in the community, with everybody else struggling, if you’ve got nobody else to get fish and chips or go to the pub with.”

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.