Towards an agroecological future

“Greater intensification? That’s a big concern. The Wye is almost dead from it.”

Leominster, Herefordshire

“Greater intensification? That's a big concern. The Wye is almost dead from it.”

We visited Ben Andrews at Broadward Hall Farm in Herefordshire to see an established agroecological farm and talk to Ben about where he sees farming going in the future.

Ben in the kale field at Broadward Hall Farm

Ben Andrews runs Broadward Hall Farm in Herefordshire with his dad Colin. Ben is the fourth generation of his family to farm at Broadward Hall which is now a mixed organic farm with 600 acres in total. 450 acres is tenanted and has been organic for 20 years, on which they finish beef cattle, grow organic vegetables, cereal crops - like wheat and barley - and more recently organic flowers. Ben explains, “It just seems like a no brainer to be organic, because - being a mixed farm - we have manure from the cattle sheds which provides great organic matter and fertility for the vegetable crop. We have straw as a by-product from the cereal crops which provides bedding for the cattle during winter. We have flood meadows...[which] in the spring and summer are very good at providing a lot of grass. That nice little nutrient cycle keeps it all ticking along without being beholden to fluctuating prices of various inputs. I think the most successful farms going forward will be those that are most resilient to changes, whether that be inputs, weather, the commodity market. We talk about food security for the UK... we should probably be applying the same mindset to our own farms - not entirely closed off but able to survive.”

For Ben’s family, the transition to organic was straightforward. He says, “There were things we had to learn in terms of pest control and other management techniques, which we're still working on now... but it just seemed like an easy thing to do, because we were doing a lot of it already.” Ben emphasises that you cannot do one thing in isolation, “If you’ve stopped ploughing or you’re direct drilling but still use glyphosate, it’s not regenerative. You need both, so vastly reducing tillage whilst also reducing your inputs is necessary.” His current focus is on building organic matter in the soil; “We’ve got the manure from the cows, plenty of straw going on the fields, clover ley. We are going to start with herbal leys to get something deeper rooting in the soil to reduce compaction and build better soil structure.” He explains, “If you aren’t using synthetic fertilisers, you do need living soil because without this you can’t grow anything. It just doesn’t work.”

“You need living soil because without this you can't grow anything - it just doesn't work.”

Looking to the future, Ben is broadly happy with the way the farm itself works and is encouraged by the new Sustainable Farming Incentive; “We’re looking at the SFI and thinking we’re actually doing a lot of it already.” He feels “it’s probably a good thing that we can show farmers, who may feel daunted by reducing their reliance on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, that it is possible. Although, you do have to get out of a conventional mindset and work with nature, trying things like increasing beneficial insects for pest control.” His concerns for the future lie more with other farm businesses in Herefordshire and beyond, and how changes to regulations and subsidies might affect them. “There's a diverse range of farmers in Herefordshire. There are a few like us, then there’s the big intensive farmers, who have been farming in a similar way since the 80s and 90s, when you had pretty much guaranteed prices and it was easy to make money. There’s also numerous but fairly small hill farms in the county, who again haven't really changed anything... and I think they're probably the ones to worry about most, getting left behind.” He is concerned the small hill farms may struggle with the transition away from BPS “because it’s such a big chunk of farm profits” and as a result might get “swallowed up by a company looking to offset their carbon guilt or another big farmer looking to increase their acreage.”

Beyond Herefordshire, Ben worries about the risks of changes pushing agriculture towards sustainable intensification – with some areas (like the East and South East of England) increasing production while other areas are rewilded. “Greater intensification? That’s a big concern.” He points out that areas of intensified food production are often linked to increased pollution, which is particularly evident where he lives: “Because of the water and air pollution the poultry units are kicking out, the phosphate levels in the rivers around Herefordshire are astronomical. The Wye is practically dead from it. My husband open water swims in The Wye and has spent two days sick in bed afterwards from the poor water quality.” Ben thinks changes need to happen across the whole sector to mitigate the nature and climate crises, “I'd love to see everyone adopting more agroecological approaches to farming and reducing inputs. For example, we’re perfectly capable of growing more nuts and pulses in this country, if we can do more of that and cut down on the intensive poultry units it would be great.”

“Maybe agriculture needs a bit of a shake-up... but will the shake-up happen in the right direction?

In Ben’s view, agroecology - modern, mixed farming with nature and food production side by side - is the future, but he cautions that it is as much a mindset, as it is about just cutting out synthetic fertilisers and pesticides - “like learning to live with some amount of weed burden.” The field he stands in as he speaks is full of kale and fat hen: “We weren't able to weed the fat hen out properly, but the birds have absolutely loved it. And it's all part of that idea of trying to make space for nature, within the farm, rather than just pushing it all out to the margins.” He’s hopeful that ELMS will help farmers work towards this mindset, encouraging more interactions between neighbours - “For example, ourselves and our neighbours have great woodland, so we want to connect this up and create wildlife corridors between different pieces of land.”

Ben is a fan of the FFCC’s Farming for Change Report and thinks “that is what we really need to be heading for, and it would be nice if the government could really acknowledge that and start helping the move towards that sort of system.” Ben advocates the need for farmers to help themselves. He thinks there is already a lot of information available, and farmers should be seeking it out. “I think the problem with the subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy is people didn't have to change, because they were kept... propped up by this guaranteed payment coming in. And maybe agriculture needs a bit of a shake-up... but will the shake-up happen in the right direction?”

Ben at Broadward Hall Farm

When it comes to the farming community, Ben is encouraged by how he sees it changing – away from the traditional, conservative mindset. “On social media, I’ve noticed a lot of new, smaller farmers – first time farmers taking on small acreages.” With this comes new ways of exchanging knowledge: “I have been able to connect with other farmers through social media. I’ve visited their farms and they’ve visited mine. It’s great to see what others are doing and exchange skills. I’ve found it more useful as a tool than things AHDB have done.” Ben thinks “the countryside is a more diverse place than it used to be” but would like to see the number of new entrants in farming continue to grow, to give people pathways out of “miserable jobs in the centre of London that they didn’t really like anyway”, towards a life in rural areas.

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.