Wildlife film maker Rebecca Hosking investigates how to transform her family’s farm in Devon into a low energy farm for the future, and discovers that nature holds the key.
With her father close to retirement, Rebecca returns to her family’s wildlife-friendly farm in Devon, to become the next generation to farm the land. But last year’s high fuel prices were a wake-up call for Rebecca. Realising that all food production in the UK is completely dependent on abundant cheap fossil fuel, particularly oil, she sets out to discover just how secure this oil supply is.
Alarmed by the answers, she explores ways of farming without using fossil fuel. With the help of pioneering farmers and growers, Rebecca learns that it is actually nature that holds the key to farming in a low-energy future.
There were some wonderful things in it, but afterwards it raised a number of disturbing thoughts. But let’s start with the wonders.
She visited a smallholding in Snowdownia (Eryri), where the owners had taken some worn-out pasture, and over twenty-two years had transformed it into a very productive small farm. First, they had allowed much of the woodland to re-grow, and then created clearings in which they managed animals and vegetables. The whole area was like a piece of temperate rain forest (it can be wet in North-West Wales), and harvesting from what is effectively a multi-storey field allowed apparently very large yields per acre. Cattle were not only fed on the grass, but on ash branches from the tree canopy. The tallest trees may seem to be otherwise unproductive, but their roots bring up nutrients from the deepest layers, and their root fungi shunt nitrogen from areas of surplus to areas of deficit. About potash I didn’t catch, but phosphorus is recycled by seed-eating birds in the form of guano.
In this and other smallholdings, biodiversity, in the form of mostly native species, is actively encouraged. Flowering plants cater for pollinating insects and predators such as hoverflies, while Khaki Campbell ducks are the most efficient at eliminating slugs.
She then showed us supermarkets with oil-consuming transport networks providing bread made from grain which required energy-dependent fertilizers, and had to be dried at considerable fuel cost. She compared this with one farm in the South of England (I think) which could produce almost sustainable chestnuts with the same nutritive value as the grain from a field the same size. If this were to be the future, our diet would change back to one more like a Mesolithic one, from before the time when agriculture spread to these islands from mainland Europe.
Now comes the disturbing part. This kind of food production is much more labour-intensive than today’s agriculture, and lots of people would have to “re-ruralize”. Today’s urban youth “wouldn’t like it, Captain Mainwaring”. Indeed, we might become a much more parochial society, and while I myself don’t even like to travel outside Reading, I do enjoy meeting people from six continents. And would the speedy international communication, of the type I am enjoying right now, become a thing of the past?
And what kind of society would we have in Britain? Would there still be a reasonably standard British culture, or would there be a “Cambrian Explosion” of cultural diversity, such as Huckleberry Finn and Jim encountered on their travels, some of it not nice? Or would we be like the Amazonian Indians, vulnerable to invaders with a more centrally dictated society?
At the end of the programme, she mentioned the possibility of government action to bring about the necessary changes. And this really gives me the heebie-jeebies. In the second half of the twentieth century, there were two major experiments in “re-ruralization”. The better-known one is Mao Zedong’s “sending to the countryside” which took place during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (Wúchǎn Jiējí Wénhuà Dà Gémìng). But the most thorough experiment was that carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, in which the entire urban population was driven out into the countryside. They called themselves Reds, but as my Ould Da used to say, they were really more like fanatical Greens.