A recent visit to Fobbing Farm, on the northern shore of the Thames Estuary at Tilbury, has uplifted my spirits.
Young farmer George Young, returning home from a high-flying career in the City eight years ago, is bringing ideas, life and diversity back to a conventional arable farm. This had been stalling because the direction of travel and reward was ignoring the importance of nature.
Where once wildlife-less, monocultures of wheat and oilseed rape once grew, now there are thick multi-species herbal leys grazed by beautiful red poll suckler cows and calves giving nutrients back to the soil through their excretions, and many different heritage wheats are growing to provide grain for a new stone flour grinding mill, which will go on to make ‘real’ bread. Inspiringly more than 6,500 fruit and nut trees have been planted in long alleyways across the fields, thanks to funding from the Woodland Trust.
George is also doing all he can to tell people what he is doing and why. I visited on one of four farm walks over one weekend to talk agroforestry. He is very active on YouTube and social media and recently chatted on Instagram Live to countryside champion Julia Bradbury (98K followers).
“Agroecology, which is what I am doing, is all about working with nature – using reduced inputs or going organic, which saves costs and is also much better for the soil and the environment,” George explains.
“It is also about circular farming – keeping what might be deemed as waste on the farm and converting it to secondary products. For example, my red poll cows are a dual-purpose breed and I intend to milk them in the future. Whey, a by-product from cheesemaking is an ideal feed for pigs, so a good reason to get pigs in, which in turn provide a means of natural tillage with no need for fossil fuels.
“Finally, it is about food sovereignty. It is about involving people in producing or harvesting food. I have plans for a market garden on the farm and want to encourage people who eat my meat, fruit, nuts, dairy, bread or whatever, to value the food choices they make, because they know where it has come from and how well it has been looked after.”
At every stop on the farm walk George explained a flurry of new ideas and future plans.
He is trialling a wide range of different crops including this year buckwheat and lentils. Cultivations to get rid of weeds will happen in autumn when all the ground-nesting birds and mammals have bred and moved on. Plans for a new pond to supply water to the market garden will be where George can go wild swimming after work to refresh his mind, whilst providing habitat for many insects and amphibians.
The cattle, which will provide highly nutritious 100% pasture-fed meat sold through a box scheme to local consumers, have encouraged at least three types of dung beetle not seen on the farm before. Wild seams linking all the fields will allow uninterrupted pathways for all types of wildlife to criss-cross the farm.
Six-metre-wide alleyways of apples, plums, pears, nectarine, apricots, mulberries, June-berries, gooseberries, tayberries, blackberries and many others, with a whole host of nuts from cob nuts to walnuts, will not be mowed and will become a haven for birds and insects which will help with pollination and natural pest control within the crops growing alongside.
“There has been a massive up-tick in wildlife on the farm since the arrival of the cows last November,” said George. “Walking to check on them twice a day means I have really got to know every inch of the land and my enjoyment has increased exponentially.”
George is lucky to have supportive parents and income from industrial units in the yard have given much needed cash flow in the early days of change. Countryside Stewardship payments on some fields are also provide income for now.
“There is no doubt that a change in mindset is needed – for farmers to move away from trying to sell every last grain off the farm. I am intending to give 20 to 30% of my yield to nature to the birds and insects and even the pigs! But I will get back so much more in terms of wildlife, healthier soil, better quality end products and feeling much better about doing the things I do.”
I salute you George, possibly in future with some Birch Sap Champagne made from the birch trees you intend to grow – just another idea, amongst many on George’s plan!