Two pig tales – why Woody is wrong and Tree is right

Food and agriculture. In my ignorance, I used to think that they were peripheral to ‘real’ wealth creation. No longer.


Here are two stories. Both involve pigs. One is a salutary tale from America’s Midwest in Sunday’s London Observer newspaper (How America’s food giants swallowed the family farms, Observer 10th March).


The other is an inspiring story of the rejuvenation of a 200-year-old family farm in the UK.


First the bad news. In the Observer, Rosemary Partridge, who farms in western Iowa says,


‘In the past 20 years, where I am, independent hog farming just silently disappeared as the corporates came in. I live on a hilltop. I can see seven farm families, people my kids went to school with. They’re all gone now… Our communities are basically shattered and in more than just an economic way – in a social way too.’


This collapse, says The Observer, has been driven by ‘concentrated animal feeding operations’ or Cafos. Pigs, cows and chickens are crammed by the thousand into rows of barns. Many units are semi-automated. Feeding is run by computer; the animals watched by video, with periodic visits by workers who drive between different operations.


In 1990 small and medium farms accounted for nearly half of all agricultural production in the USA. Now it is less than a quarter. Purchasing has been centralised. Local suppliers and vets have gone out of business. Small abattoirs were replaced by huge and more distant ones.


The same picture is described by The Observer in Missouri. There the large companies have deliberately used government subsidies to build Cafos that overproduce and drive out smaller businesses. The collapse of the local towns follows the death of the local farming businesses.


The article doesn’t mention food quality, or the ethics of factory farming. It doesn’t mention the comments of US Ambassador to London, Woody Johnson who urged the UK to embrace US farming methods. Last week, in preparing the UK for the US negotiating stance on post-Brexit trade deals, he said the EU’s ‘Museum of Agriculture’ approach was not sustainable adding,

“American farmers are making vital contribution to the rest of the world. Their efforts deserve to be recognised.”


Now for some good news about some UK farmers who are making a vital contribution that deserves to be recognised.


This concerns the rejuvenation of a 200-year-old family farm in the UK.  A week ago, at the Aldeburgh Literary Festival, I listened to Isabella Tree, who with her husband Charlies Burrell farms near Gatwick Airport in Sussex, England.


Her story suggests that the industrialised approach to farming is not the only way ahead, and that there may indeed be other options which may take their inspiration from the past, but are also far better fitted to the future.


She describes the incredible growth in productive capacity on the land that she and her husband have farmed since they shifted away from intensive agriculture to an approach that was designed to strengthen rather than weaken the long-term health of the soil and the surrounding environment.


For 12 years, she says, they had concentrated on an intensive approach, pumping in more and more nitrates, and pesticides in an attempt to increase the yield on their farm. It didn’t lead to profitability.  Then they changed their approach. Learning from a Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera, they brought to bear what can only be described as the spirit of stewardship.


They reintroduced the ruminant animals that in years before had consistently disturbed the soil, and allowed it to breathe. Some of those ruminant animals were no longer available, but the introduction of substitutes, such as Tamworth pigs, proved effective.  The Burrells stopped using chemicals and pesticides. They found that cattle could eat, and were better nourished by eating, more than grass, in fields still rich in hedges and scrub.


In a miniature illustration of the benefits of partnership in nature, the farmers discovered that cattle grazing in such fields alongside horses were better nourished than if they grazed alone. because the horses tackled some of the larger and less accessible shrubs and thorns and prepared them to be enjoyed by the cattle.  Insects came back. Butterflies flourished. They found that the organic meat they were producing grew in nutritional value and became a far more financially profitable product line, now sold in supermarkets.


Far from arguing that the way to better food and a better environment is to stop eating meat, she described a balanced environment in which grazing animals enhance the productive ability of the soil. The positive carbon impacts were spectacular – an estimated 51% rise in carbon storage. To put this benefit in perspective, it has been estimated that increasing the amount of carbon retained in the soils globally by just 0.4% through restoring and improving degraded agricultural lands would halt the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere


Until they changed their approach from chemical-intensive farming, the Burrells were afraid that they might be unable to sustain a family farm that had been continuing since the early 1800s. With a focus on the longer term, they have over the last two decades succeeded in achieving a financial turnaround. In the process they have enhanced the value of assets with which they were entrusted and will be passing them on in better condition. This, in miniature, is a local stewardship success story with implications for agriculture and food production everywhere.


The two stories have a common thread – the golden thread of stewardship. This is the idea that we all have a self-interest and an obligation to look after the assets and the relationships with which we are entrusted, and pass them on to the next generation in better condition. Our future depends upon a stewardship approach to the creation of wealth, on the land and everywhere else. It is this stewardship approach which should inform the UK’s approach to post Brexit trade negotiations, especially with the USA. If reviving the capacity of the land has to be called ‘museum approach’ so be it. It is preferable to creating a wasteland. Tree is right and Woody is wrong.