Community Ecology Growing Health Organic Practice Regenerative Soil Urban

Broad Bean Harvest 2024

The broad beans that I planted in December were ready to be picked. They hadn’t formed nearly as big a bush as last year.

The harvest wasn’t bad, but was not as impressive as before.

These stems went onto the compost heap.

I think this shows the limits of the viability of applying No Dig principles to containers. There’s not enough nutrients OR biology to support more growth.

And I’d taken measures. Rotating the crops, and after all beans are a legume, after the first round of them I’ve had buckwheat and nigella before this crop. I’ve also applied leaf mould. And chanted my mantra over them too, innit.

Digging it out, I WAS surprised to see that the trough was not root bound.

But equally it was rooty enough…

The box itself, given to me by my dear-departed father-in-law, was in need of some repairs. This was another reason to crack into it.

Sieving the soil produced these nuggety chunks of clay. So hard they felt almost like gravel. Sorry, but in no way could these be an optimal growing environment…


But it wasn’t all barren! There was a lot of insect life. No doubt from the poor guys who lost their homes in my demolishment. Aah, they’ll be OK! I will look after them. It’s mainly wood lice, but there’s other stuff happening. Wait for the cat’s miaow at the end.

But check out these nitrogen nodules on the broad bean plant’s roots. This has been the first time I have seen this with my own eyes. Very impressive.

I mixed the sieved soil from the wooden trough with a mixture of Lakeland Gold compost and some Carbon Gold fertiliser pellets. Heaven knows if that will work?

This new soil went into a shelter I’ve built for the next crop, buckwheat and a few others in pots.

The beans themselves were delicious.

I shared them, steamed and then dressed with olive oil and salt, with Mrs Ingram.

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Green Manure

“Green manures… on Old Street?!” I hear you say. “In Central London?! Why sir, you are a mad fellow indeed! A mad chap for sure!”

In this pursuit of soil regeneration in my container pots I thought this was worth experimenting with. Green manures are, by definition, NOT No Dig. The idea with them is that you grow these leguminous nitrogen-fixing plants, and then, when they are fully-grown, cut them down and dig them into the surface of the soil. By just digging down a few inches I aim to come to a sensible compromise.

According to the packets these should have all been sown at the end of summer after I had harvested my vegetables, flowers, and herbs. Really they are used by farmers after cutting down a whole field of wheat or barley, to give the soil a rest, a bump of nitrogen and some decaying organic matter. The really smart farmers, in my view, grow a legume which will double as a crop – the best example would be something like a Peanut (which doesn’t grow well in my climate as far as I am aware) or, better (because I love to eat and do so daily), Buckwheat.

My Broad Beans are at the back under this mesh with which I am protecting these beds from the Black Cat who clambers all over any empty pots. In the foreground are six pots full of these clovers and alfalfa (a crop itself I guess).

Let’s see whether anything grows or whether the seeds rot before it’s time for them to sprout…

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Pigeon Peas

If you live in the UK and you are trying to do your bit for the environment when it comes to food there are a few critical steps you can make.

  • Eat less meat. In the UK grams consumed per day per person decreased from 103.7 in 2008 to 86.3 in 2018. [I’ve seen a different set of figures for more recent years which don’t match up with these – but the trend is downwards.]
  • Eat local. This is, sadly, one of the areas in which Organic trips up. A lot of Organic food travels a long way. [You want to ask yourself, “How much petroleum is in this avocado?”]
  • Choose “sustainable” food. This is the most controversial of the lot. There’s no certification system in place for food which alleges it is sustainable yet. So, regrettably, claims for it mean very little. [My own idea would be to have a ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ format where growers and farmers would get a star for fulfilling set criteria. Using cover crops? One star. No chemicals? One star. No or shallow till? One star. Applying Organic matter to the soil? One star. That kind of thing…]

Ensconced in this futuristic landscape – something like a gleaming eco building perched on top of a hillock – is the company Hodmedods. Their remit is “Pulses, Grains, Seeds, Flour & More from British Farms.” The nub of this, if it even needs spelling out, is P-R-O-T-E-I-N. These days, rather than getting excited about the latest Trap single, I find an organisation like theirs a more interesting proposition.

Recently Hodmedods entered into partnership with the British high street store Holland & Barrett. H&B have decided to refresh their brand by getting back to their roots as a wholefood store. We could articulate this as Hodemedods X H&B. The “collab” manifests as an offering of ten products – which contains four legumes (those are the one which contain protein and are therefore good alternatives to meat).

Right away I liked the look of the Carlin Peas, which are most well-known as Pigeon Peas. These are described as having been traditional fare and grown in the North of England. They are a variety of common pea (Pisum sativum), a different species from the West African pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan).

I soaked my Peas for 24 hours. The wrapper says they need a lot less – but I beg to differ. They need more to be soft enough to then simmer.

And then, once softened, I cooked them with garlic, onions, and cumin. They were really delicious; nutty is the word that’s often used. We had them with some cod. That pretty much defeated the purpose but we’ll get there yet!

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Looking down from the entrance on the A361 down onto the FarmED buildings.

On 7th July I had an appointment in Gloucestershire at 9am in the morning. I’d had to rent a car to get down there in time, so I was faced with the possibility of either heading straight back to London, or trying to find something else to do that day to get some value from my journey. Purely by chance I was scanning through my mailing list folder and found a message from FarmED saying that they were giving a walking tour that very day.

Set up by Ian and Celene Wilkinson at Honeydale Farm in Oxfordshire, FarmED is a demonstration farm created to explore and promote regenerative agriculture. Ian’s background was as the director of Cotswold Seeds, a company which made its reputation developing cover crops to restore soil fertility. Celene, a veterinary nurse by training, has expertise in matters of health as they relate to diet in both people and animals. FarmED have trial fields, host events and seminars, have a restaurant which cooks their own produce, run a profitable market garden, shelter a small dairy, and even produce their own honey. It could be considered “meta” farm.

Honeydale Farm’s location is right next door to Diddly Squat and Kingham, “meta” farms in their own right. However, unlike neighboring Jeremy Clarkson and Alex James, the Wilkinsons don’t have access to unlimited capital.

Is a “meta” farm less valuable than a “real” farm? My view is that farming (and especially organic, biodynamic and regenerative farming) needs advocates. Part of the problem with the urban/rural disconnect, and with it our alienation from the sources of our food, is the absence of dialogue to connect farming with contemporary culture and values. FarmED fills that gap convincingly. Its relatively low agricultural productivity is more than compensated for by its educational services to farming. It’s the same yardstick by which I would judge my own extremely humble efforts.

Collection point for the FarmED CSA scheme.

Right away I noticed that the farm’s architecture differed drastically from the farms I knew in my childhood with their massive drafty, steel barns and never-ending concrete yards. They are, frankly, very chic. Furthermore, every spare space between the buildings was allowed to grow wildly, if sometimes augmented by carefully sown wild flowers.

The FarmED library.

As we were gathered together in the meeting I room I had the opportunity to marvel at FarmED’s incredible library of classic books on the subject. This is the kind of intellectual heft I delight I seeing behind farming.

Ian Wilkinson.

Ian Wilkinson gave our group an introductory talk explaining how he came across the farm, and negotiated the perils of its mortgage, so as to bring the couple’s dream to life. I definitely got the sense that this was a risky undertaking. The farm also employs a staggering 34 people which must make for a steep wage bill.

Ian passed us over deftly to the brilliant Kate Henderson, who he took great pride in informing us was the granddaughter of farming legend George Henderson. George’s classic book “The Farming Ladder” has been feted by none other than Eliot Coleman and Joel Salatin. Kate got the job as a result of showing up one day in her car with a box of the books, enquiring if the Wilkinsons had any use for them.

Interestingly its publisher Faber, through the efforts of Richard De La Mare, historically editor of the firm’s agriculture and horticulture lists, was a stalwart supporter of the organic cause putting out such notable titles as Eve Balfour’s “The Living Soil” and Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s “The Earth’s Face”. Faber even republished Darwin’s study of the earthworm. In recent years I associate the imprint mainly with books on music.

Kate Henderson.

Our initial port of call was the first of two trial wheat fields. This one sown with Crusoe milling wheat. Crusoe is a modern “chemical agriculture” wheat which has been bred with short, stubby, strong stalks. These are able to bear the weight of its massive head of grain which has been designed to convert as much of the 170kg of synthetic fertiliser applied to the control plot as possible.

The use of chemical fertiliser to run this ongoing trial is one of the reasons why Honeydale Farm is not certified organic. Any use of fertiliser on the entire site would disqualify them. FarmED’s stated reason for not certifying, however, is that they need to be relevant to all farmers within any specific scheme. The chemical field is also sprayed with a litre of the herbicide Glyphosate.

Kate brought a spade and dug out a clod of earth which we were invited to feel, crumble and smell. I would lying if I claimed to notice much difference between the two plot’s soil based on just these physical characteristics. In fact I was expecting the difference to be greater. There was only a very faintly brackish odour to this, the first.

Chemical soil.
Our group.

Now, on this our march, I took the opportunity to size up the rest of the group. It had a truly remarkable profile with people hailing from diverse fields of expertise. There was Daisy Wood and a colleague from LEAF; Dr. Sarah Watkinson an Emeritus Research Fellow in Fungal Biology from Oxford University; Elizabeth, a farmer from nearby Coln Rogers with two of her colleagues; Celia Leverton a regenerative farmer and travelling scholar on a Churchill Fellowship from Tasmania, and Richard Buckley from Bath and his family (who run an acclaimed vegan restaurant Oak) along with their affiliated grower Georgia. The very tall man was a computer scientist from Boston, USA who was perhaps arriving at the field from the same angle as me. How that angle should be characterised I leave to you, dear reader.

The winter bird seed field.

Sandwiched between the two fields, and separating them as it were, was a field dedicated to growing seed which the birds could eat in the winter. Apparently they love it.

Heritage wheat.

While the conventional field reached Kate’s waist, the heritage wheat field came up to her shoulders. FarmED are this year growing the varieties Emmer and Einkorn – seeds which, unlike the Crusoe, nobody owns the rights to, and which had been provided to them by local farmers.

Right away you can understand why Norman Borlaug and his team set their sights on breeding the Green Revolutions’ characteristic short rigid stems. One heavy rainstorm or gale could flatten the entire field and ruin a crop. It ripples very appealingly in the breeze. Beneath the canopy of the heads of grain is sown clover which not only, as a legume, fixes nitrogen in the soil, but also keeps its temperature down and moisture up.


Kate invited us to pick at another clod she had dug, and this time I found a friendly worm; others also found worms in the chunks they picked off. Apparently below 4 worms per sample (spadeful) indicates poor soil, and above 8 worms is good. A healthy earthworm population is calculated as being about 250 worms per square metre. Certainly there were none in the chemical plot.

Kate regaled us with some statistics, however, which put some perspective on our gathering ecological delight.

The heritage wheat field yielded 50% of the grain that the chemical field did. Although I was prepared to overlook the difference in the gluten levels between the heritage (12%) and chemical (28%), modern bakers want higher levels of gluten which give a more buoyant loaf. Of course, the gluten-free lobby argues that these “unnaturally” high levels of gluten have unleashed a plague of inflammatory symptoms in society. Slightly more troubling was that the heritage wheat had lower amounts of protein (9.78%) vs the chemical wheat’s (12.83%).

As much as I dislike modern wheat, in fact I don’t eat it, the arguments in its favour are in some respects convincing. This is even if you take the view that its relative cheapness is complicated by the cost of inputs (fertilizer and herbicide), the hidden cost of its associated environmental damage (soil erosion, biological harm etc), and, as is alleged, its poor flavour.


As we carried on our Magical Mystery Tour we encountered a man who was running a controlled experiment in the next top field. He had sunk two pipes into the soil – one open at the sides – one closed all the way down – and was measuring CO2 output atop both.

His hypothesis here was that the mycorrhizal fungi which, in theory, will have penetrated the sides of the open pipe, would affect the respective carbon dioxide emissions issuing into the atmosphere. Presumably better mycorrhizal integration would mean a lower carbon output, as these rhizomes are believed to draw from the soil and distribute?

The very impressive meter.
Our man demonstrating the technology.
The sensor giving a reading of the ambient CO2 levels.
When our man breathed into the sensor the levels shot up.

The final field along the top contains the market garden’s poly tunnels. I absolutely love poly tunnels and also green houses. If I had a green house I believe I would probably die of happiness. These are managed by the growers Dan Betterton and Emma Mills for the organisation Kitchen Garden People who run the CSA. The Kitchen Garden People Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme organises 130 veg boxes which are collected from the site every week. Very heroically they even produce veg in the “hungry gap”, a hard time for the UK’s farmers which occurs in April, May and early June, after the winter crops have been used up and before the new season’s plantings are ready to harvest.

This year, for the first time, the growers employed a no-dig strategy. In their case, on this medium scale, they sow a green manure, leave it in the ground for one to two years, before eventually allowing it to break down under tarpaulins.

There are many ecological arguments being put forward these days for the positive benefits for soil health through not digging. Unfortunately, in a number of cases this has mean that powerful chemical agriculture conglomerates like Syngenta have begun to argue, I believe speciously, that with no-till (no-dig) methods regenerative agriculture is compatible with the use of herbicides like Glyphosate. This is a kick in the teeth for those claiming that what is known as organic agriculture (very broadly no chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides) is the path to truly regenerative, and ecological farming.

This picture is further complicated by the fact that many organic growing practices, which accommodate massive monocultures, organic fertilisers (as opposed to the use of compost and leys), and ploughing, are seen as ecologically damaging. I understand that currently the UK’s Soil Association is seeking to remedy this with a Organic Regen label. Elsewhere at Honeydale farm they have a policy of tilling only the top 3-4 inches. This is generally accepted as being much less disruptive.

The automated temperature-controlled door panel swung open bisects this photo.

Our group was full of admiration for how the temperature within the poly tunnels was controlled by automated doors and by the irrigation system in evidence. A number of us were intrigued by the growers’ “chop-and-drop” policy which is evident in the stems visibly strewn on the ground. This is a very efficient way to compost, you just let the unused vegetable matter decay right there on the soil rather than wheeling it away to a compost pile, only to then have to wheel it back once it has decomposed. However, some vegetable gardeners argue that “chop-and-drop” increases the numbers of slugs, snails and other pests. It seems there’s often a case to be made for these alternative methods.

Water is not exactly abundant on the site. It’s frugally collected off the building’s rooves and also from a spring on the land. Last summer the team had resort to using the mains during the drought and so this year there are discussions about the possibility of drilling a borehole. I know from experience that this is costly business, and where they are, on top of a hill, they’d probably have to dig deep to reach the water table. Needs must.

The bees at Honeydale Farm, are looked after by what FarmED rather wittily call The “B” Team. I was fascinated to see that the hives are installed into tree stumps. Interestingly the honey is used as much for a skincare range as for food.

Then we walked down the hill on what was truly a most glorious day.

Where, at its foot, we admired the series of drainage ponds.

The walking tour was such a fascinating experience in exquisite scenery alive with nature. Fortuitously the weather was beautiful (it wouldn’t have mattered of course…) and my fellow students were an amazing, multifaceted bunch. As the glow of the summer has begun to fade it makes me misty eyed to think back to it now. Many thanks to Ian and Kate.

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Whatever your thoughts on him, and he is undoubtedly a controversial figure, George Monbiot has given ample proof over the years that he is a principled and conscientious individual. His relentless attacks on inequality come from a position of personal integrity and profound sincerity. In ecological terms Monbiot thinks that he has seen the future. And he’s absolutely terrified. His book Regenesis is his solution to the question of how the world is going to feed itself in the light of the potential climate catastrophe which is bearing down upon us. It goes into the manifold problems at the heart of agriculture. Good guy. Radical ideas. However, as a fellow armchair farmer, the book inspired too many thoughts for my to just leave it there.

Monbiot himself flags up the comment of one of his friendly antagonists who argued that “the green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers”. It’s not his fault but if there’s a problem with Regenesis it’s not the amount of data or its quality, it’s one’s nagging suspicion that any moment now someone is going to round the corner with an equally massive amount of statistics to contradict his argument.

90% of the time I’m happy to go with Monbiot, but that’s probably because what he says confirms my bias on those matters. Broadly speaking that’s the position he takes on the severity of climate change, the evident inequality in society, and the necessity of everyone eating less (or no) animal produce. His championing of Iain Tolhurst, a farmer who doesn’t use any animals or even manures on his farm, was cool too (even if him being singled out for sainthood was unusual – I’ve personally come across two farms, OrganicLea and Chagfood which both use identical techniques – it’s not uncommon…)

That 10% where I feel uncomfortable with the figures is where I’ve read extensive and statistically cogent arguments to the contrary. Almost all of this is around the question of ethically and responsibly farmed livestock. Books I’ve read like Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown”, Gabe Brown’s “Dirt to Soil”, Allan Savory’s “Holistic Management”, and especially the landmark future classic “What Your Food Ate” by Dave Montgomery and Anne Biklé provide what feels like overwhelming evidence that well-managed grazing, and the judicious slaughter of cattle and sheep is part of solving the puzzle.

To summarise the arguments in favour of livestock briefly – this is dependent on specific conditions: where livestock is not over populous and is carefully rotated; when it is not confined in horrible feed-lots, when it’s alongside horticulture which can use the manure; where the manure is either left where the livestock is grazing or is properly composted (where it doesn’t rot or go anaerobic in a huge pile of shite); where the livestock compacts herbal leys in the process of grazing, where the livestock eats grass (it’s convincingly-argued that it is grain-fed animals that are doing all the methane farting), where the terrain and climate is more suitable for pasture than cultivation in other ways etc. These are all common-sense ethical farming techniques which are widely followed. When livestock is farmed like this it’s contended that it draws carbon back to the earth and regenerates the soil.

Monbiot has caused more anger on this point than he could have imagined. In many cases these objections are raised by people that are his natural fellow travelers. It’s a bit sad to see. They might not be vegans, and might not be squeamish about slaughtering animals, but they are conscientious, compassionate, and knowledgeable. Where I stand on this is nuanced. I don’t eat dairy and eggs but I do enjoy a beef burger or some lamb once a week, so it would be easy enough to take sides with George, wag my finger at the livestock farmers, and congratulate myself on my self-righteousness.

However, since time immemorial we have farmed with and eaten animals. The problems started with industrial agriculture and the population explosion. Not for the first time reading the book I came away with the impression that two wrongs don’t make a right. Chemical agriculture and human overpopulation are wrong – but to try farm without livestock too is possibly also a mistake. And try telling the Indian smallholder to be without their cow, that animal is sacred partly because it is the central fixture in the constellation of their farm, around which everything is arranged.

The other place in the book where it felt that the same maxim, two wrongs don’t make a right, is applicable is in the subject of industrial protein. It’s not because I’m entirely against it in principle. Some things I eat come very close to it, for instance vegan cheese (made with cashews, water and salt – delicious) or my vegan Omega-3 supplement (made from algae blooms grown in a vat – much better than having fishy burps) – these are both useful enough.

However, by Monbiot’s own admission industrially-grown food is not as carbon-efficient as soya. He’s pitching his argument in terms of a realism: that people want to eat meat, that they won’t eat soya, pulses or nuts, and therefore we should create fake meat. But two wrongs don’t make a right. As much as we could dream that industrial protein will be open-source, it obviously won’t be. These substances will be patented and their prices will be gouged. Not only are they energy-intensive to grow, I didn’t see any calculations for the feed that must go into these machines.

Will this foodstuff ever be nutritious? And not just as slabs of protein but containing all the correct micronutrients. This is what Michael Pollan refers to as “food” – a concept which Monbiot has a bit of joke with. I don’t think anything not directly or indirectly connected to the infinitely complex soil biome can be healthy nutrition. And how could we be surprised if, once perfected as a process, again a scenario that doesn’t get mentioned in Regenesis, the industrial protein was fed to animals? We’d be right back where we started.

Monbiot wants solutions and he’s right to think big and bold. But people need to be part of the picture – not pushed to the margins. I haven’t caught his book “Feral” about rewilding, but reading a bit around the experiences of early European settlers in North America one thing in particular stood out. The new arrivals thought the land they had come to was an untouched garden of Eden. In truth it was an ecosystem that had been meticulously managed in the manner of Natural Farming by the American Indians. Monbiot argues, with what evidence I didn’t see, that the preponderance of Bison is now thought (in one one paper?) to be owing to the Indians killing off large predators. But we need to ask ourselves of that, what was the harm there given the immaculate condition of the land? But still, I for one am grateful that Monbiot spent so much time and energy thinking about the topic.

What would my solutions be? It’s a bit like Fantasy Football innit. The first thing to be clear about is the UK’s farmers generally farm like they do because they don’t believe there’s any other way to survive. It’s all very well for people who don’t actually farm having an opinion on the subject (and I don’t mean growing a few apples and some beetroot) – but the real thing is different and very hard. It’s always worth remembering before one casts stones that there are vanishingly few actual bad people in this world.

I couldn’t pretend to be some global authority but, since you’re asking: Land reform which created a lot of cheaply rentable small holdings (inherently more productive). Some digital infrastructure linking them together. Subsidies more helpful to smallholdings than big estates. Some mechanism for encouraging more people to work on the land. Minimal or preferably no fertilizer or pesticides (everyone will moan but it’ll work out in due course – my friend a farmer in Sri Lanka says things are fine there now). R&D for seed strains which don’t require chemical inputs. Small smart machinery. Compulsory composting. Compulsory tofu. Nature integrated in all this (hedgerows, woods, wild parks but not nettles everywhere). As totalitarian as I get is the thought that meat should be rationed somehow. Would that save the world? Dunno. Unlikely.

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Clarkson’s Farm

Diddley Squat’s crop of Melody Spuds

The second series of this show was made available in February 2023, so it was a good opportunity to watch both it and the first series. Having no interest in cars I’d not seen any of Jeremy Clarkson’s programs before. In fact, I mainly know of him from satirical representations. Clarkson has the common touch and evidently taps into something so basic it’s practically primeval. That his subject is motor transport is incidental to the plain-talking, easy-going machismo he peddles. This sense of the comfortable is picked up in The Guardian’s grudgingly positive review of the second series:

Clarkson has always offered his viewers and readers comfort. Historically his prime audience has been men confused by modernity, dismayed at being told climate breakdown is real, furious at the news that they’re no longer allowed to be rude about people who aren’t English; it comforts them to see someone pointlessly jabbing at the things that annoy them.

The Guardian

In fairness this appeal runs deeper. Although stripped of the ability to appeal to these annoyants in the context of the countryside, Clarkson still connects with the viewer on the level of an essentially good-natured, masculine simplicity. Men: the endearingly loyal, one-dimensional animals.

Everything guaranteed NON!!! organic

You’d expect a presenter who jokes about lorry drivers murdering prostitutes, quaffs gin and tonics while driving, and provokes record complaints for his recent Sun newspaper article casting Meghan Markle in a Game of Thrones-styled public humiliation, to find some easy target to ridicule in his Cotswolds adventure. It looked for a moment that organic, that brand sadly tainted by a supposed association with the rich and prissy, might be it.

Clarkson ponders the future

However, in conversation with his land agent, Charlie Ireland, in the Melting episode Clarkson reveals hidden intuitions. He poses the rhetorical question, “How long can we we keep just spraying fields [with fertiliser and herbicide] before they go; ‘Actually you know what I’ve given all I can give.'” Ireland counters, “The crop?” to which Clarkson replies, “Just the soil.”

He has read that some experts predict there are only ninety to a hundred harvests left before the topsoil is dead. “It’s like saying to a footballer, ‘Right, now you’ve done the whole premiere league season. Now you’re immediately going on to play in the southern hemisphere and you’ve got to give just as much there.'” Ireland’s immediate recourse is to conventional ag orthodoxy, “That’s why we have a rotation.”

The crop rotation is supposed to give the soil a chance to recover, but at Diddley Squat, Clarkson’s farm, they’re not actually planting a regenerative cover crop like a Vetch, Rye, or Clover in their sequence, and Clarkson picks this up, “But we just go: Wheat, Barley, Rape.” Ireland concludes, “You’ve every right to be worried.” It’s progressive, and it’s his perspective as an outsider, a trainee farmer, that causes Clarkson to make these fresh observations.

Fresh cow pat

To his credit Clarkson actually puts this impulse into action. In Surviving, in the second series, he sets up a mob grazing rotation. Cattle graze and lay their cow pats on the field, chickens in a movable hutch pick bugs from the pats, and spread (as Clarkson puts it) the cows’ “number twos” around, and then the process moves to a adjacent patch. The soil is enriched with the chemical nutrients and, which point is omitted, with the biology therein. Clarkson explains to the slightly bemused Ireland, “So you go back to old-fashioned farming, that’s my plan.”

Spreading chicken shit on the fields

Series two’s Counselling episode is set against the background of the Ukrainian conflict. This has caused the price of fertiliser to rocket in the EU. As they are spreading chicken shit on their barley field Clarkson remarks, “I want that on the fields because it saves me from using quite so much nitrogen.” That’s positive too…

But what would a soil nerd say in criticism of the practices at Clarkson Farm? They might point out the staggering amount of tillage. Although ploughing and digging are fixed in the popular imagination as essential to farming and gardening, disturbing the soil is bad for it, and releases locked-in carbon. In addition to this, Clarkson is using tons of NPK fertiliser (the cocktail of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium) and herbicides, he tells Giles Coren of The Times, “I spray Glyphosate on everything!” Although there are much larger farms than Clarkson’s that manage not to use chemical inputs in the US and UK, it is probably easier to manage both No Till and No Chemicals on a smaller scale.

Thoughts in the pandemic

As he is working the field in his hilariously massive Lamborghini tractor in the middle of the pandemic, Clarkson ponders the potential impact of Covid on agricultural keyworkers. “I read the other day that 90% of the world’s 570 million farms are run by either one man or one family. So that if that man or family gets the virus, the farm dies.” Naturally the picture springs to mind of many similar operations grinding to halt. However, in the relatively recent past UK farms didn’t look like Clarkson’s with its thousand acres, massive mechanical and technological resources, and miniscule full-time staff (even if there are a few people working off-camera so-to-speak).

Owing to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, drawn up in 1962 by policy makers without any background in farming and with an emphasis solely on food security, production-linked subsidies were the first stage in the consolidation of many small farms into larger ones. Then hastening this process in 2005 area-based subsidies gave money to landowners linked to the size of their property, the more land the greater the state handout. Those farmers didn’t even have to farm the land. This frankly disastrous state intervention (which put small farms out of business) may be reversed by 2023’s Post-Brexit farm subsidies. These might be the only good thing that has happened thus far as a result of the UK leaving the EU.

Globally the reality defies the “conventional agriculture” model, especially in the light of green revolution threats that without big “ag” the world would starve. To circle back to Clarkson’s aforementioned 570 million farms with their single custodians; those aren’t nearly the size of his! The average acreage of the 200,000 farms in the UK is 320 acres, a third of the size of Diddley Squat. But 78% of farms around the world are 5 acres or less. The world is full of small farmers; industrial agriculture is not feeding the world. The “conventional” industrialised farming infrastructure in the UK and supermarket price fixing have created a situation where any alternative is ruinous to farmers. Without scale they would have been unable to tap into the subsidies which, as a result of price-fixing they were dependent upon for survival. To farm ecologically, with fertiliser so cheap, and scant financial encouragement to do so in terms of handouts, was almost entirely disincentivised. Even so the profit margin has shrunk from an early sixties peak of 80% to 8% today.

Scale is the issue. It would be good to see the UK’s agricultural landscape transformed into a patchwork of much smaller more ecologically-oriented, regenerative or organic farms delivering food locally and cutting out the major supermarkets. Like for instance in the entrepreneurial Community Supported Agriculture model. It may be that big estates and the extremely high cost of land (now at around £20,000 per acre) are an impediment to that, though some campaigners advocate tenancy working in that context if only large landowners were more open to it. Of course that’s wishful thinking but, for instance, why couldn’t a major metropolis like London be encircled with small farms like both it and Paris used to be?

A calf’s budding horns

I don’t mean to undermine Clarkson’s widely-praised intervention. Again, it’s his outsider’s angle which throws such a revealing light on the process and trials of farming in the UK. For instance, the unflinchingly honest depictions of the rearing and slaughter of cattle and sheep led a vegetarian reviewer writing in the Oxford Mail to comment that he’d, “come to the conclusion that the raw take on the meat industry in Clarkson’s Farm is not necessarily a bad thing.” As saddening as it sometimes can be to witness, we should be grateful for the opportunity to see the reality.

Clarkson’s visceral discomfort with the practice of dehorning cattle was particularly interesting against the background of Biodynamic practice where cows are left with their horns. Somehow the welsh vet Dilwyn’s reply to his question as to the necessity of the process, “Because the ones with horns become dominant and bully the rest”, rang hollow. Surely this is something that could be worked through in a generation? Cows are apparently much more peaceful with their horns left on. But Clarkson’s cows all get to graze outdoors on pasture and are not indoors in some horrible CAFO being fed grain. I thought they looked very happy and probably taste delicious. He showed a very soft heart in sparing the cow Pepper at the end of the second series, announcing she would be a pet for his wife Lisa.

Even on the topic of insects he strikes a progressive tone, in the Wilding episode he remarks “Thirty or forty years ago after about five miles [of driving] I wouldn’t have been able to see where I was going. My windscreen would have been an opaque smorgasbord of dead insects. But now look at it, there’s nothing! You get more flies on the front of a submarine.” He explained to Giles Coren “Insects are very important, so I’ve tried to really up the numbers of insects which has had a profound effect on the number of birds. It’s deafening birdsong now at dawn and dusk on the farm.”

As charmingly ham-fisted as Clarkson’s environmental measures sometimes appear (a case in point being the admittedly funny debacle of his natural lake with its electric fences to keep away otters), because he has clung tightly to conventional industrial agricultural orthodoxy there has been almost no negative commentary of the show. Dramatising countryside matters, about which urban critics know less about, he’s had a very easy ride. Paradoxically if he had run an organic farm like nearby Daylesford (where he is seen shopping in the show), and which would genuinely be ecological, he would have been attacked. As it is the only friction he has put up with is his local council battling him over planning permission.