Agriculture Ecology Food Organic Regenerative Soil

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.