Ignoring the contribution farming makes to greenhouse gas emissions is no longer an option, we need Government to step up and put climate change at the heart of farming policy. The good news is, we already know many of the solutions: healthier soils and more trees for capturing carbon; less nitrogen fertiliser and more organic farming that uses no synthetic fertilisers; and adopting a diet with less, but better quality, meat. Organic farms generally emit fewer greenhouse gases and use less energy per hectare than non-organic farms, and store greater amounts of carbon in soils. Converting half of farmland to organic by 2030 would cut almost a quarter of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
There is a lot of debate about how much meat we should eat, but it is important to recognise the sigificant difference between industrialised, factory farms which use and expel huge amounts of energy. Intensive livestock farming is one of the leading causes of climate change. Crops grown for feed are driving deforestation and industrial farms cause huge amounts of pollution. On the flip side, organic grazing animals, like the cattle and sheep we have on the farm, are fed mostly on grass, not on crops that come from deforested land in areas like South America. Red meat is a rich source of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, B vitamins and protein and an important part of people's diet - choosing grass-fed, organic meat supports a sustem of farming that can help lock carbon in soils.
At Coombe Farm, we are working to reduce our environmental impact in the following ways –
Monitoring carbon levels
We have begun an ambitious programme to measure and monitor carbon levels across 90 of our fields, a mix of arable and permanent pasture. We will take a reading each year from the same GPS location in the field to learn more about the impacts of our farming practices on the carbon levels in the soil. Our expectation is that permanent pasture will be excellent at sequestering carbon, and whilst we know there will be a loss with arable, it will give us an understanding of how we can mitigate this loss by rotating crops and livestock effectively in these fields.
A cornerstone of organic farming is to use the plough to suppress and bury weeds. Disturbing the soil may feel like a compromise in the fight against climate change but it’s a balance we have to strike. The alternative is to use artificial chemical fertiliser on our fields which we will never do due to the devastating impacts on biodiversity, soil health and the food we produce from the land.
Closing the loop
A core component of organic farming is limiting inputs and imports. Instead of emitting greenhouse gasses whilst shipping animal feed and fertilisers from around the world, every year we are growing more and more feed on the farm in our quest for self-sufficiency. We don’t think it’s right to feed our animals or fertilise our fields with imported resource when we have everything we need right here in Somerset.
Mixed farming, growing arable and rearing livestock in the same system, enables us to convert a grass diet into nitrogen and phosphorus-rich manure, a readily available fertiliser for the soil’s microorganisms and bacteria. When we plough manure into our soil we boost levels of organic matter that have binding properties to improve the structure, helping worms and insects go about their work and allowing the soil to retain moisture. In keeping with our organic principles, fertilizing with manure is a wholly natural process that’s kind to the land and harmless to wildlife. We regularly test the soil to ensure we are not over-applying organic fertiliser to the land, it is such good stuff that it’s important not to over do it! Understanding the nutrient levels in the soil helps us to decided which crop is most appropriate for that field.
Rearing traditional breeds of cattle and pigs suited to the West Country also plays a big part, they can easily convert the grass, forage and organic cereal grown on the farm as they grow slowly to maturity. More commercial breeds, that have bred to produce ‘perfect’ meat with the right fat content at a quick rate only respond well to highly digestible proteins that we would have to import.
Farming inevitably relies on diesel powered machinery to increase efficiencies. So to offset these practices, all of our buildings on the farm, including our offices, butchery and warehouse are powered by solar. Harnessing solar power makes us fully self-sufficient. We’re proud to have been one of the first to generate and use solar energy in our area. Solar panels are set in some of our fields, as well as on the roofs of our buildings. A regulation of having the panels is that the land must still have an agricultural use, so often you’ll see our sheep grazing amongst them. In hot weather the panels provide shade for the sheep and, in return, they mow and fertilize the grass.
We know that UK soils store around 130 trillion litres of water, more than contained in all UK lakes and rivers combined. From ensuring our margins are strong, to leaving large swathes of land to permanent pasture, measures are in place across the farm to increase water retention and decrease soil erosion (happening at an alarming rate all over the world). Waste water can also be an issue in farming. The organic dairy processing unit at Coombe had long faced the problem of disposing of the dirty water used to wash down the facility every day. Conventionally it would be tankered off-site, leaving a sizeable carbon footprint. To avoid this, we reuse the waste to fertilise our fields. The liquid (a mix of water, yoghurt and milk) is collected from the unit and mixed with the dung (known as ‘slurry’) from our 350-strong herd of milking cows. The mixture is put through two ‘slurry pits’ or ‘settling ponds’ that allow the solids and liquids to be separated. They’re then filtered into a final pit for storage, before being sprayed or spread onto the land. It’s a great way of turning a by-product into an organic fertiliser and minimising our environmental impact
Organic farming provides a model for sustainable food production, and the methods and principles underlying organic systems must be central in this urgent process of transition. Commitments to ‘food security’ do not grant a blank cheque for ever-more intensive, industrialised agriculture. We need more than just food to survive: we need a stable climate, clean air and water, healthy soils and to restore biodiversity. Organic farming is part of the solution.