Thoughts from North America

I have been debating with myself whether to write this part of my blog as I do not want to upset or offend anyone. I must say that what I am writing is my point of view not the opinion of Nuffield or the AHDB. While sitting here waiting for my plane home I wanted to put down my thoughts and emotions from my amazing month away in North America before it fades in a fuzz of harvesting over the next few months. Everyone I have met has been special in their own way and are doing incredible things on their farms or field of research. Unfortunately they seem to be in the minority. It is the International Year of Soils and from what I have seen we have a long way to go. From a creek in Nebraska which in 100 years has been eroded so badly that instead of being a ford for vehicles to cross it is a 10-15m deep crevasse, to fields in Iowa that now have gullies so big that the sprayer can no longer cross them whereas 3 years ago  they were not there, to the Thames River in Ontario that turns brown after half an inch of rain. This is really a sad state of affairs and I guess is going on the world over, as farmers will should be ashamed. It is simply unacceptable. Then there is the question of water quality. For Des Moines to be sueing three farmer catchments for polluting the drinking water because they have to hand out bottled water to its citizens because the mains water is so polluted from nitrate pollution, what a shame voluntary measures were not taken. Then there is Lake Winnipeg and other lakes in Canada that are becoming polluted by phosphates running off from fields with the main cause seeming to be manure applications. People seem to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to work out what to do with waste. I have a suggestion, put the animals outside in low risks areas so they poop where we want it, instead of hauling expensive grain to confinement barns and then hauling costly manure away again. It is unsustainable and in energy terms extremely inefficient. Let the animals out, at least for some time of the year. Then we get to the question of GMO’s. I came to North America with an open mind and have become convinced we do not need them at home. It has been great to see people like Lucas Criswell, Gabe Brown, Blake Vince and Dustin Murloch growing non GMO crops profitably and with lower inputs. Realising they don’t need all these expensive traits, that when you farm biologically Mother Nature takes care of the perceived problems. I don’t see why in the UK we would want to hand the power over to the seed companies. I am glad we can farm save seed, that we have smaller breeders that research a variety of crops and varieties. As a friend and farmer Clive Bailye said “going GMO is like turkeys voting for Christmas”. I don’t know whether they are harmful to anyone but that is not the point I am making, as farmers we need to keep control of our seeds. Farmers in the US found it extremely difficult to get hold of non GMO seeds, do we want the same thing? I don’t want to be completely down on farmers as we produce for a market and react to market signals and farm policy. A large amount of blame must be placed on the politicians and regulators. Crop insurance which is subsidised is highly biased to growing Corn and Soyabeans. If you try to grow a different crop or intercrop or use cover crops, you are in danger of losing your crop insurance. So why would you do it? There is no incentive for farmers to diversify crops. Also there is the ethanol policy where 40% of corn produced goes into ethanol plants. The majority of the rest gets shoved into an amimal, which is a very inefficient use of grain. So a very small percentage of corn grown is directly eaten by humans and the stuff that is is syrup and not exactly healthy, do we really need so much corn? The same can be said of soya. It can not actually be eaten raw by humans as it makes you ill. So most is again shoved into an animal. So the majority of the produce of the mid west never goes directly to a human mouth. Though apparently we need to double food production, no we need to change the system. Another issue for me is wildlife. A fellow scholar said to me the other night “where is all the wildlife?” He is correct. I have seen very few fields full of wildlife but they are instead monocultural deserts. There does not seem to be the culture of leaving field edges for wildlife or not planting crops right up to watercourses. There seems to be little space for or value put on wildlife. This has been disappointing. The frustrating thing is that the solutions are pretty simple. Stop tilling, keep the ground covered with a living root at all times, integrate animals into crop land and leave some space for habitat creation. We may even find it to be more profitable. Unfortunately I can not see it changing soon. There is some light over the horizon though with people like the ones I have met who are trying to change their farm and their local area. With people like Gabe Brown spending a lot of time trying to get the message out there worldwide. So what have I learnt from this trip. People like Gabe have taught me that we probably don’t need all these inputs, we need healthy soil. Jonathan Lundgren has taught me that the majority of insecticides are unnecessary and to stand up for what you believe in even if it means losing your job. Unfortunately  I think I have had it confirmed that we can’t have truly healthy soil without livestock on the land. There are many more lessons that I have probably forgotten. I have met so many inspirational people that I can’t mention them all. I look forward to going home and implementing all the ideas on my farm. I look forward to continue working with the people I have met and also the many like minded farmers at home in Kent and in the UK. Also I am not even half way through my travels so I have many more exciting people and places to see. Who knows where it will lead me? Again this final blog is not a personal criticism of anyone, just my person thoughts which will probably change with time.

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10 thoughts on “Thoughts from North America

  1. pascoe55 July 12, 2015 / 8:40 pm

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your blogs Andy. I’m interested to hear what you’ll be implementing on your farm. I’m inclined to agree with many of your points made above. Happy harvesting!

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  2. Will July 12, 2015 / 9:40 pm

    Andy, love the summary. Very true and maybe the UK is not quite so behind the times as the U.S. Farmers. Thinking ELS, CSF etc safe trip home

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    • Andy Howard July 13, 2015 / 7:06 am

      Thanks , we are definitely not behind in terms of environmental protection

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  3. John Pawsey July 12, 2015 / 10:01 pm

    I too loved the summary and also have followed your blog fascinated by what you have written and seen. Thank you.

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  4. Tim May July 13, 2015 / 8:09 am

    Well done on these fantastic updates Andy I have found them really useful its been great to understand the principals underlying some of the things I’m trying, and also to get even more motivation to keep going.

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    • Andy Howard July 13, 2015 / 9:59 am

      Thanks.I still have the words you told me once about getting out of commodities running through my head. Makes more sense now

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  5. Andy Kirschenman (@ndykmn) July 13, 2015 / 1:43 pm

    It is very true that the people you visited are in the minority. The problem is, without legislation, I do not know how the rest are actually going to change. Perhaps through insurance premiums/incentives would be the best way. But insurance does not seem interested in it.

    Currently in Western Canada we have an issue with Canola (Rapeseed) and clubroot. Most of the municipalities would like to see an insurance based incentive to maintaining good rotational practice since the insurance is based on land location. If canola has been grown on that land in the last 2 years or so, make it impossible to insure the current crop. This would punish tight rotations which is where the spread of clubroot is coming from. But our government insurance is not interested in getting involved.

    Regarding GMOs, I think that if there were a system where both could be utilized it would be fine for you guys, but since the majority of the profits are in the seed sales, it eventually leads to a monopoly. That being said, how much of the seed on your farm do you save? On my farm, I save wheat, rye, flax, mustard and peas. My Canola is bought every year. It would be if I were growing non GMO too because they are hybrids. My sunflowers are non-GMO, but since they are hybrids I buy seed yearly too. Sunflowers are one of the best examples of how a hybrid can be far superior to open pollinated.

    Looking through seed guides, I do still see non-GMO corn available. There is even some open pollinated to be had. It isn’t as hard as you (and many North American non-gmo supporters) make it out to be. A quick search of AgTalk shows a lot of options and discussion about it. Obviously some companies still see value in it, and I think more and more farmers are switching back because they need to spray everything they used to plus glyphosate on RR corn already because of resistance.

    The big problem with GMO is that farmers and the seed industry have done a terrible job of communicating the benefits of GMO crops to the consumer. This is twofold -most traits are to the benefit of the farmer rather than consumer and we have a hard time conveying how those farmer benefits are actually environmental benefits for society. But we as farmers need to be able to show that with all our practices and tools we use, not just GMO. And it comes down to that -GMO is one tool in the farming toolbox in North America. We have exalted it (and demonized it) to a far greater level than it should be.

    Thanks for all the info on the blogs, Andy, was really interested in what you have been seeing!

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    • Andy Howard July 13, 2015 / 2:02 pm

      Thanks for your words. I had only four weeks over there so only got a snap shot. In terms of GMO, I just can’t see any benefits for us in the UK. Let alone the fact that no one would want to but it. You are correct about legislation, I think it is the only way things will definitely change over there. It was definitely an eye opener.

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  6. Tom Burlingham July 15, 2015 / 12:48 pm

    To me, gmo is cutting edge, modern day plant breeding, nothing more, nothing less. Still can’t find a reputable study that has found it unsafe. We still use some of it but it is pricing itself out of the market. Lets face it, Roundup ready is incredibly effective and easy to use. We cannot do tillage here to control weeds and haven’t figured out how to control them in other ways like using covers. Believe me, we are trying. What a wonderful world it would be if weeds wouldn’t choke off my income. Our farm has only 2 rules…1-Do not disturb the soil…2-Keep living roots growing at all times and have those plants be diverse. Thanks Andy, the best to you

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