It has been the established position of many that it’s impossible to have plentiful, healthy and affordable food, and at the same time have very high social, environmental and ethical standards.
I used to believe this too, but not anymore.
Three months ago I wrote a blog in which I claimed that within the next two years our unit cost of producing a litre of milk – in an organic, cow-with-calf, 100% forage system – would be no more than that of one of our intensive neighbours.
It’s quite a claim, and I understand why many people scoffed at the very idea.
That’s because in our cow-with-calf dairy system, the calf drinks around a third of the milk its mum produces. So I do understand that this sounds difficult to believe.
However, from next month, Arla – a farmer owned co-op and the UK’s biggest dairy processor – has announced it will pay conventional dairy farmers 47.79 pence per litre of milk, and organic dairy farmers 54.34 pence per litre.
That means the market leader is now paying MORE for standard organic milk, than our cheese dairy pays the farm for our cow-with-calf, 100% forage, organic milk.
In fact our cost of producing a litre of milk is now around the same price as conventional and intensive dairy farmers will be receiving from Arla in June.
I don’t actually take any pleasure from this. While I have for many years wanted to prove that our approach to dairy farming isn’t just an expensive gimmick, these changes in the market price of milk reflect the soaring costs of fertiliser and weedkiller - neither of which we use - and bought in feed, which we use very little of, other than a small amount of supplementary legume.
It’s all connected with the spiralling cost of living crisis. That we transitioned to a very low input, nature-based approach to farming many years ago is now insulating our farm from these crippling costs.
As we gradually increase the number of cows in our milking herd as more of the calves who were born into this cow-with-calf system reach maturity, we expect to get our cost of production down to 45 pence per litre. That will take us a couple of years, and that’s where my ‘within two years’ claim comes from.
Looking at the way the market is going, it may very well be that we reach cost of production parity with our intensive neighbours well before then.
The world is changing very quickly, and our food systems in the UK must become more resilient so that we can continue to nourish our population without wrecking the planet further. I believe very strongly that nature based farming systems are the best way to do this. When we harness natural systems we get productive, sustainable and resilient food systems.
Those who knock it, I think, fundamentally misunderstand what nature-based farmers are achieving.
But the productivity of nature based farming doesn’t happen quickly, it takes time to bed in because it takes time for the soil to heal. This means there is a very urgent need for governments to incentivise wide scale farming system transformation to regenerative approaches now.
The best time to transition to regenerative agriculture was 20 years ago, and I’m glad that we did so. The second best time is now.
For the sake of our planet and our population, there is no time to lose.