Middle of the Field

by Garry Jones

July 26 2012

Sorry for the recent absence but a new house and garden proves quite a distraction. The excessive rain was less welcome however and although the peas and lettuces are doing well (shh don’t tell the slugs), the leeks, carrots and beans just aren’t playing… but then it is all learning. Last time, through reasonably logical means I proposed that the future of nature conservation ultimately lies in the hands of farmers, because most of the countryside is farmland. This has really got me thinking about the role of conservationists like me.

To start with I considered what it is we do now: we directly manage land for nature, providing a refuge, and more positively a haven, a reserve (in its original sense) from which nature can expand and regroup back into the wider countryside – conservation bodies own perhaps 1% of the countryside. We also talk a lot about nature, we try to inform and inspire people- a la BBC Springwatch. To secure membership income to buy and manage more nature reserves, but also to encourage volunteers to give their time and so that people value and act for nature more. Occasionally we also use this backing to advocate for new laws or changes in public spending on nature conservation. Last but not least, we advise other land owners and sometimes work with or for them; including lots of farmers. This last group of conservationists are arguably those that have the most direct contact most wildlife out there.

So, my original assertion about farming really throws the spotlight on our conservation colleagues who already work with farmers. At present they advise farmers on lots of different wildlife friendly approaches including surveying farms to see what lives there already, restoring habitats such as hedgerows for farmland bird cover, ditches for water voles and wet meadows for wading birds. Sometimes they also encourage different or lower usage of fertilisers to reduce run-off into local water courses. Sometimes they might even talk about reducing pesticide and herbicide usage to encourage invertebrates or promote set-aside on field margins. The more extensive this advice the more likely it is to go hand in hand with a government subsidy such as a stewardship scheme; because it often means doing something that is not about growing food, and therefore is not about generating income from selling it. It is all good stuff and helps to reverse some of the most damaging practices of the so called green-revolution when hedgerows were ripped out to make bigger fields, water was drained to increase productivity and both fertiliser and pesticide was applied liberally to increase yield. I would like us to do more of it, on more farms, more fields, more hedges, more birds, more bugs.

But… and if you are a conservation officer or similar please bear with me here as I might be a little clumsy… the evidence suggests there is something missing (the Lawton review described in my last post outlines the failure of nature conservation to do much more than slow the decline in biodiversity). On top of this I ‘feel’ like there is something missing in our approach. It is not that what we are already doing is wrong- it’s not, it is very much right and we should still be doing it, with gusto. But I have long had a sort of intuition that there was a missing element and I think it has slowly dawned on me what this is.

I think it’s the wheat. The corn and the maize too. Most probably also the potatoes and the rice. It’s the middle of the field. The crop, the food, the thing that makes up most of the actual countryside; the middle of the field.

We don’t say much about the middle of the field. The ditches, yes, and the hedgerows, the set aside, they all matter. But why don’ t we say much about the actual crop? Even when discouraging fertiliser or herbicide or pesticide, we comment little on the actual crop; the reason why these agrochemicals are so tempting, the thing that fills the middle of the field and most of the countryside.

If nature needs more land, bigger areas, better managed and connected; this means farmland. If we mean farmland, we must surely mean the middle of the field as much as the edges? So why do I feel so uncomfortable talking about it in conservation terms? I don’t have a full answer to that question. I’d love the conservationists out there to join me in this being a valid question and then trying to answer it, because it seems to me very important. Here are some thoughts:

1. Farming is a livelihood for small and medium sized farms and big business for larger farms. Farming for wildlife traditionally means less crops so it will reduce livelihoods and profits. Can I really advise people on this basis and if I do will they even listen. Answer: no, so I don’t bother.

2. Big business and profit-driven growth has caused the decline in biodiversity. I find it hard to engage in conversation with people who have played a part in that – my colleagues might think I am selling out.

3. The middle of the field is a monoculture, it has no biodiversity, it is barren. There is nothing to work with; my efforts are better expended on the hedgerows, on the ditches, or even in urban areas.

4. Crops themselves are not wildlife; they are either cultivated or non-native.

5. Conservation is a science and a profession. It seeks mutual respect with other sciences and professions including those involved in food production. It is not really our profession. The overlap occurs at the edge of the farm; that is where we have something to share.

6. A truly wildlife friendly approach to the middle of the field will not work because it will not provide enough food for the growing population.

7. A truly wildlife friendly alternative is too alternative, it would mean a revolution in food growing. Some people might characterize these ideas as ‘hippy’ or ‘wacky’. We have struggled for years to become mainstream; we don’t want to risk losing our members, income and our influence.

Small sigh, then some initial responses:

Small and medium farms are livelihoods – not profit factories. Big businesses have driven down prices so low that it is actually quite difficult to make a living, let alone a profit if you are a small producer. However, those that remain still have a connection to their land and many recognise there is a problem; the fact there families depend on the land makes the problem emotive and acute but it doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk about it – quite the opposite in many cases. Anyway, just talking about the middle of the field won’t make things any worse and might, just might be worth a try. Big agribusiness is generating profit for the few and still not feeding the world. Farming should be about producing food, not profit and should give a livelihood to the many farmers, not a big profit to the few agribusiness owners. Ultimately food is more important than profit. I can’t eat profit. I can eat what is in the middle of the field- I have a right to talk about it as much as the farmer. We all have a responsibility to talk about it.

The field is a monoculture. But it was not always that way and it need not be that way in the future. Plus it is the biggest area so has the most potential and it is still full of soil, not concrete. Nature is resilient; it can come back quite quickly if given the opportunity. Food is wildlife; crops were not beamed down from outer space even if they have been cultivated y people. It is life, it lives; that is why we eat it! Modern food is a very narrow sample of all the possible foods. If we opened up these possibilities it would be far easier to recognise food as wildlife and I should say wildlife as food. Cultivation is merely the interaction of one form of life (humans) with another (plants and animals we can eat). As we are now discovering, many if not most forms of life ‘cultivate’ others by affecting their evolution. Non-native is all relative to time but essentially non-native just means something has not settled in yet. Invasive is another matter, but it is much rarer and should not stop us from considering food as wildlife.

Conservation is about life. Life is about everything. Conservation = economics, politics, farming, culture, society- it is all ours to talk about if we choose to. The professional silos have probably contributed to the current state of the planet – now is as good a time as any to start breaking down some of those divisions and working together across disciplines to solve major issues.

Even today most of the world is not fed through industrial agriculture. By all measures that include proper consideration of energy input, ie ones that do not ignore fossil fuel inputs; it is non-industrial, human labour intensive, local, largely organic, low input, mostly perennial, mixed crops and small scale food production, that produces more food over all. We have both forgotten how to do it this way and been fed a stream of propaganda from big corporations telling us it won’t work. It can, it will, it does work if your aim is food production. What it does not do is make profit. I prefer food than profit. Farmers have the capacity and can rediscover the skills to farm this way if we all support them to do so.

It is alternative, because the current system is failing. We can either continue to influence a failing system or we can influence something that will work. Most of our current work remains relevant; hedgerows and ditches and set aside and nature reserves and inspiring events are still needed. This is renaissance, not revolution. It need not be violent or disruptive. It can be creative, innovative, joyful and successful.

To finish, we conservationists can and should be concerned with the middle of the field and the economics, politics, and social implications of such a conversation. We don’t have to have all the answers to start talking about it. So I invite you to talk about the middle of the field, talk to me, talk to each other, talk to farmers, talk to politicians, talk to everyone who is interested in food, in wildlife, in a future.

I will be talking about the middle of the field next time and how it can be both biodiverse and edible.

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