The 'wild' farm: regenerative agriculture at Village Farm

12Jan2016

Farmer, Rebecca Hosking, explains how the language we use and our role within the natural world can transform farming from the production of commodities into a comprehensive regenerative practice that heals whole ecosystems.

Within the permanent team of five at Village Farm we have two qualified ecologists and one zoologist so, as you can imagine, nature and wildlife are frequent topics of debate. One particular night the conversation focused on how many of our native British mammals and wild birds are categorized either as pests, vermin or game.

As far as mammals were concerned, we could only think of a single species that was universally considered neither pest nor game, the dormouse. All the others had at least one section of society seeing them as undesirables or quarry. Hedgehogs, moles, otters, bats, hares, mice, weasels, seals, foxes, badgers, deer etc… someone somewhere sees them as enemy or target.

With such negative categorization of our native wildlife it’s little wonder that in 2013 the State of Nature Report, a collaboration between the top 25 UK conservation and research organizations, concluded that in the last 50 years the UK has lost a staggering 60% of all our island’s wildlife, a horrifying loss.

Terminology and framing of language strongly effects everyone’s perception of reality in all walks of life. Most of the terminology we use has been created in the culture surrounding us. Farming and agriculture are full of cultural framings. In fact, the only place where the framing differs is in science where the wording has been designed as far as possible to offer pure objective descriptions.

To demonstrate, a simple example between the framing in biology and framing in agriculture… “We have a large amount of pioneer annuals establishing themselves in the fallow field” would be the biological term, and the agricultural term: “That field we ploughed last year is covered in weeds”. Automatically, the different framing drives us to differing concepts that in turn lead to divergent actions. 'Pioneer annuals' describes the first process of soil and landscape repair; something to stand back, observe and be pleased about. 'Covered in weeds' is a call for action to repress those unwanted plants whether by machine or chemical.

When we started this journey of ‘farming with nature’ we realised how much of agricultural framing blinded our thinking. Slowly we’ve had to dismantle its language, relying more and more on pure objective descriptions instead and this has led us to where we are today. This by no means is the definitive answer; it’s just further forward in our personal journey.

The farm's porous edge

Today at Village Farm we don’t view our land as a farm, we view it as an ecosystem; and our farm boundary is viewed as our ecosystems porous edge where any gas, liquid or solid leaving the land has to be beneficial to the greater biome and where any animal, bird, insect, seed or nutrient is most welcome.

By understanding that our land is an ecosystem, no longer do we view our wildlife as weeds, pests, vermin, or game. Similarly we no longer view our livestock or crops as qualitatively different; simply put, all we have on our land is species.

Yes we have ‘domestic species’ that we sell to create an income, but to keep those domestic species healthy and happy we need the wild ones just as much, giving equal importance to all because, as we all know, to have a healthy ecosystem you need great abundance and diversity of life. We certainly don’t want to poison or persecute any of those species because that will only result in weakening the ecosystem, simplifying the web and allowing disease an open backdoor.

In addition we’ve changed the language we use about ourselves, we don’t view ourselves ‘wildlife friendly farmers’, or ‘guardians of the countryside’ creating some sort of farm wildlife reserve. Nor do we view the species on this land as working purely for our gain, a concept that is currently described as 'ecosystems services' which personally I find a very grubby little term. It defines species purely as resources and slaves to our human needs. Viewing ourselves above nature, on a higher plain, comes from a human-centric way of viewing our world. Placing humanity above all others is what has got us in trouble in the first place.

Instead we have realised we need to embrace the fact we are a species ourselves; a mammal that just happens to be pretty useful with implements, a tool-wielding monkey that cohabits this land with the myriad of other species.

On the surface this concept of cohabiting might seem a bit lame to some but that’s only until you stop to think about how the heck you are breathing right at this moment? Thank goodness for the plants, trees and phytoplankton that cohabit this planet with us. Their expired oxygen sustains us.

A more extreme example is to consider the multitude of diverse bacteria that is colonising our gut right now, allowing us to digest each and every mouthful we consume. We ourselves are individual ecosystems and most of the DNA in our bodies doesn’t even belong to us.

When you’re naturally sharing your own body with such a vast number of other species, it makes cohabiting a piece of land outside in the elements seem quite cordial and Britishly polite in comparison doesn’t it?!

By addressing ourselves as a species within an ecosystem, all of our human ego and guilt can begin to lift and be peeled away. No longer do we seek dominion over the land, neither do we view ourselves only as a negative destructive force. Instead we really start to question our role within that ecosystem and realise it’s up to us to learn as much as we possibly can about the other species that we share it with.

The Rewilding Debate

When you talk about British ecosystems and improving them for nature there is much talk and work now to encourage the ‘rewildling’ of parts of our uplands, allowing areas to revert back to a completely feral state not managed by human beings.

One of the elements to rewilding is the release species that are currently locally extinct into these areas and many of these are known as ‘keystone species’. A keystone species is a species that has a great effect on its surrounding environment in relation to its actual numbers. They play a crucial role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community, affecting many other creatures in an ecosystem and assisting to regulate the types and numbers of various other species.

Such usual examples of keystone species are wolves, golden eagles, lynx and beavers. These are creatures that are either at the top of the food chain and regulate the species below them, or they have a profound effect on their surroundings, such as beavers.

Something that is never mentioned, however, is that we humans entirely match the keystone species description and can work as one in a farmland ecosystem.

We, like the beaver, can dig ponds, create streams and slow water down, allowing it to penetrate the soil. We can and are working currently like a wolf; our form of grazing called ‘Holistic Planned Grazing’ means we move our flock around our land as if they were on migration. Suddenly from herbivores (namely sheep in our case) damaging the soil and creating green house gases, our sheep become part of a symbiotic relationship that locks down carbon and builds topsoil, a system that’s worked for millions of years.

We can also, like a lynx, push herbivores away from wooded areas allowing them to re-establish. We can also work like smaller animals planting nuts like jays and squirrels and allow trees to grow by spreading seed like song birds and encouraging diverse wild flowers to flourish.

As we can see from the dire statistics on the decline of wildlife in the UK, conservation by itself is not enough. Personally we believe we need to stop just conserving and start regenerating our surrounding landscape. We are always told that to be sustainable we must tread lightly on the land, but just as you would not expect or desire a released beaver to treat lightly and not change its surrounding habitat, nor do we believe should we.

Our goal for Village Farm is to keep working to create copious amounts of high quality food while simultaneously developing a diverse ecosystem with an abundance of species. We humans can be a force for good as long as we are completely aware that we cohabit this land with myriad of other fellows.

Rebecca Hosking comes from a family who has farmed the land in Devon since the 1500s. She trained and worked as a wildlife camerawoman and started the campaign to ban free plastic bags after seeing the damage caused to marine wildlife all over the world. She now lives and farms full time at Village Farm in Devon. You can read more about the farm at www.thevillagefarm.co.uk and follow them on Facebook @thevillagefarm and Twitter @VillageFarmUK where the team post regularly and share their superb photography and insights.

From the Permaculture website