The Straw Cottage

eco-accommodation and growing experiments on a small scale

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The good old days?

The second speaker up on arable farm day at ORFC14 was Henry Edmunds, a Wiltshire organic farmer. Henry is an advocate of rotational ley farming – pretty much how farming was pre WW2 when grass and grazing animals improved soil ready for combinable crops later in the rotation. Over the last 60 years arable farms have become dependent on machinery and chemicals, creating a clinical environment. Grazed animals, on the other hand, build high organic matter in the soil – holding and providing more plant available nutrients. Henry showed amazing photo after photo of flowers, birds, butterflies and other insects on his farm to illustrate the biodiversity his farming methods encouraged.

Henry employs 15 staff on his 2,500 acre holding. I know that is a much higher employment rate than on most large modern farms. A quick online search found a report from the UK Food Group stating that there was roughly 1 person employed per 210 hectares (520 acres) of arable crops in 1993. On that basis Henry would employ 5 people (probably less now as employment rates have continued to decline in the last 20 years), so he is doing at least three times better than the UK average.

The same report stated that in 1950, 1 person was employed per 31 hectares (77 acres) so back then Henry’s farm would have provided a livelihood for 32 people. Agricultural work in 1950 was physically very demanding and I wouldn’t recommend a return to the past in that way – there’s nothing wrong with appropriate machinery making physical tasks easier. But 32 clever human brains working to improve natural and agricultural biodiversity – now that would be interesting work.