When we came back to my family farm a few years ago, we knew that our approach to farming would need a huge rethink in order for the farm to survive in these times of economic and climatic uncertainty.
Since then we have spent an inordinate amount of time researching, designing and trying to establish new, holistic, low energy approach to many a farming 'problem'. This has inevitably meant a lot of mistakes, dead ends and wasted opportunities along the way.
The Four Blinkers of the Apocalypse
Interestingly we've now realized that each 'cock-up' (theoretical or practical) we have made can be attributed to one of four barriers to progress which we now – rather hyperbolically – refer to as The Four Blinkers of the Apocalypse!
1) Received wisdom
2) Availability of money
3) Fossil fuel power
4) What will the neighbours think?
Just as the blinkers on a plough horse's head keep them on the straight and narrow and dealing with the furrow at hand, these cultural blinkers make it very hard for us to explore the full range of possibilities for devising truly sustainable farming.
If you're practising permaculture – or any aspect of ecological growing/farming – I'm sure you have already run headlong into the problem of received wisdom. As I see it, the challenging of received wisdom is an implicit and very important part of permaculture. The world of agriculture today, however, tends to be somewhat less questioning in its thinking.
Most days we fall foul of some bit of received farming wisdom, such as:
In this climate and on clay soils you have to bring your animals into barns in the winter;
Unless you put down a little fertilizer (whether chemical or organic) the grass won't grow well;
Big cows make more money than small ones;
Small farms don't make a profit.
I wish we'd woken up to it sooner but it's only been recently that we're beginning to get the hang of questioning everything.
Questioning 'new blood'
On farming issues, I think I'm far more susceptible to falling for received wisdom than my other half, Tim, simply because he's 'new blood' and not from a farming background. Because of this he can try and view a problem with a degree of detachment whereas I more easily get clouded by tradition.
'We've always done it like that' is an often-heard phrase on our farm. Ask 'why?' and you'll be told 'because that's how it's done'. This annoying circularity is often just perpetuating matters of little consequence but sometimes there is more at stake.
For instance, there are a whole host of chemicals and veterinary pharmaceuticals that are regularly poured on, sprayed at, injected into and squirted down the gullets of our sheep and cattle to keep them healthy and free from parasites.
We have always been a little uncomfortable with this but understand that at the very least it is an animal welfare issue and amounts to good husbandry. Over the last few years we have been researching natural and herbal alternatives (of which there are many to try!) but never thought to question the big assumption that 'parasites and diseases are inevitably a part of rearing livestock'. This is the received wisdom.
Ask a few searching questions and you soon realise that the prevalence of parasitic, viral and bacterial infections in domestic livestock is largely down to them spending too much time around their own poo. No big surprise really!
The solution to this problem isn't Dektomax®, Nilzan®, Crovect®, Combinex® or even a 100% natural herbal wormer or homemade salve of wild garlic, cider vinegar and happy dancing alder catkins. The solution is to keep your animals away from their own poo and to keep them moving on to fresh ground like they would in the wild. All the other options are treating symptoms not the cause.
Now tell this to a hypothetical farmer and he will probably agree but will then go on to give you a whole host of reasons why moving livestock fast enough to outpace parasites is not practically feasible on his land (as a bunch, we farmers are generally very good at making excuses). I'd hazard a guess, however, that almost every given reason will be based on received wisdom and, as such, not necessarily true.
This is in no way our hypothetical farmer's fault; properly questioning received wisdom (as opposed to just being contrary) is exceedingly difficult as it is so culturally ingrained.
When we made a film for the BBC about our farm a few years ago, I was genuinely a little ashamed (as an environmentally concerned citizen) to show that we were livestock farmers. Unable to properly square meat production with the preservation of the environment, we were happily preparing ourselves for a future as fruit and veg producers and then we read about the 2010 winner of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge.
These guys had demonstrated that something as obvious and scientifically backed as livestock production being detrimental to the environment was a gross simplification. By questioning the same received wisdom that we had blindly accepted, they had discovered that livestock production (when managed correctly) has the potential to roll back deserts and even reverse climate change.
So I guess the take home message we've learnt and I'd politely pass on – is to question everything, no matter how uncomfortable it feels.
Well I am off to move the sheep, so I shall write about the other three blinkers of the apocalypse soon.
Rebecca and Tim write a regular BLOG on permaculture and farming for Permaculture online