The green farmer leads by example
Peter French opened his farm to a group of nearly 40 visitors last week to share his ideas on how local farmers can adapt to the changing conditions they face, writes ACT member Audrey Compton.
He operates 280 hectares (700 acres) near Stokeneignhead and works to reduce his farm’s carbon footprint, becoming more self-sufficient and designing farming systems that work together to improve productivity, profitability and soil health. .
One big change Peter has made is to move from running a farm with few livestock to regenerative agriculture, where cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens all help enrich the soil and increase its content. in organic matter (and therefore in carbon). He also grows wheat, barley, oats, rapeseed, fodder beet and corn.
Peter is also keen to take advantage of the growing demand for locally grown food. He rents part of his land to a local producer who sells vegetables in his small farm shop.
He believes there might be a future for the two of them at a larger, better located farm store, which would serve the neighboring communities of Teignmouth, Newton Abbot and Torbay.
Already some of his meat and eggs are sold on the farm, along with a cafe in Teignmouth, which he and his wife own.
Farmers are under increasing pressure to reduce their impact on the environment. Land use, including agriculture, forestry and peatlands, accounts for 12% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
These emissions must drop significantly if the UK is to meet its climate targets. To achieve this, the agricultural support system is being overhauled. The basic payment scheme, which pays a lump sum per acre of land, is being phased out. Its replacement, the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), will be rolled out from 2024. This will provide public money for public goods, such as better air and water quality, and wildlife. prosperity, soil health or measures to reduce flooding and combat the effects of climate change.
Peter French is ahead of the game here. For many years he worked closely with the RSPB, the owner of the lands he leases in Labrador Bay, to secure government grants to fund the many ways he helps wildlife on his farm. This year he applied for a Countryside Stewardship grant, which will eventually be replaced by ELMS.
The government is encouraging farmers to apply for the subsidy, saying that by making a deal now, they will be in a good position to benefit from the ELMS when it goes live.
RSPB lands in Labrador Bay are used as habitat for cirl sparrows. When Peter took over his father’s Deane farm for the first time, the number of Cirl’s Sparrows in the UK had fallen from extinction levels to around 100 pairs, all in South Devon, and with the core the most important in Labrador Bay. Today, 28 years later, thanks to the work of farmers like Peter, there are over 1,000 pairs, and their geographic area is expanding.
You can see that Peter enjoys the challenge of finding new circular ways to make his farm more sustainable. Having cattle on the farm adds fertility, which is further enhanced by disruptive crops such as herbaceous plants (grass plus several deep-rooted grasses that can extract generally inaccessible minerals). Seagrass can reduce the worm load on livestock and in so doing reduce the use of dewormers which can kill dung beetles and many other beneficial soil invertebrates.
On some of his land, Peter grows grain for seed corn, which sells well but requires more fertilizers and herbicides. Peter is concerned about the effect of these treatments on long-term soil health and is always looking for ways to improve it.
He is concerned about the environmental dangers of using ammonium nitrate and the nitrous oxide it releases, which is accelerating climate change.
However, it is wary of using sewage sludge due to the high levels of heavy metals, and is also wary of composted household green waste, which contains low levels of plastic. He believes farmers need to be more tolerant of weeds in their crops, which aren’t a problem when rolled up and fed to livestock.
Another change in practice is to use a “minimum tillage” cultivator to plant a new crop, rather than a plow. This digs shallower, causing less damage to the soil and releasing less carbon. Peter also plans to plant more hedges to reduce soil erosion from heavy rains on his sloping fields, if the subsidy payments adequately cover the costs. Hedges can hold soil and slow runoff if properly placed.
He is on his way to a more carbon-friendly agriculture and is keen to share what he has learned, even going so far as to forgo a day’s work to welcome a mixed group of farmers and wildlife enthusiasts to his farm. . It was much appreciated.
The event was funded by advisers from Devon County Council and Teignbridge Council. It was edited by the RSPB and ACTion on Climate in Teignbridge, and is part of a series led for farmers by ACT’s Food, Farming, Forestry and Fisheries group.