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Walk in the Countryside by Jane Pickard

Dr Jane Pickard, Head of Ecological Horticulture, writes about the state of agriculture and the 21st Century Countryside.

Jane PickardWhen did you last go for a walk in the countryside, past fields and perhaps a farmyard, and feel happy? Did you imagine yourself reclining blissfully in the cornfield, like the 1970s Flake advert?

I recently went on a walk with my family from their home in Somerset. First we went through a huge field of sweetcorn – clearly ‘conventionally’ grown because there was almost nothing growing below the seven foot high plants but the occasional unhappy-looking field bindweed. The soil was bare and compacted. Then we went down a steep hill where cows had recently been. There were cowpats everywhere with little sign of the dung beetles that should have been busily disposing of the rich pickings. By the stream at the bottom were thick beds of nettles, clearly thriving on the high nutrient levels coming through the soil down the slope. Finally we reached a field with overgrown hedges where we happily spent 3 hours, with 3 small children, collecting hazelnuts, elderberries, sloes and comfrey.
 Something has gone wrong with our farming systems when they feel alien, unwelcoming and even toxic. Unfortunately, many organic farms are only marginally better. Acres of carrots or cauliflowers with bare earth between them are a long way from the vision of Albert Howard and Eve Balfour when they started the organic movement in the UK.

Thankfully I had quite a different experience earlier in the summer when I visited Rebecca Hosking and Tim Green’s farm in South Devon. They have been farming holistically and ecologically there for four years and I have never felt more strongly that this was a place I wanted to be. The soil was soft and springy, under a thick layer of trampled grass and wildflower stems. Growing through this was a wide diversity of native wildflowers with many insects flitting between nectar sources. Some shrubs and fodder trees were becoming established and their sheep radiated health and contentment. Rebecca and Tim have achieved all this with the aid of one quad bike, 2 electric fences and a barn. Their overheads are minimal, their vet bills almost non-existent and their profits very comfortable, thank you.

We need to reclaim our rural heritage and again prioritise wildlife and a lifestyle that sustains us as human beings, rather than economic consumption units. This is why I work at Schumacher College as a lecturer in Ecological Horticulture, teaching people how to take notice of how they feel in different landscapes, to dare to imagine a different future and to develop practical skills to produce their own food. I dream of an edible landscape where nature leads and humans follow. Care to join me?

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