I have a confession… over the last few years I have been going through a mid life crisis! (at least from a farming perspective). For some time, I have felt that things are out of balance and have been seeking to establish a new operational equilibrium at Mindrum.
This has been driven, in a large part by listening to the place (and everything that lives there). I have spent much of the last few years, engaged in a “deep dive” trying to understand the issues at play and learn the skills required to address them. I have been looking at conventional doctrine along with a number of historical, and more current (or revived) approaches. Whilst we are in organic conversion, I see the journey we are on as being much more than the implementation of a conventional organic (small “c”) framework. It has called for a paradigm shift (sorry for the cliche!); a completely different way of thinking. My eyes continue to be opened on a daily basis, but the biggest challenge has been to pull things together into a coherent strategy. This is what I am seeking to do here.
Having been a “strategic farmer” for many years, with the day to day operations managed by a highly effective and sympathetic conventional farmer neighbour, but for some years I felt that we were missing something. This is not a general observation, but based on my observations of a specific piece of ground and the interactions that exist there. I appreciate that many of the issues are wider and more general, but it is seems to me that in agriculture, context really should be critical and I have been struggling to find an approach which really recognises this context in the operational planning process.
Though I have spent most of my life immersed in Farming, my formal training has been in other areas, whether as a simple soldier or an information security and risk consultant, I suppose my task has been about balancing objectives, context and risk in order to understand the best way forward. Rightly, or wrongly, this has shaped my current perspective on agricultural operations at Mindrum.
I have always been fascinated by natural history, natural systems and the astonishingly effective balance of systems that nature has evolved over billions of years. It strikes me that whilst we need to simplify the issues to the extent that we can understand them, we also need to embrace the complexity and granularity at play in complex systems. It would seem that this dichotomy lies at the heart of many of the challenges we face in understanding how to interact with our home in a sympathetic way.
Being a simple soul, I use a simplistic model to understand where we are here at Mindrum. I use a simple 4 layer concentric ring model which puts the complex systems in perspective, and to understand how agriculture interacts with the natural environment.
A Natural Farming System
At the centre we have Physics. This is where the actual molecular action happens at the heart of the agricultural engine room. This is what we depend upon to produce food and delivery a range of what have become known as ecosystem services. The next layer out is the chemistry that creates the conditions that enable the physics. The third layer out, in a natural system, is Biology. This is where nature creates the conditions for the chemistry which shapes the physics. On the outside, we have the Farm Ecosystem that we are using to manage the overall system in context.
A Conventional Farming System
The significant change which has occurred, particularly over the past 40 years, is that in what has become known as the conventional farming model, we have effectively replaced the Biology ring with Agrochemistry.
By replacing Biology with agrochemistry, we were able to achieve a much more “consistent and controllable” system. This approach takes out many of the agricultural variables which had vexed farmers for millennia. It introduced a whole lifecycle intervention based model which offered technical solutions for a vast number of the problems with which agriculture has wrestled since hunter gatherers first decided to plant seeds.
We are often asked to “follow the science”. It is hard to argue that the farming industry has been doing anything else over the past few years, though it is easy to forget that 50 years ago, the exam question presented to global agriculture was subtly different; as the sector was tasked to feed a planet and a global population which was set to double in 50 years.
It could be said that the conventional agrochemical paradigm achieved its objectives: repeatable, consistent food production, increasing yields, and a reduction of the impact of many of the variables that Nature throws at mankind. Many of the impacts, however, are now becoming clear as we begin to understand long term impacts on the health of Soil, Humans and the ecosystem.
Whilst I am committed to moving back to a more natural balance at Mindrum, I do see that in some contexts different models may remain appropriate to some degree and that different people will find a different point of balance. I think we all need to be live to the range of impacts of our operations and make what we feel are appropriate decisions.
At Mindrum, my aim is to shift to a system which engages nature’s natural systems to achieve optimal production in balance with the ground. There are many aspects to this, but it has become clear that one of the principle challenges I face here is to re-establish and re-engage the functional natural framework that drives the natural ecosystem but that we had inadvertently disabled with a number of our conventional practices. In order to understand this I have looked a range of approaches in order to create a toolkit that works at Mindrum.
In order to try to gain some clarity, not least in my own mind, I propose to share and explore some of the challenges we are facing on our journey to achieve a productive, profitable and sustainable balance at Mindrum.