The names we farmers get called… | Farm Tales

…are often predictable and not always flattering. But a new term has appeared which reflects modern green thinking, says Andrew Livingston.

image Laura Hitchcock

Farmers get called a lot of names – and they’re not always nice: yokel, yeoman, crofter.
Even Worzel Gummidge still!
But a term I recently heard was that we are Carbon Stewards. Well, that’s a step up, and pretty fitting with the current fight with climate change.

Any good carbon steward worth their salt will have to know their way around their dirt. You really can’t get away from soil… it is quite literally everywhere! Still to this day, in the 21st century, I don’t believe we know everything about the earth underneath our feet. On a basic level, soil is made up of five ingredients – minerals, organic matter, living organisms, gas and water.

As I stated last month, ploughing is now seen as an archaic practice; the breaking of the soil releases carbon dioxide into the air. Now, arable farmers are being instructed to plant what is called a cover crop to introduce more carbon into the ground – a process called carbon sequestration.

Enrich the soil by doing less

Cover crops are designed to feed the earth rather than the farmer and his customers. Predominantly, when cover crops are grown to the required height, rather than being harvested, they are killed in the field so their matter can feed back into the soil. Richer soil health is not only better for the environment, but it can also increase the health and yield of your cash crop.
Additionally, the roots of the cover crop help trap and hold moisture – which can later water any nearby growing plants and vegetation, rather than having to use an irrigation system.
Finally, cover crops add important nutrients such as nitrogen into the soil, improving the growth of your harvest crop that sow into the ground next.

How they’re used

There are two main types of cover crops; ‘catch’ and ‘companion’. The first aims to catch and store as many nutrients, water and carbon dioxide into the ground before your next crop comes in. Companion crops will be grown alongside your cash crops, with the added benefit of attracting pollinators to the cash crop. With the constant reduction of pesticides being used on farms, farmers are also beginning to grow ‘sacrificial’ crops for pests such as insects and birds to eat. Think of it as placing a McDonalds next to a Michelin Star restaurant to keep the general riff-raff out!

The downside

The issue with cover crops is it is hard to see where your profit is coming from. It’s unusual to plant a crop to just kill it where it stands; you wouldn’t rear a lamb to have it slaughtered and left in the field. Some farmers are admittedly slow to take to cover crops. With margins on farms being so tight, it’s understandable that they don’t look to the future by protecting their soil. It’s not that they don’t want to take on that mantle of ‘carbon steward’, it’s more that they are worried that fighting for your ground doesn’t put food on the table or the shops. Thankfully, the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is to have funding for farmers who look to nurture their soil. Also, some water companies are offering grants for farmers’ cover crops to help trap nitrogen in the soil.

(play the short video above with sound UP to enjoy a Purple Tansy cover crop in Dorset last summer)

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