Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Getting shoppers to pay for greener pastures

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Agri trailblazer shares tips for growing a market for restoratively farmed food.
Foundation for Arable Research general manager business operations Ivan Lawrie with Wildfarmed co-founder Andy Cato at Crops 2022.
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Musician, farmer and guest speaker at Crops 2022 Andy Cato says keeping messaging simple is the key to getting consumers on board for food grown by more restorative and sustainable means. 

The British regenerative agriculture trailblazer, more widely known as one half of the electronic music duo Groove Armada, outlined his Wildfarmed journey to about 500 farmers who attended the annual Foundation for Arable Research (FAR) crops event at Chertsey, near Ashburton.      

Cato, who has been a mixed arable and livestock farmer for the past 15 years, has gained a new following for his work. 

In recent years he co-founded Wildfarmed, a farming philosophy that prioritises soil health and biodiversity and grows crops without the use of herbicides, fungicides or pesticides – even though there is a compromise between herbicide and tillage. 

“We can go to customers and say that by choosing this flour rather than that flour you are participating in the transformation of the landscape,” Cato said. 

“That message is empowering for a population in the United Kingdom which is largely urban. 

“A lot are concerned about biodiversity loss and climate change. 

“Very few people have made the link that how we grow our food is critical to those questions.”   

It took thousands of hours to put Wildfarmed’s messaging into simple slogans.

“We are trying to go to the high street and tell quite a complicated story about soil health in a very noisy world, and trying to compete with food that is artificially cheap.”  

Wildfarmed produces stoneground flour made from wheat grown alongside a variety of plants, grasses and legumes. 

Its 50 farmers now supply 500 outlets ranging from specialist bakeries and restaurants to UK retail chain Marks & Spencer. 

Cato’s journey started when he read an article about industrial food production and its consequences for health and the environment. 

“At the end of the article it said ‘If you don’t like the system then don’t depend on it,’ which is a phrase I took to heart.

“In what was in hindsight a madly naïve decision, I sold my songs’ publishing rights to finance the purchase of a farm. 

“It was a moment of absolute madness and I did regret it for several years afterwards.” 

The farm had grown maize almost exclusively for 80 years and had 0.5% soil organic matter. 

“I went into that thinking that I could just grow organic cereals and it would be fine, but it wasn’t. 

“I did a Sri Lanka in that it was a chemical farm and I had turned off the chemical tap.” 

Without chemical control, the farm was overrun by weeds.  

Close to selling up, Cato discovered the book An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard, published in 1943, which led him to introduce livestock and grow herbal ley mixes. 

“Within a year of mob grazing, the weeds were gone.”  

To increase diversity he grows bi-crops such as wheat and beans and is trying to develop poly-crop combinations such as barley, peas and rape. 

This combination was drilled and left, producing 5.5t a hectare from the three different species. 

He has also sown wheat into pasture, though this is prone to lodging. 

Cato was then faced with market realities:  he was growing cereals with an emphasis on the soil and ecosystems when the only measure was tonnes, not quality. This led him to set up his own flour mill and make bread. 

He accepted that he still had to rely on large parts of the existing system, such as distribution networks and high-street food chains. 

“We realised that there is a danger that you say ‘I can’t solve everything, so I’ll solve nothing’. 

“What we can do is improve the soil and ecosystems on land on which the staple crops of the UK are grown, and we will focus on that.”

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