| Hélene Guild | août 2019 |
Agriculture has, for the past decades, been disconnected from consumers and local needs. Matthew Livingston explains why he started “Enso Farm” in Oxfordshire to address this.
Tell me about your studies and what inspired you most
During the dissertation period of my master degree in Edinburgh, I went to Sweden to do a Permaculture Design Course. This experience drove my educational/mental shift from mechanical, technological thinking to more complex, whole-systems thinking.
What did you get out of farming in Costa Rica?
I saw how hard it is to be « self-sufficient », and that this shouldn’t necessarily be the end goal. Humans have always relied on each other as communities, and there is nothing wrong with this. We need to shift back from our over-individualised society to one that is more communitarian in nature.
I also saw just how hard it is to produce commodity crops for the global market, specifically cacao and coffee, and how, if we purchase and consume these goods, we should be willing to pay a premium to support farmers to create quality super foods.
Are we going through a third revolution in agriculture?
There are two convergent and conflicting evolutionary forces, as there always have been: the yang of industrial, high-capital, high-input, high-tech, reductionist « conventional » agriculture, and the yin of reduced input, nature-mimicking, systems-orientated organic and regenerative agriculture.
Both sides have developed significantly over the last century, arguably the former more so due to the advent of synthetic fertilisers, machinery and other chemicals, but smallholder farmers do still feed the majority of the world and the organic/regenerative movement, coupled with soil science, has made great mental leaps that so-called « conventional » agriculture hasn’t yet caught up to; once they do, and the detrimental effects of chemicals, tillage and GMO crops are well-known enough by farmers to beat down the arguments and sales tactics made by the mega-corporations, I hope farmers will want to do what is best for their soils, their crops, animals and humankind.
What is happening with intensive farming?
The same trends that are happening in other technological fields are being applied to farming, under the guise of « precision agriculture ». Drones, machine learning, and more efficient tractors are the name of the game, as well as « indoor vertical farming » where plants are kept in sterilised, insulated warehouses under artificial lights and fed liquid nutrients, displacing soil and all associated biodiversity altogether.
In fact, there are different forms of intensity that can be applied in more earth-friendly ways, such as practiced in agroforestry and intensive market gardening. Permaculture practices the idea of « stacking functions in time and space ». An example of stacking functions in space in agroforestry would be a nitrogen-fixing tree canopy above coffee, and stacking in time and space could be timber trees in a pasture, providing fodder and shelter to rotationally grazed animals before the timber harvest. These systems may have lower yield in one output when compared with conventional systems, but greater overall yield when you sum up the diversity of yields obtained, as well as greater long-term sustainability. The real question is not whether organic can feed the planet, but why we would want to continue to support an unsustainable agriculture?
Why is soil science so essential?
Without fertile soil, there is no civilisation that can be sustained; every civilisation that has failed to renew its soil has collapsed. At Ensō Farm (6.6 hectares), our main goal is to increase biological activity and diversity, in the soil and above it, through plant selection and management, and feeding the soil applications of compost, compost tea, vermi-compost, plant tea extracts, and more. Healthy soils are full of life, including microbes like bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes; they promote and sustain the rest of life, from arthropods to birds, worms and humans.
How do you start a farm in the 21st century?
Believe in yourself and develop positive mental and physical practices, save up or borrow capital, get (re-)educated, find land, make a plan, start and keep going! We need many more bio-intensive, holistically minded farmers, gardeners, land and sea workers. It means no chemicals, less tillage, less over-doing. This should lead to a sustainable (agri)culture.
How can we limit our carbon footprint?
Practice some form of voluntary simplicity for a time, whether it’s through Stoicism, Zen, budget travel, or mindfulness. Observe and experience how people in deserts live, read Dune, or accidentally break your mains water line. The more you can see and feel what sustains you, the more care you will impart to those resources. Technology can help us, but isn’t a panacea and never will be, as all non-biological technologies do not regenerate themselves and thus degrade over time. So we need to work with nature and biological forces, know ourselves and what we really want, in order to live lightly and peacefully on the planet with each other and other species, and to do more good rather than just less bad.
Do you see your farm as part of a local circular economy?
Ultimately yes, the need for re-localisation and effective use of resources, especially many we call « waste » are paramount to thriving local communities. We have to find and utilise every way possible to return to the land what we take from it. I’m personally still testing the waters of whether people here are prepared to pay more for local, and whether they should have to, but my suspicion is that most people do want to be healthy and will pay a fair price for something that can be shown to be truly nutritive and sustainable.
Do you think your generation wants to make a difference in climate and environmental issues?
I do. In my small class of environmental sustainability masters students we had representatives from all over the world, and I’ve seen and read about the expansion of the movement for many years now. It feels to be growing, and activist authors like Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and countless others have done fantastic work to link together the issues of global warming, inequality, and uneconomic growth.
Propos recueillis par Hélène Guild
What is “No Dig”?
« No-dig » or No-till means growing plants without plowing or tilling the soil.
The practice is rooted in the scientific and cultural knowledge that nature builds soil from above, and thus mimics this by feeding the soil with organic matter such as compost on the surface.
Tilling has numerous fall-backs, including destroying soil life such as arthropods and especially fungal mycelium, which we now know form beneficial relationships with plants; it also introduces oxygen into the soil which binds with free carbon, forming carbon dioxide, and hence is a contributor to global warming. This is not to mention the compaction caused by heavy machinery use, as well as the fossil fuels used to power them.
Permaculture survival kit
« Permaculture is a way of thinking and living based on the design of sustainable or regenerative systems. »
Follow: Ben Falk, Toby Hemenway, Masanobu Fukuoka, Naomi Klein, Paul Stamets, and David Holmgren, Richard Perkins, Charles Dowding…
Book: Falk Ben, The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach, Chelsea Green Publishing Co