Farmers can save the world, says new 'regenerative' community

The Regenerative Agricultural Community East (RACE) held its first meeting at Old Hall Farm in Woodton

The Regenerative Agricultural Community East (RACE) held its first meeting at Old Hall Farm in Woodton. From left are speakers Josiah Meldrum, Stuart and Rebecca Mayhew with their son Jack, Hugh Somerleyton and Nathan Nelson - Credit: Chris Hill

Farming has the power to "save the world" - but it will require cultural change in the industry and societal change among hungry food consumers.

That was the message from a new group formed to galvanise East Anglia's growing "regenerative farming" movement.

The Regenerative Agricultural Community East (RACE) met for the first time at Old Hall Farm in Woodton, near Bungay, run by Rebecca and Stuart Mayhew.

It aims to connect the region's farmers, retailers and consumers - shortening supply chains, supporting sustainable farming and helping improve food security.

The Regenerative Agricultural Community East (RACE) held its first meeting at Old Hall Farm in Woodton near Bungay

The Regenerative Agricultural Community East (RACE) held its first meeting at Old Hall Farm in Woodton near Bungay - Credit: Chris Hill

Around 80 people at the inaugural meeting heard from speakers including Nathan Nelson from Deepdale Farm in north Norfolk, and Hugh Somerleyton from the Somerleyton Estate near Lowestoft.

Also speaking was Josiah Meldrum from Hodmedod's, the producer of beans, peas, lentils and quinoa based at Brampton, near Beccles.

All gave their perspective on the massive cultural change needed to reverse environmental decline while feeding a growing population whose food choices are mainly driven by price, not provenance. 

But Mrs Mayhew said it was not an impossible challenge.

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"We are in a very privileged position as farmers and landowners because we have all the tools at our disposal to make all the difference in the world to climate change, and to people's health, through food and farming and how we look after our soils and our ecosystems," she said.

"If we don't take control now, when are we going to do it?"

Dairy cows at Old Hall Farm in Woodton near Bungay

Dairy cows on the lush pastures at Old Hall Farm in Woodton near Bungay - Credit: Rebecca Mayhew

Mr Mayhew outlined Old Hall Farm's radical regenerative transformation in recent years, from an intensive pig farm into a high-welfare “cow with calf” dairy, with animals grazing lush pastures within a soil-friendly system.

Diversifications include a farm shop and cafe which has grown to £1.2m turnover and a 25-strong workforce in just four years.

He said: "We have shifted from an intensive, industrial, fossil-fuel-driven model of agriculture to an extensive, pastoral, solar-driven diversified model of agriculture," he said. "We have found ways to take control and we now have a farming system with so many strings to our bow."

Nathan Nelson, estate manager at Deepdale Farm in Burnham Deepdale, has overseen another landscape transformation.

The catalyst was the severe storms in 2020 which exposed the poor state of the soil, with intense rainfall washing tonnes of topsoil away and flooding neighbouring properties.

Her said contributing factors included the intensive production of wheat, carrots, potatoes and maize, a lack of vegetative cover in winter and a "reliance on chemicals over biology".

Now the whole farm has been redesigned, with 60pc of the land taken out of food production and devoted to environmental features under a Countryside Stewardship agreement.

Root vegetables have been removed from the rotation, cover crops and clover leys have been planted, and sheep are grazing the land for the first time in 50 years as part of the drive to protect and improve the soil and biodiversity.

Nature-rich former arable land at Deepdale Farm in Burnham Deepdale

Nature-rich former arable land at Deepdale Farm in Burnham Deepdale - Credit: Brittany Woodman

"We don't want to stop farming," said Mr Nelson. "The principle is still 'farming first'.

"But the areas that we are farming we want to farm intensively and sensitively. And now 60pc of the farm is managed for biodiversity and integrated pest management."

Hugh Somerleyton has championed regenerative practices and rewilding at his estate near Lowestoft, and is a founding trustee of nature movement WildEast, whose ambition is to restore 20pc of the region's land to nature.

He said farmers must collectively "repay their debt to nature", but a "societal shift" is also needed to combat climate change and biodiversity decline.

"It is a very emotional, very difficult thing to change, he said. "There are lots of people doing good things, but unless we all do it and it is a cultural thing, it is not going to succeed.

"Food security is a big issue, and it is very easy for farms to push back and say we need to produce food because there is a war on. But we need to rethink how we look at food security. 

"80pc of the WildEast region is farmland, and about 50-60pc of that is either growing meat or growing food for meat animals - and 30pc of the food we create is wasted.

"So there's plenty of room to give space for nature. But it needs a culture change from farmers and a change in the way we eat."

Josiah Meldrum of Hodmedod's called for a transition to "agroecological food systems" instead of the historic drive towards ever-greater yields.

He gave an example of one of his farmer suppliers who had replaced wheat grown for animal feed, with peas and pulses for human consumption - which had "decommodified" their crops and created closer relationships with consumers.

"I really hope that RACE can start to bring people together to think about this new future where people are well fed and we are not jeopardising our future," he said.