Organic farming gets royal patronage in England
twelve journalists, including me, visited Prince Charles' organic farm at Highgrove in Gloucestershire, England as part of training arranged by the the Reuters Foundation for environmental journalists. The 400 hectare estate we were bound for is called 'Dutchy Home Farm'. Those who live and work on the Dutchy Home Farm, often see the future monarch of England on a Sunday morning, a pruner in hand, working alone, tending some of the many hundreds of trees planted on the estate. The farm is more than a weekend retreat where a prince comes to 'revitalise his soul'.
The Highrove estate is an island of ecological excellence, surrounded by some of the most aggressively farmed arable lands in the uk. T he unique mindset of the management helps the immense diversity of flora and fauna flourish on the estate. As David Wilson, the farm manager, puts it succinctly, "We have changed our method of farming, that's the key." The objective is to run a farm profitably yet ensure the environment is not 'starved'.
The farm turned anew when in 1985 Prince Charles decided to start experimenting with organic production. In the middle and late 1980s, farmers enjoyed one of the most prosperous times in Britain's recent history. Most of them dismissed the decision to convert to organic farming as a princely eccentricity, of no relevance to people's lives. Now the farm, an organic enterprise, thrives commercially. Waving on the horizon, already 1.5 metre high, is this year's rye. The rye does not blow down. It happens only with crops grown in the conventional manner where stalks are weakened by the nitrogen fertiliser. In an organic enterprise, clover crops are used to 'fix' nitrogen from the air to enrich the soil naturally.
Hedges have played a vital part in the wealth of bird species that now inhabit the estate. The Dutchy Home Farm was one of the three pairs of organic and conventional units which underwent a detailed study of flora species. Surprisingly a total of 120 different flowers, 30 grasses, and 30 hedgerow trees and shrubs were identified. Field margins were found rich in grass species such as fescue, bent and timothy and the edges of organically grown crops were found to contain several endangered plant species. High populations of predatory insects which thrive in hedge and field-margin habitats, are considered a boon where sprays are useless as a defense against aphid attack. An official research project to monitor aphids on organic crops found that numbers were much lower than on conventional farms and it was concluded that the biodiversity of the environment and the presence of natural predators had an effect.
As the farming crisis has switched attention to organic methods almost overnight, the Highgrove Estate has become the focus of attention for many farmers. While conventional farmers begin to question the high level of inputs that have dictated their livelihood for decades, Prince Charles reaps a bumper crop. The benefits may not figure on the farm's balance sheet but they have inestimable value as part of the ethos of of a sustainable approach to agriculture.
In the face of all the neurosis about genetically modified crops all over the world and especially in Britain, more people are banking on organic food to provide them with a sense of security about what they eat and perhaps a bit more flavour. The demand for organic produce is growing at a remarkable pace and consumers are still prepared to pay the premium. Retailers cannot keep up with the demand. The Dutchy Home Farm, with a herd of 130 Ayrshire milkers, 90 beef sucker cows, 50 ewes and 150 hectare of arable land is today a modern, working agricultural unit operating on a profit and based on a wide range of enterprises. But while environmental concerns are given priority, profitability is not sacrificed. One corroborative evidence of this is the farmers who used to mock Highgrove's methods, now flock to see the farm.
Rauf Hameed is a freelance writer based in Pakistan
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