Spring work continues here at Low Sizergh Farm with ploughing, harrowing, stone picking, seed drilling and rolling. No one likes picking stones. There isn’t a machine for it and the only tool is hands. Yet, for Farmer Richard, it’s satisfying to be working on tasks that form part of a complete and natural cycle: the cows’ manure feeds the soil, the soil nourishes the new crop of peas and barley, and next winter that harvested crop will feed the herd…and so it continues.
How we choose to prepare and plant the field throws up some questions, though. There’s a strong Min-till movement in UK farming, which has demonised ploughing. So much so, that the Groundswell event saw a mechanised plough half-buried in a field and daubed RIP. Certainly, ploughing has negative connections with intensive farming and soil erosion, so farmer Richard is keen to read and to learn where it can fit with natural farming practice.
This work coincides with him reading The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel. Lewis-Stempel describes his modern-day experience of life as a ploughman, lived at 3mph. Starting with the first cut, which ensures all that follows is straight and square, he spends the day “Janus-faced; half the time I’m looking forward, half the time I’m swivelled back looking at the plough behind me”. Not a bad description of farming generally – looking alternately back and forward to find the best ways to take care of land and livestock.
Ploughing principles are also under test with ploughing, low till and no-till models being directly compared over five years at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s farm at Loddington, Leicestershire. It’ll be interesting to see the full study with pros and cons revealed.
Until then, we’re happy that ploughing a field once every five years sits well here – connecting us to age-old rituals and delivering a good crop for the coming winter.