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For Tom Bradshaw, Farming Sustainably Means Managing the Environment

Tom Bradshaw presses go on his Nespresso machine, in the kitchen of his family’s farmhouse near Colchester, UK.  It’s a modern feature in a traditional setting: Parts of the house date back to the 16th Century. Tom’s own family has farmed here since the 1950’s and in Essex since 1937. His sense of connection with the past and being a steward of this land for future generations is keen:

“My father was brought up on this farm,” says Tom.  “I was brought up in the village, running around the fields and understanding what farming is about.  That means that when we’re making decisions about managing that environment we don’t take those decisions lightly. We must make sure future generations can produce from productive land.”

The farm is set amongst a beautiful, undulating landscape typical of this part of the English countryside.  It’s a small farm of 62 hectares, but the family also manages 1400 hectares of neighboring farmland for other people, growing combinable crops like spring and winter barley and wheat, oil seed rape, linseed, peas and beans.  The barley is for malting into beers, wheat gets milled for bread, linseed for animal feed.

The link with the past gives Bradshaw a good perspective on how the challenges he faces today compare with those faced by his grandfather, nearly 70 years ago.

“When my grandfather started farming it was post-war time, and it was all about production. They were driven to produce as much food as they could. Now, we are facing more political constraints than we ever have done. The realisation that we’re here to produce food is sometimes forgotten.”

The production challenge for Europe’s farmers is acute. Like every other business today, agriculture is affected by the global picture. Rising yields in other parts of the world, who often have access to the most advanced tools and technologies, are putting pressure on prices, to the point where many European farms struggle to break even.

 “At the moment what seems very strange is that many of us are subsidising food production. We’ve been diversifying and have a big equestrian centre. At the moment the equestrian centre is subsidising our farming business. We are producing food at below the cost of production, and that is something that is very difficult, and you have to question whether there’s a need – or a will – to do that long term.”

Part of the challenge Tom and farmers like him face is the availability of modern tools to enhance productivity. To be sure, the UK farming industry supports regulation – EU or otherwise – that favors innovation and productivity. Many countries in the world grow genetically modified crops, and as a result are able to increase yields year on year. This isn’t an option in Europe, where sentiment and the political framework remains strongly against GM. Another of the tools in a farmers’ toolbox, pesticides, are also under threat, with more and more being banned under EU regulation. For Tom, an agronomist by training, this causes concern.

“The challenges facing us at the moment, with particularly weed pressure but also disease pressure, means if I try to go without pesticides tomorrow then our output will probably halve. A lot of organic production is producing somewhere 50 – 60% less.  We know our output would fall if we didn’t have access to pesticides, and it would fall dramatically. Some crops wouldn’t be possible to grow. If we all took the decision to go organic, food prices would have to rise because production would fall.  That’s OK for the wealthy, but what happens to those who can’t afford food?”

The primary justification given for restricting access to pesticides is concern for their impact on the environment and human health. But despite popular perceptions to the contrary, Tom sees no conflict between using pesticides and looking after the environment.

“I’m not scared to say we’re using pesticides. We use them as little as we can, but we need to use them to maximise production. We’re doing a massive amount for the environment. Natural England came to our farm.  In an hour and a half they saw five ‘red list’ species of endangered birds; they saw English Partridge, Corn Bunting, Reed Bunting, Linnet and 70 Yellow Hammer flying out of the field. We plant areas of the fields for birds and bees. All our water courses are buffered by grass margins to prevent soil getting into the water. We farm sustainably, and that includes using pesticides.”

Tom feels that the stringent registration processes pesticides go through should give the public confidence in their safety. He points out that getting new products registered is extremely challenging – taking 10-12 years of intensive testing. Testing that is focused on potential impact on other species, like arthropods, birds, soil, and the likelihood of it making it to a water course. This, combined with extremely strict conditions around their use in the field, leads Tom to conclude that “I have absolute confidence that if a new product has got to me it’s been through so many hurdles that it’s safe.“

If this is true, why are pesticides so unpopular – and why is there so much pressure to ban some of them?

“I feel there’s a big throwback from public opinion to the way we were farming 30 years ago. Pesticides were probably much easier to register. The tests weren’t as strict. But sometimes I wonder whether the public really do have an issue with what we’re doing.  I think it’s a minority that do – but they are a very vocal minority who are able to make a noise far greater than their numbers and sometimes that’s what’s creating our problems.

“I wholeheartedly believe that the job we’re doing is environmentally-friendly, sustainable and I love producing food. But the connection between the public and the farmer has been lost over generations. When I look back 50 years, half of this village would have been involved in the harvest, whereas now no one is. So they are losing that connection with where food comes from. It’s incredibly important to me that people understand what farmers are doing, where their food is coming from and that we take pride in producing healthy product.”

With his personal connection to the land he farms, combined with extensive education in agriculture and agronomy qualifications, Tom Bradshaw seems uniquely well-placed to understand how farming in this area has evolved, and the pressures faced by modern farmers.  Finally, his attention turns to what’s in store for future generations.

“I think the last five years of farming have seen massive change, which many of us are tackling head on and adapting our businesses, but it’s about ensuring we still have access to all the tools that we need. The change in the industry over the coming two decades will be massive, be it automated machines like driverless tractors. It’s really exciting.

“But the real challenge is production. It’s suggested that we need to produce more food in the next 100 years than we have in the past 10,000 years to feed a global population that will reach 9.5 billion. This is a challenge we have to take seriously now; if we wait it will be too late. If we’re not careful, some of the regulation will stop that development in Europe.”