My father Paul and uncle John Cherry had been farming the land at Weston in North Hertfordshire for over three decades with the conventional plough-based system. After too many years of bumping around in a tractor pulling heavy cultivation equipment they started to feel sorry for their soil and it dawned on them that ripping up our clay with furrows was becoming counter-productive and unsustainable. They were introduced to no-till farming and in 2010 started direct drilling with the aim to bring the soil back to life. The neighbours looked sceptical at the “untidy” fields left in stubble after harvest but soon the escalating earthworm population was doing the work of the plough that had since been sold. The reassuring green rows of next year’s crop emerged through the trash triumphantly and in the subsequent couple of years the farm witnessed its best gross margin on record, mainly due to reduced fixed and variable costs.
The shift to a no-till system felt like joining an elusive club of misfits and the tenacity to learn more about how to make it work was contagious. John was inspired by a trip to the No-Till on the Plains Conference in Kansas where a community of farmers have been convening for decades to try and reverse the degradation of the fertile Great Plains that were a giant carbon sink, fertilised by grazing bison, destroyed by a tsunami of ploughs. Ranchers like Gabe Brown (of Kiss the Ground fame) have championed the regeneration of the land through holistic grazing of livestock and no-till planting. The effects are more dramatic in their volatile climate but the principles of soil health are universal and the opportunities for healing the planet with these methods are game changing.
The concept of producing food that regenerates soil rather than degrades it is immensely powerful when you start to contemplate the possible benefits through increased biodiversity, water infiltration and carbon sequestration. The fact that we’re spending less time pulling diesel-hungry machines and reducing non-circular inputs whilst simultaneously being more financially resilient appears too good to be true - why wasn’t every farm following this system?
No-till cropping in action
Having spent many joyous years organising a music festival on the farm I was captivated by the idea of bringing farmers together to be inspired by soil health. I decided to quit my day job in the Big Smoke to launch Groundswell with John and Paul in 2016. We shipped the rainfall simulator that had provided the “lightbulb moment” over from Kansas along with its creator Bud Davis and world-leading soil scientist Dr Jill Clapperton. With the help of The Farming Forum we pulled together an impressive line-up of no-till drill machines and we had a sell-out show with 500 farmers attending.
Jay Fuhrer demonstrating the Rainfall Simulator at Groundswell
Americans seem to have an uncanny ability to speak with such conviction but regardless we were all captivated by the complexity of the soil food web and how we’d been neglecting its potential all these years. Groundswell became our family’s obsession and in our eyes all the world’s issues can be resolved with soil health.
I went to spend a couple of months travelling around America staying with regenerative farmers, visiting conferences and sitting as a guest on the board of No-Till on the Plains. The kindness of the interspersed network of “soil caretakers” was truly life affirming and made my purpose with Groundswell become more focused. The importance of the soil health mission became very clear on a 15 hour drive with Rik Bieber to South Dakota where we witnessed field after field where the rain had formed mini delta’s of topsoil run-off within the intensively cultivated system. Seeing the contrast to the postage stamp of virgin prairie land that still remains awoke me to just how apocalyptic the situation is. The no-till farmers who were regenerating the degraded land back to its former glory evidenced the practical solution, no wonder they had an evangelical twinkle in their eye.
Andy Cato, Founder of Wildfarmed, recounting his regenerative journey in the Big Top Stage at Groundswell
Regenerative Agriculture is the solution to feeding the world in perpetuity however we have a long way to go in working out how to make it become ubiquitous. It takes a fundamental mindset shift for a conventional farmer to convert and it requires a willingness to take risks which may need to be subsidised by the government or funded by private sector initiatives.
These issues are yet to be resolved but it’s one of the reasons we are expecting 5,500 attendees to Groundswell on 22nd and 23rd June. With over 120 sessions and 200 speakers across 7 stages, we’re trying to inspire farmers with practical solutions to aid adoption of regenerative practices.
We are witnessing a long overdue convergence between the food and farming worlds at Groundswell, supported of course by the SSAW Collective communal banquets.
It’s so rewarding to see farmers and growers connecting the dots with chefs and hospitality professionals, I love visualising the disruptive supply chains emerging over bottles of low intervention wine in the midsummer evening haze. If we can help the consumer to appreciate and desire regenerative farming practices then the demand-led trend will hopefully supercharge the paradigm shift.
In 2019 the Groundswell audience had outgrown the barns at Lannock Manor Farms and I launched an initiative called Grainworks which opened up the redundant farm buildings to create unique workspaces for enterprises focused in food and farming. The growing community of start-up businesses are breathing life back into the agricultural buildings which hosted the first Groundswell in 2016. What was the Conference Barn is now home to Crossover Blendery who make 100% spontaneously fermented beer, aged in oak casks. In collaboration with The Woodland Trust we have planted over 500 heritage fruit trees in an agroforestry system which will supply the flavour for the beer in years to come. You can catch a tour of the Blendery each day at Groundswell. The Old Dairy has become the Vinegar Parlour where the famous Botivo aperitif is brewed and also get a whiff of Campervan Coffee who are supplying coffee this year with beans freshly roasted at the farm.
If you are a baker, miller, market gardener or have another artisan food business and are looking for a happy home in North Hertfordshire then please get in touch - email@example.com
SSAW Collective banquet at Groundswell 2020
It’s a huge relief not to be fretting about Covid this year and we’ve had more time to curate the food offerings, I’m hugely excited about the Groundswell Real Bread Bakery “Early Risers” that will be popping up serving freshly baked 48hr fermented barley & oat porridge wholegrain sourdough by the insatiable Karen O' Donoghue.
Natoora's Taco Truck will showcase their radically seasonal, agro-ecologically grown produce from an iconic converted 1969 Dodge Stepvan. Serving up freshly milled, hand pressed tortillas with heirloom corn sourced from TAMOA's community of small-scale Mexican growers.
Honest Burger will be barbecuing sliders from a purpose-built Land Rover to showcase their new collaboration with Ethical Butcher and Grassroots Farming, offering regenerative beef farmers a premium and a solution to cutting out the supermarkets.
The Earthworm Arms Bar will be open for three nights across Groundswell with a Toast Brewery tap takeover. Or head to the Apple Cottage Cider Bar if local scrumpy is more your tipple.
Stay the night in one the glamping tents pitched by the legendary Woodville Projects and you won’t have far to stumble to a comfy bed before an early start to join the dawn chorus bird walk in the ancient woodland.
One key session not to miss on the Wednesday is Henry Dimbleby giving an update to the National Food Strategy he laid out a year ago. There is a huge weight of responsibility on the Government’s shoulders to sort out the mess we’re in and optimistically there’s so much potential with positive policy changes but it needs our engagement. If you’re at Groundswell please visit the DEFRA stand to give your opinion and on Thursday Secretary of State George Eustice will be on stage with the President of the NFU, Minette Batters and Natalie Bennet from the Green Party. It promises to be a really important debate.