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Farming today? A complete nightmare. Says Prue Leith

Blog | By Prue Leith | Jun 24, 2024

Prue Leith - image from Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that queen bees can suddenly start laying eggs that make drones instead of worker bees?

So instead of a colony of industrious females busily making honey to feed the hive, you have nothing but useless drones. All the bees starve to death. That was our first lesson in organic farming.

Then, full of self-righteous zeal, we planted an apple orchard with trees in danger of extinction because no one plants them any more. Now I know why.

No one in their right mind would plant trees bearing fruit too small to peel, scabby (no pesticides allowed), misshapen and too sour to eat. Good only for apple jelly. And how much of that can you foist on your friends?

Next, a wildflower meadow. Easy. You just chuck the seeds about and up they come like the picture on the packet. No? Definitely no.

First you have to get rid of the grass, which is not easy without herbicides. So you do your best with chain harrow and rake. Then you scatter the seeds and roll them lightly to stop the birds eating

them. When the grass comes up (which it will, believe me), you mow it as short as you can to give the flowers a chance.

We did all that, and nothing appeared but thistles, docks and rape, blown in from a neighbour’s farm. Now in year three, we are once again hoping for a glorious field of colour, alive with bees and butterflies.

There are over 500 grants to encourage sustainable farming practices such as re- laying hedges, mending gates and fences, ensuring wide strips of uncultivated field margin, leaving stubble unploughed and providing wetland for waders.

But it’s mad. You have to apply for one grant for the fence, another for the gate and a third for the hard standing under the gate.

Grants might amount to half the cost of buying the material, but don’t cover the labour.

And it’s impossibly confusing: you can get grants for forests of trees, but not for small copses. There’s a grant for fruit trees such as elder, but not for native walnuts. The bureaucracy defeated us, so we hired someone to cope with it. Her fees wipe out the grants.

The Cotswolds probably has a greater density of organic farms than anywhere because it’s where the rich, who can afford to go organic, live. It takes at least two years to convert. During that time, you cannot use chemicals to boost crop growth and the soil is not yet good enough to produce a profitable crop. You plant nothing but clover (to fix nitrogen) and borrow sheep to eat it and to manure your fields. You cannot sell anything you raise or grow as organic.

So, right now, the only farmers converting to sustainable farming are huge landowners or rich hobby ones. Small family farmers (the majority) cannot afford what’s good for the planet and good for the soul.

Prue Leith presents The Great British Bake Off