Illustration by Adam Q

Farming life: A hop across the pond

In a sea of plaid shirts and baseball caps at a US farming conference, my hope for an eco-friendly future was restored
March 3, 2022

I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t believe half of the things that happened at an American farmers’ conference I attended in January this year. A positive lateral flow test just a few days before my booked flight to the US led to some pricey alterations to my schedule. However, eventually I made it to Louisville, Kentucky, to join around 650 farmers from across the US at the National No-Tillage Conference 2022.

The British farmer’s wardrobe has seen a cultural change in recent years, from the checked shirt and tweed jacket of the 20th century to the checked shirt and Schöffel bodywarmer of the modern era. Although, at a UK farming conference, one could expect to see plenty of both the traditional and modern varieties of waist-up attire twinned with chinos or corduroy in any variation of beige. By contrast, upon arriving at the hotel by taxi from Louisville airport, I was adrift in a sea of plaid shirts and John Deere baseball caps. Please note, other brands of baseball cap are available, though it was difficult to make that observation at this conference.

Having only previously attended farming conferences in the UK, I hadn’t anticipated many of the American rituals. I hadn’t expected such an emotive, knowledgeable and supportive opening speech from the agriculture commissioner for Kentucky; we merely dream of such utterances from politicians over here. I hadn’t expected each day to begin with prayer, though I found the humility of these (mainly) men and (some) women wonderfully grounding. I’m sure fellow Lives contributor Alice Goodman would approve, as do I. Furthermore, it was heart-warming to see the way that family was openly cherished; virtually every presentation began with a multi-generational family photo and an endearing description of how each family member had contributed to bringing the speaker to the stage.

I also hadn’t anticipated meeting a man, known only as “Rock,” who told me,“you’ll love this: I wrote ‘Trump 2020’ in red millet across a quarter-section field.” Red millet is a grain species grown both for livestock and for human consumption; a US quarter section is an area of land half-a-mile by half-a-mile square. Needless to say, that is a significant endorsement of Donald Trump. Rock gave me a taste of the special breed of Republican voter you encounter when you leave the US coastline.

This is in no way a derogatory description: despite their penchant for weaponry and huge trucks, the farmers I met were without exception great human beings. In fact, I received an almost overwhelming amount of warmth and welcome from interested and interesting farmers who fast became friends, issuing genuine and enthusiastic invitations to visit their homes and farms with my family on any future trip.

What I had expected from the conference was a depth of knowledge of the “no-till” farming system, unrivalled in the rest of the world. It certainly delivered. No-till farming is in many ways the pinnacle of sustainability, where in order to preserve and build soil health and mimic natural processes, the soil is not tilled at any time. In 2022, we celebrate 60 years since Harry Young first developed the technique just a handful of miles from the conference venue, and his son and grandchildren were there to share their wisdom from the stage.

Regular readers will be only too aware of my obsession with soil, and I was in a room of like-minded farmers building for the future, fully aware that the key to storing atmospheric carbon and reversing climate change lies beneath our feet. Once again, however, the Americans raised the bar beyond my expectations, and I found myself in some fascinating breakout sessions entitled “Making the Most of Manure,” “Assessing Soil Health through Electrical Conductivity,” and a standout seminar “All about Slugs.” Yes, slugs. I reached planes of agro-geekery beyond my wildest dreams.

The four days of intense input left me challenged, motivated and dog tired, but I couldn’t wait to get back and start making changes on my farm, grounded in the knowledge I’d gained stateside.

From a range of around 5,000 miles, our view of US agriculture is of intensive beef feed lots, genetically modified grains and vast, farmed deserts patrolled by gas-guzzling mechanical giants. The “bad old days” of intense farming in the US made headlines around the world, with soil blown away and fertilisers washed down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps it is American farmers who are now the most motivated to remedy the situation—on my trip I encountered a large cadre of knowledgeable environmentalists, working with nature to produce food.

It left me wondering what those outside the UK—and those outside farming but living in the UK—think of farmers here. I, and we, clearly have a job to do to help people see what happens on the other side of the farm gate. We must share our vision for food production systems that work with nature to answer many of society’s big questions.