The Oxford Artisan Distillery’s Head of Farming, John Letts, recently led a keynote talk at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). John discussed an alternative way of growing grain without agri-chemicals using a ‘natural farming’ approach. His goal is to help British farmers produce all the grain needed in the UK without destroying the environment.
John was introduced by Marina Chang, Assistant Professor at Coventry University, and Colin Tudge, founder of the ORFC. We took some time out to chat to John about the conference, but if you want to grab a whisky and watch the full talk head here.
Why is this grain issue so important?
Because we’re running out of time to limit the rise in CO2 levels that will bring catastrophic changes to weather patterns and transform the way we live over the next 50 years. Climate change is a real and present danger, and is already having a huge impact on farming and the natural world. We need to change the way we grow food and burn less fossil fuel. We can’t just pass the problems we’ve created on to future generations. Everyone, and every business, must reduce their carbon footprint. I want the grain I grow to be available to everyone at a fair price, so everyone can help save the planet. It shouldn’t cost the earth to save the earth. At least a third of the global carbon footprint of making spirits comes from conventional grain farming. Change this and you’ll have made a huge environmental impact on one of the world’s fastest growing industries.
Why should we use a way of farming that is more similar to one-used thousands of years ago?
The farming systems used by our ancestors were much more sustainable and did not rely on agri-chemicals or intensive tillage and crop rotation. But the world has also changed. Yields were much lower in the past, and we now need to feed a much larger population, but the path we’re on isn’t sustainable and we need to find more productive ways of growing the grain we need for human consumption without agri-chemicals or intensive tillage and crop rotation.
My approach isn’t simply about not using chemicals. It’s about the type of grain we grow as well as the farming methods we use. Organic farmers grow a clover/grass ley for 3 years to raise nitrogen levels, and then plant a single crop of modern milling wheat followed by a crop of feed grain. They harvest one crop of wheat for human consumption every 4-5 years and a lot of animal products. My fields are animal-free. I plant mixed populations of heritage cereals directly into an understory of short white clover, which supplies all of the nitrogen needed to grow a good crop. I harvest high on the stem, and the straw is chopped to form mulch on the soil surface, which breaks down slowly to feed the next crop. Using this method I can grow grain continuously in the same field, without crop rotation, and produce three times as much grain as an organic farm. The only thing that leaves the field at harvest time is the grain. The goal is to create an ‘agro-ecosystem’ that yields a good crop of grain year while also enriching the soil and encouraging biodiversity. Our crops have a much lower carbon footprint than both organic and conventionally farmed grain.
How easy is it for farmers to adopt this sort of system?
Many farmers are switching to growing heritage grain using this ‘natural grain farming’ approach. You can listen (here) to a talk by Henry Astor, who is growing my grain populations at the Bruern Estate in West Oxfordshire using this approach. Change is never easy, but most farmers now realise that we have to change the way we grow our crops, and there are now clear financial and environmental benefits to farming in a more sustainable way. The first steps are always the most difficult.
What does this mean for the environment?
It means we don’t have to cover the UK in trees in order to sequester the carbon we need to pull out of the atmosphere to stop climate change. We can also ‘rewild’ our cereal fields and pump carbon directly into the soil – while continuing to feed people. There isn’t really another option - the conventional approach is destroying the planet and organic farming simply can’t produce the grain we need without covering the UK in clover/grass ley. Organic farming is a great way of growing vegetables and animals, but it isn’t the most productive way of growing grain. At the moment, we import high quality baking grain – both organic and conventional – from the EU, Canada, Kazakhstan and many other countries. The UK could become self-sufficient in grain if it adopted a ‘natural grain farming’ approach, but we would also need to stop feeding two-thirds of the grain we grow to animals. When we import conventional grain, we leave behind the environmental damage that was caused by growing it with agri-chemicals. We have to be more responsible for the impact of our food (and drink) choices.
How does the use of heritage grains and a ‘natural grain farming’ approach impact our products?
Growing grain sustainably is at the center of what we do at The Oxford Artisan Distillery. We like to say we are ‘farming a new approach to spirits’. We try to do the best we can for the environment at every stage of our production process. We need to do better in terms of the carbon footprint of our production process, but we have at least got the first part – our grain growing - right. All of our spirits are rooted in the soil, and flavour starts with the grain. We think using heritage grains improves the quality of our spirits, and we think they are amongst the best on the market.
You can read more on the farming process here.