21 May 2020, The Tablet

The future of agriculture

The future of agriculture

Austen Ivereigh with seed potatoes at his smallholding


Five years on, Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ is more relevant than ever. The fragility of our agriculture, already hit by freak weather and Brexit, has been further exposed by the coronavirus, but the pandemic also brings the chance for real change

Before the plague was the flood. Weeks of sheeting rain on Welsh hills swelled the River Wye in February to its highest-ever levels, deluging Hereford before it crashed out downstream across villages and farms on its way to Ross, dislodging blanket-clad families from washed-out houses, and topsoil from farmers’ fields. My neighbour, who has hundreds of acres of wheat and potatoes, said he had never seen anything like it. But it was the way things had been going, he said. The weather now was ever more extreme and wild, ever less what the climate said it should be.

At the time I was settling with my wife into a 15-acre smallholding not far from Hereford, mending fences on our own water-logged fields, and wondering what to do with them in the light of Laudato Si’. Francis’ watershed encyclical, which turns five this week, had triggered in me an ecological conversion that began with coaxing vegetables from mulched raised beds on an Oxfordshire allotment. Now, with land and choices, I needed a crash course. Driving through flooded fields, I spent four days in north Wales discussing “rewilding” with conservationists, and a day with Herefordshire meadow managers learning how to summon forth a “species-rich sward” (fields, that is, not just of grass, but thrumming with wildflowers and insects).

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