Episode #135 Trees, Trees, Trees! How we can grow food around, within and on them – with Ben Raskin
What is agro-forestry and how does it differ from Silvo-pasture or Agro-ecology? And when we’ve sorted that out, how is it that trees can become an integral part of our farming landscape, so that we can feed ourselves, while increasing the life, resilience and vibrancy of the soil? With Ben Raskin of Head of Horticulture and Forestry at the Soil Association.
Ben is head of Horticulture and Agro-Forestry at the Soil Association. Author or co-author of eight books including Zero Waste Gardening, The Woodchip Handbook and The AgroForestry Handbook, Ben holds specialist knowledge and experience that includes Community Supported Agriculture, woodchip, and starting up new horticultural businesses.
All told, he has been working in horticulture for more than 25 years and has been with the Soil Association since 2006.During that time he has chaired the DEFRA Edibles Horticulture Roundtable, sat on the boards of the Organic Growers Alliance and Community Supported Agriculture Network UK, and on the committee of the Farm Woodland Forum.
His own experience includes running a walled garden in Sussex supplying a Michelin starred restaurant, working for Garden Organic at their gardens in Kent and running the 10-acre horticultural production at Daylesford Organic Farm, before moving to the Welsh College of Horticulture as commercial manager.
More recently he is project managing an agroforestry planting at Helen Browning’s farm in Wiltshire and has acted as Horticultural Advisor and Board Member for the Community Farm near Bristol.
This conversation follows on from the one on Regenerative Farming with Caroline Grindod, as part of our ongoing exploration of how we can transform our food and farming systems, heading for the complete paradigm shift that we need to an entirely new system and a new way of being in the world, while allowing farmers, growers and ordinary people to continue to flourish in the existing system.
Ben is at the heart of an agro-forestry revolution in the UK and abroad, experimenting and gathering data and experience in the planting of trees as we move deeper into a changing climate. We talk about the practical implications of working with trees that, by their nature, require long term thinking and planning. We learn of the mistakes that have been made, and the accidental discoveries of things that work. We explore the changing face of farming, and how agro-forestry, sylvo-pasture and other ways of farming with trees can transform modern agriculture from being part of the problem, to being part of the solution.
Manda: My guest this week is Ben Raskin, who’s head of horticulture and agroforestry at the Soil Association. Ben’s been working in horticulture for more than 25 years and been with the Soil Association since 2006. He co-chairs the Defra Edibles Horticultural Roundtable, sits on the boards of the Organic Growers Alliance and Community Supported Agriculture Network in the UK and on the Committee of the Farm Woodland Forum. His own experience includes running a walled garden in Sussex, supplying a michelin starred restaurant, working for Garden Organic, the gardens in Kent. And then he set up and ran the ten acre horticultural production at Daylesford Organic Farm, before moving to the Welsh College of Horticulture as commercial manager. More recently, he is project managing an agroforestry planting at Helen Browning’s farm in Wiltshire. Helen is the chief executive of the Soil Association in the UK and farms 1500 acres of mixed farm, which increasingly is moving towards agroforestry. Along with all of that, Ben finds time to write and is author of a whole number of books some for Children: Bees, Bugs and Butterflies or Grow – A Family Guide to Growing Fruit and Veg.
Manda: But also the woodchip handbook, which I completely recommend to anyone who has more than about three square inches of land. Zero Waste Gardening, and the wonderfully entitled Plant a Tree and Re-Tree the World. He’s incredibly prolific, incredibly knowledgeable and seemed one of the best people to speak to, to follow on from Caroline Greenwald a couple of weeks ago. In an effort to find out how we can shift the ways that we interact with the land that we cultivate. Definitely we need to be rewilding, but we also need to change the way that our food and farming systems are managed. Away from the mechanistic systems, to ones that are much more alive and much more in tune with the living soul of the land. And Ben is someone for whom trees are everything. He knows how to grow them and he knows how to be with them. He knows how they change the land. He knows how they change people. So with all that in mind, people of the podcast, please do welcome Ben Raskin.
So Ben Raskin, amazing member of the Soil Association and all round, incredible gardening and horticulture and farming genius. Thank you for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. I have already forgotten where you are. You’re in Somerset, is that right?
Ben: Wiltshire. I was born in Somerset, so you know…
Manda: For someone from Scotland, that’s kind of those things all merge together. They share a common boundary, don’t they?
Ben: Yeah. Yeah.
Manda: There we go. It’s the same part…somewhere in the middle to southern part of England. We had rain this week. I was so happy! Have you guys had rain?
Ben: Yeah, we had a bit rain. It’s been very localised though, even sort of one side of the county to the other.
Manda: Who are not getting it. And I have friends up in North Yorkshire who’ve been having hailstones the size of marbles and it’s just been raining consistently. I’ve been thinking, okay, so you just need to put it in big containers and send it south. Because we’re getting very little. And developing ways to gather it and store it, because it seems to me that this is going to be the way the world goes; long periods of extraordinary rain and then long periods of nothing at all.
Manda: Not so good. Anyway, I want to talk today about silvopasture, agroforestry, of which you are as far as I can tell, one of the country’s leading experts. Thank you. So. What are these two? Are tthe two phrases absolutely synonymous or is there a difference between silvopasture and agroforestry? If so, what is it? And if not, what are they? What? What does this mean and why is it important?
Ben: So I’m not surprised that you’re asking the question. So agroforestry is a sort of overarching term, and actually even all the experts don’t always agree on exactly what it means. But broadly speaking, it’s trees and farming integrated, deliberately integrated. So obviously lots of farms have trees. Sometimes those trees are managed and sometimes they aren’t. But agroforestry is where you’re consciously trying to create this diverse farming system with trees. So it could be an individual tree in a field, it could be a hedge, it could be a line of trees, it could be a wood pasture. So there’s lots and lots of different things that might or might not constitute agroforestry. Silvopasture is a type of agroforestry. So silvo obviously from wood, trees and pasture from livestock. So it’s agroforestry with livestock as opposed to silvo-arable or silvo-horticultural where you mix it with with cropping. So it’s a sort of slightly geeky term for trying to make sense of all the different types of agroforestry. And there are so many that you can sort of split it lots of different ways. So broadly, I like to keep it quite simple and just say, Yeah, it’s farming with trees.
Manda: Okay, yeah, let’s keep it simple. Because most of the people listening are not farmers. So we don’t need to go into deep detail but overall concepts. So two or three years ago we had big, big rain here and big floods. A local hillside basically ran onto the road. All the soil blocked the road for days until they could clear it. It clogged up the local river, it all ran away and several of us said we need more trees in that field. And the local farmer’s daughter, so he’s in his nineties, she’s in her fifties, said, no, no, no, no, no trees. You can’t have trees in a field where you’re going to put sheep. They’ll destroy it. You have to get rid of all the trees. So this is clearly, she’s heard this. She didn’t make it up herself. It’s part of the local farming law, which is presumably why the hillsides are so bare of trees and even the hedges are kind of cut to within an inch of their lives. Can you explain why that’s not how the world works? Why it’s a myth?
Ben: Yeah. Yes, certainly. So most of our domesticated livestock are originally woodland or woodland edge creatures. So if you think about cows, sheep, chickens, all of those came originally from a landscape with a lot more trees than the ones in which they’re currently kept. And there’s a number of benefits to having more trees about, from an animal’s point of view. So if we take sheep, for example, you know, they can actually have something like 40 or 50% of their diet can come from eating trees, as opposed to grass. So right from the start, you know, the concept that they only eat grass is a fallacy. Cows can also eat, you know, a good proportion of their of their diet from browse, slightly less. And goats can eat almost entirely from trees. And the the food that they get from trees has some significant benefits over grass. It tends to have higher micronutrient levels and it tends to have higher tannin levels.
Manda: Is this micronutrient levels because the trees are putting their roots so much further down than the grass that tends to have very shallow roots because we don’t ever let it grow tall.
Ben: Probably. Yeah, probably. So certainly if you let grasses and other forage things in the grass lay, if you let them develop bigger, they will become more complex as well. Typically, where you where you keep grass very short, it keeps in a high growth state where it’s high in sugar. So that’s you know, that’s why a lot of farmers like it, because it allows you to have higher outputs of milk, for instance, but it doesn’t give you that level of micronutrient, for instance.
Manda: And presumably just speaking from the perspective of someone who keeps ponies, short grass is what gives ponies laminitis. We are all desperate for them not to be grazing on short grass now, because we realise that it’s basically really bad and it kicks the metabolism into, without getting too techy, something that basically mimics diabetes in humans. But with them they end up with all four feet having a migraine, which isn’t good. So do we assume that it’s the same for other grazing animals? It’s simply that we don’t notice that it’s damaging their health.
Ben: Good question. I don’t know, is the answer. And I’m not a nutritionist. I’m certainly not a livestock health specialist.
Manda: Okay, fine.
Ben: But certainly, it wouldn’t surprise me, I guess. You know, and I don’t know enough about horses either, but yeah, the more complex and diverse the diet, it seems to me, the better. The higher tannin levels in tree browse can also help reduce internal parasites. So obviously it’s a balance, because if you get too high tannins, then you can’t digest the food properly. But getting a little bit more seems to reduce internal parasites. So there’s some real health benefits to eating some of their diet from trees. One of the other sort of big myths in a way, is that you plant a tree and you lose grass production. And there’s a really good study which has looked at the performance of a whole range of forage species. So that’s, you know, the grassy bits in various degrees of shade. And I think they tested something like 43 different species and all of them perform slightly better in 40% shade than in full sun. And most of them even did better in 80% shade than in full sun. So the idea that you plant trees and lose your grass is also a fallacy. Now that was done in lab conditions and it might be slightly different in the field. But I certainly remember in 2018 the only green grass in the field was under the trees because it was so hot, dry everywhere else it was burning off.
Ben: So there’s some real benefits in terms of that food production. And the other thing, you know, when I’m out sort of on a really hot day, I’m looking out today, it’s quite hot and sunny. Where I really want to be is under a tree, because it’s cool and breezy. You know, it’s typically four or five sometimes, you know, ten degrees lower in temperature. And a lot of animals, particularly cows, they get heat stressed and are unable then to digest and to sort of normally metabolise. And it’s surprisingly low. It’s something like 28 degrees is when they can start getting quite serious heat stress. So having shade is really helpful. Equally, you know, the other end of the season, it’s cold and it’s wet and it’s windy; where else do you want to be? You want to be sheltering under a tree. You know, where again, it can be warmer. If they’re not putting all of their energy into keeping warm, then they can put that energy into producing milk or putting on weight. So there’s loads of reasons why trees are good. It does get a bit more complicated when you start trying to integrate them with crops, but with livestock, for me, in most situations it’s almost a no brainer that you would want to try and integrate as many trees as you can.
Manda: And presumably the animals are happier. Certainly the ones that I’ve seen. I’ve watched a webinar recently of someone up in Scotland who’s planting clumps of trees and he says as soon as they take the fences away to let the sheep in, because if they let them in when the trees are little, the sheep just eat all the trees. So you’ve got to let the trees grow up, he reckons for three or four years to get them to a height where you can let the sheep in. And he says they’re straight in there, and they’re sheltering. They like being, as you said, under the shade or out of the wind or out of the rain. It’s Scotland. And the insects are less. And I’m guessing has anybody done the studies of things like cortisol levels, just to see if their stress levels are less?
Ben: I’m not sure about cortisol levels, but I do remember there’s an amazing researcher called Lindsey Weston at the Organic Research Centre, and she was telling me about a study that had been done on happiness and on positive interactions, both between cows and cows, but also between the cows and humans. And those positive interactions increase when there are trees about. So yeah, they’re happier with trees.
Manda: Excellent. Okay. All right. Which has to be a good thing.
Ben: And doesn’t surprise me.
Manda: No, because everybody’s happier when they’re trees around. It just feels very good to have this this other being in the space. So it’s better for the animals. It’s better for the people. The trees themselves in the soil; so the people I watched, they had to fence in the trees for the first few years to stop the sheep eating them all. Is that the same with, presumably you have to fence deer. I know Alan Watson Featherstone, when he did his whole stuff with the Caledonian Forest, he basically just fenced out the deer and let it grow. Is it the same with cattle?
Ben: Yeah. So anything big will destroy a tree very quickly. Overnight. So, yeah, absolutely you have to protect it. And there’s lots of ways you can do that. You know, you can put an individual guard around a tree. You can fence off a whole area. One of the fields in the farm I’m working with, we’ve done where we got rows of trees. We’ve done it with electric fencing on each side of the row, which is mainly to keep the cattle out that are grazing in between. But it also does keep the deer out. The only livestock, really, that that you can put in right next to the trees when they’re young is poultry, chicken and ducks.
Manda: And they don’t peck them up? They don’t scratch them up?
Ben: They scratch around the roots, but they only very surface damage. You know, and in fact, it can be an advantage. It keeps the weeds off. So yeah, it’s a really good combination actually in terms of establishing trees and they fertilise them. So in that sort of growing stage where they need nitrogen to grow, it’s quite helpful.
Manda: So excellent. So what about the the soil? I’m sure there will have been a lot of useful work done on on the soil life. I was listening to Greg Judy earlier today, who’s a real exponent of regenerative farming in the States, and saying he used to think of himself as a grass farmer and now he thinks to himself as a soil farmer. He’s just basically trying to grow the life of the soil. So what happens to soil under trees compared to soil not under trees.
Ben: So the first thing that happens in a way, I guess, is that usually you stop disturbing the soil as soon as you plant a tree in it. Now, obviously in a grazed situation there is less disturbance anyway, because you’re not ploughing or cultivating. But even in a graze situation, there will be livestock trampling over the top of that bit of soil. They will be doing a bit of compaction. And again, different grazing strategies can minimise that compaction. But as soon as you plant a tree, you’re effectively, certainly for the first ten years, you’re stopping doing anything very much. So that immediately lets the soil recover a bit. Usually it means that the grass grows a bit longer around that tree because you haven’t got things grazing it. So that again allows you to build a bit of soil health. When I’m planting trees, I now nearly always mulch with a good layer of of woodchip. So that again adds to the organic matter within the area around the tree. There’s two other big things then that are happening as the tree grows. So one is, any any plant that’s growing and living will, as I imagine most of your listeners will know, it sucks out carbon and oxygen from the air and use the sunlight to make sugars. A lot of those sugars it uses then to feed itself and to grow. But a good proportion of them, it pushes out through the roots, into the soil and it feeds the organisms in the soil around its roots.
Ben: And it doesn’t do that just because it’s generous. It does that because there’s other elements and minerals within the soil that it can’t get. So you end up with this trade around the root zone, where the soil, the plant, is effectively pushing out sugars in exchange for other minerals from soil organisms that it can suck up. So you end up with this really vibrant…I Sort of think of it as kind of a port area. You know, you’ve got sort of the traders coming from outside and the sugar sort of coming from the country. And you end up with a sort of vibrant port situation where everyone is doing lots of trading. There’s lots of interesting stuff going on. And then, of course, once you’ve got that community there, they’re all eating each other and dying and building up. So you end up with this sort of very rich soil around any plant, effectively, any healthy plant, but particularly around trees. And the other big thing you get from not disturbing the soil is you get the build up of fungi. So fungus doesn’t like being disturbed. It hates cultivation. It obviously hates fungicides because they’re designed to kill fungi. So as soon as you stop spraying or you stop cultivating your your levels of fungi within the soil start to increase very quickly. And they’re also excellent at sequestering carbon. So you build up the what’s called the soil organic matter, the carbon bit of the soil. So that’s sort of effectively what’s happening.
Manda: So fungi sequester carbon. How do they do that? They take in carbon dioxide and basically build more fungi, and then that’s what soil is made of? Is that how they sequester it?
Ben: It’s one of the things. Yeah. So they’re able to to pull and hold on to effectively hold on to carbon. And the other great thing about fungi is they’ve got this mycelium that can spread for miles, so they can pull in nutrients from all over the place, which is helpful for the tree as well. So it’s then effectively got these things on tap. It just needs to feed the fungi and it’ll get some of it in return.
Manda: Yeah, it’s amazing. Symbiosis. And then we get to what everybody is now calling the wood wide web where trees are connected by the fungal mycelium under the ground.
Manda: So let’s have a look then at this concept of planting trees as a way of sequestering carbon. Because the government seems to have latched on to that and we’re going to plant trillions of trees and that means we can carry on burning fossil fuels as much as we like. We can look at the other side of that equation another time. But it seems to me, certainly looking around here, that people are just jamming trees in the soil and and then going back a year later and wondering why they died. And that what we need is the right trees in the right place and the right numbers and the right combinations and families of trees. And how do we find that out and how are you helping people to do that?
Ben: I think it’s really hard, actually. I mean, some of it we know, but an awful lot of it we don’t know. And I’m quite nervous about the rush to plant millions of trees. I mean, we do need millions of trees, but we definitely don’t need them all at once. We know that diverse plantings grow more successfully and more quickly than monocultures. There’s lots of evidence for that. And particularly if you include nitrogen fixing trees as part of the mix. So Alder, sea buckthorn, there’s a few trees that fix their own nitrogen. If you if you add them into the mix, there’s evidence that the whole stand grows more quickly. So I mentioned 2018 when we had the drought. We planted quite a lot of trees at East Brook Farm where I’m doing the agroforestry sort of pioneering system there. We planted a lot in 2018 and we didn’t have enough mulch for them. We didn’t get them in early enough and then it didn’t rain for whatever it was, four months. And we lost quite a lot. In some fields we lost 40 or 50% of what we planted. So we’ve very deliberately slowed down our planting. Even though we’ve got 1500 acres, we want to effectively eventually sort of turn into an agroforestry system, not all of it, but we want to increase trees over that whole area.
Ben: But we want to do it in a way that is sustainable in a whole lot of ways. So that means (A) what we plant survives and that means having enough mulch, having enough labour to be able to plant them. Having enough money that we can plant them properly and look after them. So the management, particularly in the first sort of five or ten years, you know, the more trees we’re planting, the more time we’re having to spend managing them. So, you know, it snowballs. You know, you go, oh, yeah, we’ve put in 40 acres that first year and another ten acres and another ten and suddenly we go, Yeah, but they all need looking after all the time! So we’ve sort of very deliberately slowed down our ambition. Not that the overall vision is any different necessarily. But the other reason we’ve slowed down is because we’re learning and we haven’t learnt quickly enough to know whether the ones we put in in the first year are right or not. So trees are a long term crop. You know, if I grow a crop of turnips, I know that year whether they worked or not and whether I want to grow them again and how I might do it differently. You know, it’s quite a quick, relatively quick learning process on an annual basis.
Ben: We’ve planted, in one of the fields, we’ve planted 26 different species of tree; fruit and nut tree. Now, there’s some I can tell you for sure don’t work in that field very well. Cherries for instance, apricots are struggling. There’s others that are doing brilliantly. The almond trees are growing really well. You know, the walnuts seem to be doing alright. The plums and gages are great. And then there’s some where I’m not quite sure, you know. So the quinces, which I’ve never had a problem with growing, I don’t know. Last year, they were terrible. This year they’re looking a bit better. Do I want to rush out and plant a load more quinces? No. I think I’ll probably wait another five years. So it’s kind of it’s understanding in a way, what you do know. There’s things we know that are working, so we can crack on with those and the things that we want to learn more about. So we had in our original plan, we’d hoped to have 200 acres of agroforestry planted in the first five years. We’re now in year six and we’ve done about 100 of that 200 acres. But that’s fine. You know, we’re not upset by that. We’re just it’s that’s where we are. And, you know, it’s a conscious decision.
Manda: Okay. So I’d like to look at tree species in a bit, but before we get to that, you’ve mentioned mulch a few times. I just want to unpick what mulch is and how it works. And particularly, I remember that really striking picture in your book of one set of trees that had two inches of mulch and the other set trees that accidentally had some more, I think, and the difference in growth in a relatively short space of time. So can you just unpick the concept of mulching and how it works a little bit for us?
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. So mulching is a layer of something that you put on top of the soil, usually to control weeds or to hold moisture in, or both. So one of the things that’s really important, when you plant a tree, you need to make sure it’s not getting a lot of competition from other plants. So if grasses grow up really quickly and swamp it, it will struggle. In a lot of forestry settings they will spray a herbicide around the base of the tree, which works, it reduces competition, but it leaves a bare patch of soil effectively. So if it’s really hot, it’s going to bake. And obviously then weeds can come back in. It certainly doesn’t hold any moisture in and it doesn’t build the soil biology at all.
Manda: In fact, quite the reverse. It must just kill it off. You just end up with dead soil, except where the tree is.
Ben: Indeed. So there’s then, you can look at things… So there’s what’s called organic mulches and then there’s, I don’t know what you might call them, sort of manmade mulches effectively. So you can use things like plastic and woven plastic, coir-based sort of hessian type mulch mats. You can use newspaper, you can use cardboard. All of those are effective to a greater or lesser extent. I mean, I’m trying to reduce the amount of plastic I use in gardening generally. I don’t like using plastic mulches. I don’t think they do the soil any good, because they, you know, even the woven ones do stop air coming in. You know, they’re not terrible; you’re not going to end up killing your soil forever. But I don’t think they’re great. My best success has been with organic mulches and specifically with woodchip mulches. And the experiment or the accidental experiment that you mentioned earlier was one of the triggers, actually for writing the book. So we’d been doing quite a bit of mulching anyway and we’d had a whole load of big trees pollarded. So, where you cut them off to a certain height. Probably not got time to go into pollarding, but anyway, it’s an ancient technique of managing trees. But they were very old trees that hadn’t been pollarded for about 50 years. So there was a lot of growth and we had a lot of woodchip from them and we didn’t have time to deal with it at the time.
Ben: So we threw it over the fence into this woodland area that we’d planted up, with the aim of coming back and spreading it out properly and mulching all the trees in the field. And farming being what it is, we didn’t get round to that. So, too busy doing other things. And so these trees in one patch had a two and a half foot mulch of willow woodchip. Now the trees were mostly willows and alder in that corner, luckily, because generally you don’t want to have woodchip all the way up the stem because it can rot it. But for those species, it doesn’t matter. And that was the 2018 year that I mentioned. And first of all, we lost about 40% of the trees in that field, in that plantation. The ones with that thick mulch not only didn’t die, but grew to the point where I think four years later they were about 16 feet tall. Where the trees that had only had a couple of inches of the mulch were still at my waist. They were still two or three feet tall. So literally two metres away from each other. And I think the main reason was moisture retention, in that year. I’m not sure if you’d seen such a dramatic difference in other years, but that year they were just holding in moisture. Now, there might have been a temperature modulation effect as well. So they keep it a bit warmer in winter and a bit cooler in some of it.
Manda: It would be an interesting experiment, but if you planted ordinary willow and alder and just kept them very well watered, would they really get to 16 feet in four years?
Ben: Don’t know, is the short answer.
Manda: Because that seems extraordinary. We’ve got something relatively similar, locally, where they put in a pond to act as a kind of wet area in the village green. And there’s, I think, a black – is there such a thing as a black alder? Is that a thing?
Manda: One of those. And they think there’s a crack in the clay lining of the pond, because this tree is, I think it’s ten years down the line. It’s literally 40 feet high. And it’s diameter has got to be 2 to 3 feet. It’s just it looks like it’s been there for centuries. And they think it’s because of this pond. It’s not I think, they’re thinking not just the water, but also nutrient quality. And I’m thinking with that much woodchip mulching, there’s water retention, but there must be something in the soil biome also.
Ben: I think there will be. I think what we don’t know is how quickly that happens. You know, so obviously when you mulch, you just put the woodchip on the surface and obviously it breaks down and the soil organisms will sort of munch away at it and bring some of that into the soil. How quickly that benefits the tree, I don’t know. And it probably depends a little bit on your soil. So, you know, that bit of the farm is quite rich, deep clay. I mean, it’s heavy soil, but there’s plenty of nutrient in there. So yes, it’s definitely boosting the soil biology. But is it doing it to the extent where it’s making the tree grow? I suspect not. I think it’s probably moisture. And yeah, it’s yeah, it’s extraordinary.
Manda: Yeah. The picture, I mean, everyone should buy Ben’s book because it’s a wonderful book, but buy it for that picture. It’s just really impressive. But I guess then the problem is sourcing, you know, two foot of of mulch for your trees.
Ben: Yeah. And I’d obviously I wouldn’t actually recommend two foot of mulch. But interestingly we are getting deeper with our mulch. And in a way, one of my one of my things about slowing down is making sure you’ve got the materials to do it properly. You know, because yes, we probably, you know, in theory, could go back and water them all, you know, every week and make them grow. But certainly on a farm scale, you know, we don’t have water out there. You know, we can’t you know, you’d be driving around with a huge tanker full of water, you know, just it’s not feasible, it’s not practical. Whereas mulching potentially is.
Manda: How much are you deliberately putting on now? If it’s not two feet and it’s not two inches, what’s your current practice?
Ben: So if you look at the studies, which I did for the book, they recommend sort of 10 to 15 centimetres to have a significant effect on weed control and moisture retention. I’m sort of erring up towards 20 to 25 centimetres.
Manda: Okay. Yeah, because it’s clearly not doing any harm. My worry when I read that in the book was, was that whenever I’ve had piles of woodchip, they get really hot. I mean, basically you’re lucky if they don’t go on fire in the middle. And there’s got to be a critical mass where you’d actually burn your trees. But obviously you didn’t get to that.
Ben: No. I mean, I think you’ve got to be a good sort of metre, metre and a half tall, before you start running the risk of that. So certainly, you know, at 15 to 20 centimetres deep, you’d be fine.
Manda: Yay. All righty. So we’ve got silvopasture is trees and livestock. I’d like to unpick that a little bit, because it seems listening particularly to George the farmer in Surrey, whose surname I can’t remember, but he’s got some areas where he’s got rows of trees and others where he’s got islands, I think, and he has chickens between them and other livestock. So rows or islands? That’s a question. And then how do we manage that in a way that enhances the lives of the trees, the livestock and the land and the people?
Ben: So in a way, those two questions are the same question actually, I think. So if we all agree that more trees with livestock is a good thing and obviously not everyone does, but hopefully more people are beginning to, then how you plant them really is down to two things. It’s down to the benefit that you want, or the objective that you’ve set for those trees. And it’s then a question of how you manage them. And a lot of agroforestry design is about getting that complexity and diversity, so the benefits of that, but still being able to manage it as a business. So still being able to be efficient, you know. It’s no good planting trees all over the place and then trying to get a combine harvester through or a silage maker through, you know. So the reason for doing it in lines mostly is about fitting in with machinery and making it more easily manageable. There are exceptions. So using key line planting, for instance, where you might plant a row along the slope following a contour along the slope of the hill, that can have some added benefits for catching water and slowing water down as it comes down, and might not make it more efficient. But generally when you’re planting in lines, it’s because you want to….
Ben: If I’m harvesting from 50 pear trees, I don’t want to be sort of going to one here and one the other side of the orchard and Oh, yeah and then I planted a couple in that other field. Because you’ll forget them. And then, you know, I’ll have one of our other team, you know, it’s like, oh you know, could you just go and harvest from the…. You know, I want to be able to just go, right, that’s the row of pears. We’re harvesting that row today. Off we go. Because otherwise it just doesn’t work. So it’s sort of juggling in a way, the sort of the various benefits you might get. And even within the row. So we’ve had quite a lot of discussions about how much diversity do we have within a row, you know. Because from a plant health point of view and a biodiversity and a wildlife point of view, you want it all jumbled up. You know, you actually do want those pears everywhere. You don’t want them next to each other because that means diseases can spread quickly between them. But so you sacrifice some of that benefit to be an efficient farm. But it still gives you, I would say, probably 80% of the benefit.
Ben: So it’s kind of it’s juggling all of those things. So does that answer the question?
Manda: It really does. So you would plant, let’s say we’re going to plant a hundred pear trees, round figures. You would plant the hundred together, rather than ten groups of ten, interspersed with other things because the 100 together is easier to crop. In spite of the fact that ten groups of ten in different places might be more diverse and therefore less liable to spread disease.
Ben: Yeah, possibly. Or, you know, what you might do is you might… So for instance, what I’ve done quite a lot, is I’ve got a pear tree and then I inter plant it with something small, like a fruit bush or some coppice alder or something, and then another pear tree. So you’ve still got some diversity, but it’s pretty clear what you’re doing and it’s still, you know, that row is all pears interplanted with all sea buckthorn, for instance. Or what we’ve also done, is have a row of pears, then a row of cherries, then a row of pears. So it’s still really clear. You can go, right, we’re doing the pears because they’re alternate rows, but you still break it up a little bit.
Manda: Brilliant. And what do you put in between the rows? Do you have livestock or are you growing a horticulture? What are you doing in between?
Ben: So in the bit that we’ve done so far, it’s mainly livestock. So Helen’s farm is, as I think I mentioned earlier, it’s 1500 acres, but it’s quite a strange shape,five miles long. So it’s a really long, thin farm with a whole range of different soil types and enterprises. The top end of the farm is where all the arable happens on the lighter land. We’re on this heavy clay sort of floodplain type bit, so it is cropable. They have crops in the past and one of the reasons for putting trees is to try and dry the soil out a little bit. So it’s very fertile, it’s flat so you can get machinery on, but it’s really wet and heavy. So trying to get in and onto the soil in the spring and cultivate, you have what are called these sort of windows of operation where the soil has got to be dry enough so you get on with a tractor and cultivate it. And on heavy clay you usually need two or three weeks of no rain before you can do that. And obviously in a lot of springs you just don’t get that. But we’ve already noticed the soil drying a little bit from having the trees on there. Also with climate change, who knows? You know, you might start to get some drier springs. So we’ve set up some of the systems in such a way that although they’re grazing at the moment, we can take machinery down and crop from them if we need to. So again, it’s sort of potentially adding resilience and diversity into the system.
Manda: And if I’ve understood regenerative agriculture, then you’re building soil depth as much as anything else. So I’m guessing what you’re building is not clay. If you add, let’s say, eight inches to the soil, it’s going to be a not clay. So it’ll be a friable, fairly aerated soil that soaks up water like a sponge but doesn’t become like liquid clay, and then you’ll be able to drive over it better. Is that a thing or is that take too long to happen?
Ben: Good question. I think, you know, I think we haven’t been measuring it probably long enough to know. And I think again, this is not my area of expertise, but as I understand it, there’s a lot of debate about how quickly you can build soils. And I think in some parts of the world it’s very, very hard. I think in the UK because we do have this warm, wet climate, things grow very quickly. I think there are some that theorise we can build depth of topsoil a bit more quickly. But yes, you’re right, we’re not adding minerals to that content because the minerals already there. So we’re adding organic matter. So we’re in theory, what we’re doing is taking more of the mineral bit that’s already there and building the topsoil. So yeah, but how quickly we can do it, I don’t know.
Manda: Yeah, it’s interesting. I remember reading David Johnson who reckoned we could do it in ten years, but I need to talk to him about that. Talk to us a little bit; this is a bit of a sidetrack, but I’m just curious, because I have read a number of articles about people building soil in Africa and desert regions, by planting rows of trees and tending them very, very carefully. And once you’ve got some trees established, then you can do more and you get quite a good biodiversity quite quickly because there’s loads of sunshine. And as long as the trees are helping to hold the water, then it works. Are those the areas where it’s harder to build soil? Or other areas where it’s even harder than Africa that you were thinking of?
Ben: No, I think I mean, generally, if it’s dry without much rain, it’s harder. I mean, I’m reading a book called The Reindeer Diaries at the moment. Have you read that? Which is great.
Ben: It’s really good, and it’s got some really good examples of those kind of things, where you go somewhere and you think you can never grow anything here. And then, yes, in relatively short space of time, they’ve started to transform the landscape. So it kind of gives you hope in a way, that although we have trashed large parts of the globe, we might be able to come back from it quicker than some people fear.
Manda: Yeah. Provided everybody’s kind of on board. And it seems to me that regenerative agriculture, silvopasture, agroforestry, agro ecology are becoming buzzwords. And it may be that this is greenwashing, that people are just pulling it into them as greenwash, but ten years ago nobody had heard of these. So it seems to me that in the time we’ve been here, which is five years, the concepts of regenerative agriculture have hit the mainstream. It’s now Farmers Weekly’s talking about it. It’s been on The Archers, I believe. Not that I ever listened to The Archers, but I’m told these things happen. And it’s being mentioned more readily in wider places. And leaving aside that George Monbiot thinks we’re all wrong, which we might get to later, because I recently listened to a podcast with him which blew all my fuses. But leaving that aside, there seems to me to be battle lines being drawn up between the people who want resilient, regenerative, biodiverse land and the people who want to sell just as much chemical input as they ever did. You know, the people who used to make explosives and nerve gas and turned them into fertilisers and pesticides, and like the fact that very high inputs are what make farming. And their narrative is you won’t feed 9 billion people unless you pour in the inputs. And our narrative is we’re going to kill the 9 million people if we continue to pour in the inputs. And that these are pretty much irreconcilable. And that I’m starting to see the same kind of pushback that we were getting with the fossil fuel companies and that we used to get with tobacco companies, of very highly paid people being paid to dismiss arguments. First of all, are you seeing that? And second, are you seeing more ordinary people coming on board with regenerative ideas?
Ben: So I think in some ways I haven’t seen much of a change. So I’ve worked a lot in the organic world where we’ve always had the intensive lobby against us anyway. So I’m quite used to that. What I’ve seen with regenerative and there’s sort of.. I mean, I find it really exciting. I know there’s some within the organic world that are a little bit nervous because they see it as an alternative or a competitor. For me, I’m just excited that everybody’s thinking about this and finally, you know, interested in, you know, in looking after the soil and all of that stuff. So I don’t see, I certainly don’t see any conflict between sort of the old school, organic, as it were, and the the sort of the new narrative of regen and agroecology. What I do see is all of those companies that you mentioned rushing into the, you know, the sort of low input, sustainable regenerative space. So they’re all desperately making biological biopesticides and bio stimulants. Because the problem with low input farming is it’s low input. So, you know, there isn’t much to sell, you know, and this is why there hasn’t been an investment in it, because people can’t make a lot of money from it. It’s basically saying, no, you don’t need all that money. You can produce a lot of this stuff yourself.
Ben: You know, it’s resilient, low input farming. That’s the whole point of it. But obviously that’s not great for big companies trying to sell lots of stuff. So they’re, you know, they’re sort of desperately trying to sort of come up with new things that they can sell to the farmer that aren’t, you know, poisonous chemicals or however you want to describe it. And some of those things will be great, actually, I think. You know, some of them could be really helpful to both, you know, organic and regenerative and people who are trying to replace their their inputs. Others are a total red herring, probably. So it’s quite interesting from that point of view. There’s definitely a lot of greenwashing with regenerative. And the problem is, at the moment, it doesn’t have any legal framework or protection. So although the principles are great, basically anybody can call themselves regenerative. And there’s loads of brilliant people who are really doing it and really believe in it and you know, living, you know, walking the walk. And then there’s lots of companies Oh, yeah, you know, well, we’re regenerative. And, you know, I’ve stopped ploughing occasionally, so I’m regenerative. So what does it mean, if I’m a consumer and I want to buy into it? What does it mean? Well actually it doesn’t mean anything, really, at the level of sort of buying stuff.
Ben: And, you know, one of the challenges with organic is, you know, actually, if you look at the organic principles and the regenerative principles, they’re pretty similar. As soon as you try to codify it and you have your organic standards and you protect it in law because that’s what the consumer wants, because they want to trust that when they buy something that says it’s organic, it really is organic. Then you end up with effectively a minimum guarantee rather than what it could achieve. So, you know, people go, well, you know, organic, you can still use that and you’re still allowed to that. Yeah, well, that’s because the standards have to sort of be somewhere. So actually I find it really fascinating. It would be very interesting to see where it ends up and whether regen gets discredited because people abuse, some people abuse it, or whether it’s sort of a movement still, which is where organic was 50 years ago. So yeah, I just I find it fascinating and it’s one of the things I enjoy about the agroforestry space in a way, is because it sort of removes itself slightly from all of that and it’s just about trees.
Manda: Okay. So again, a number of possible avenues. It’s worth for listeners who aren’t in this field making the distinction between organic and regenerative. So my understanding of organic is there’s, partly because we’re undergoing organic conversion, that there are things you are allowed and not allowed to use. If you’ve got livestock your not meant to treat them routinely just for the sake of it. You’re allowed to treat, but only when they actually need it. Which from a veterinary perspective, my very oldest hat, was don’t give animals drugs they don’t need. This is a really good thing. But I could be organic and have a 100 acre field which was just complete monoculture and I ploughed it all the time and it wasn’t remotely regenerative, but it still passed organic certification. Whereas if I’ve understood actual regenerative. It is by definition, if you’re building soil health and biodiversity, then you pretty much aren’t putting toxic chemicals on the land and therefore you’re likely to be very close up to the organic standards. Is that, is that fair?
Ben: Again, I think it probably depends who you ask.
Ben: So, yeah, I mean, in your example of the organic monoculture. Yes. In theory, you could be growing 100 acres of one crop. You wouldn’t be able to plough it probably all the time because you have to have a rotation. You have to have fertility building in there. So organic systems are almost always sort of, you know, longer rotations, very often mixed farming, not exclusively, but very often. And certainly, again, if you look at the organic principles, they talk about building soil, about working in harmony with nature. So all of those principles are there. And if you look at the standard, so, yeah, yes, you can you can do things that some farmers wouldn’t want to do. And there’s a whole range of organic producers, you know, that some of whom are, you know, almost exceeding the principles and others who are producing to the absolute minimum standard to meet a market. And, you know, I’m not that’s not a criticism. You know, they’re still mostly doing a good job. You know, there are some things that I might do differently, but, you know, they’re acting with certainly within the letter of the law and meeting the standards and, you know, in probably still better than than some other, you know, farming types. Equally, on regenerative, you know, there are some farmers that are doing everything. You know, they’re not using any herbicides, reducing it. But a lot of the regenerative farmers still rely on glyphosate to to kill off their cover crops, because in our climate, it’s really hard to kill a cover crop. That’s why we plough, because you’ve got to, you know, if you’ve got a fertility building lay, then you somehow, you know, mostly – although there are I mean, we can come on to sort of direct drilling and stuff. The Holy Grail, effectively for both organic and non-organic regenerative farmers is non chemical, non inversion crops.
Manda: Non inversion being ploughing.
Ben: Ploughing. Yeah. But it’s really hard to do in this country. So if you have really heavy frosts then that kills off what was there before and you can plant straight into that dead debris.
Manda: But we don’t get really heavy frosts anymore.
Ben: So we get this lovely warm, wet winter where everything carries on growing. So, trying to plant stuff into a grass lay or into a previous crop is really hard. So what most regenerative farmers are doing is they’ll spray that off and then plant into it. And they’re seeing, compared to really high intensive systems, that it’s doing well. You know, they’re building soil health. You know, it’s definitely a better system than than what it might have been before. Now, obviously, you know, I come from a soil association, you know, the organic; I don’t like herbicides. So I wouldn’t want to do that. But equally, and I guess from my point of view, it’s more that their farming system is still reliant entirely on one product. Effectively, you know, the system doesn’t work if they can’t kill off that cover crop. But if you look at what people like Andy Cato are doing, where they’re sort of, and Helens doing some of this on her farm; where, you know, direct drilling into a lay and then mowing in between. It requires some very specialist equipment. But potentially there are ways of planting into living cultures without having to plough and without having to spray. And in a way, that’s what we want to do, because most organic farmers want to reduce their ploughing. And most non-organic farmers want to reduce their spraying. So that’s why I say in a way, I think finally most of us are headed in the same direction. We might be taking slightly different routes, but we are mostly headed in the same direction, which is yeah, I’m very positive about it all at the moment, even if we might have left it too late. But at least we’ve woken up to it.
Manda: Yeah, definitely. All righty. Again, different routes. But let’s go back to the trees. Somewhere in one of your books, you said the best time to start planting trees was 20 years ago and the second best time is today. So again, it seems to me the government’s got this big target. We’re going to plant however many million trees around the country. And I think one of our local parish council climate group reckoned that that meant something like 350 trees per parish, but it might have been much more than that. And where do you get all these trees? Because trees take, as you said, you can’t just plant them today. Plant a seed today and then plant the tree out at the end of the month in the way that you can with, I don’t know, peas. So how are we going to source the trees that we think we need to help ourselves move to a flourishing soil. I’m not that bothered about pretending that we’re sequestering huge amounts of carbon with these trees, because I’m not sure that’s a real thing. But we definitely need more trees from what you’re saying. Where are we going to get them from and how does that work.
Ben: Cor, another good question that none of us have answered. I think we’re all kind of kicking that can down the road at the moment. It’s interesting. Certainly the last two or three years there have been shortages of trees and particularly when you’re looking at some specialist stuff. So mostly you can still get hold of sort of your standard woodland trees, although I had to go to three different suppliers last year to get what I wanted. But if you start looking at specialist stuff, you know, walnut trees sold out in, I can’t remember October or something. So there is a shortage. On the plus side there’s quite a lot of new nurseries starting up. There’s a lot of farmers starting to think about producing their own trees. I was over on a farm last week with the Farm Woodland Forum, which is a sort of agroforestry organisation. And we went to see an amazing chap, Matt Swarbrick, who’s at Henbant farm in North Wales, doing lots of different stuff on agroforestry. But he’s, you know, he’s also producing his own trees. Not all of them, but but making a start, you know. So he had trays of little tree seedlings there sitting waiting for his next planting. So a lot of farmers, I think, are starting to think, well, I’ve got to be a bit more self-sufficient on this. As in everything. I can’t rely on just being able to go out and buy it. You know, we definitely don’t want to be importing them all. We want, you know, certainly for for our native trees, we want to be looking at locally sourced native genetics, you know. And I’m not someone that thinks we should only be planting native trees, by the way, but because I know some people do, but I do think where we are planting native trees, we should be producing them ourselves probably from local stock. And certainly, you know, one of the challenges with ash dieback was the amount of stuff we were importing, in hindsight.
Manda: So we brought the ash dieback disease in with imported seedlings.
Ben: Yeah, I mean, it probably would have come in eventually anyway, but trees take a long time to adapt and we effectively sped up the process of infection to the point where they probably couldn’t cope.
Manda: And are we seeing any ash that are surviving? I have this thought whenever we have an ash tree, I’m going, don’t kill it, don’t kill it, because it might be the one that survives. And from that we can grow lots of others. Is that a thing yet?
Ben: Yeah, no. There’s a lot of people doing research on resistance, you know, strains and trees. And I think we’ve learnt from the American Chestnut and from Elm that actually the best thing isn’t just to chop them all down, because there will be resistant stock in there. So obviously if they’re about to collapse on a main road, you’ve got to get rid of it. But actually, if they’re in the middle of somewhere and you don’t need to remove it, then letting some survive is probably a good strategy.
Manda: With the Elms, so for listeners outside the UK, Dutch Elm Disease hit I think when I was a teenager, certainly back in the last century and basically wiped out pretty much every elm in Britain. Are they are they coming back again or are they gone forever?
Ben: Well, they are. And again, I keep on sort of citing books, but there’s a great book called Barn Club, where a guy sort of makes a community barn raising project, but he does it with Elm. And quite a bit of the book is about how there’s more Elms about than you would think and even some larger specimens. And and yes, there are some resistant stuff. So it’s really interesting. And, you know, we panic slightly, I think, in some of this stuff. Because we have a very short lifespan, relatively. Oh all the trees have disappeared! But, you know, elms live for hundreds of years. So, you know, a blip of 50 years, you know, as long as we haven’t totally wiped them out, which is a risk. But actually some will recover and they will spread. And, you know, in 500 years time, probably, they’ll be loads of elm everywhere, you know. But it’s just we’ll have forgotten, because we’ll be long gone.
Manda: We won’t be there. And also, never in the history of humanity, certainly not in the Holocene, have we had 485 parts per million CO2, whatever it is at the moment. So how are you future proofing, or endeavouring to futureproof, a changing climate where we can’t actually predict where it’s heading?
Ben: Yeah, I mean, that’s part of our reason for planting trees at the farm. You know, we’re trying to create a climate resilient farm. So part of that is just about having more trees, because we know that makes the farm more resilient. Part of that is about trialling new stuff. So the almonds are a classic example. You know, who would think it was sensible to grow almonds in North Wiltshire? Not many, and they’re still getting frosted, but they’re still alive. And I’ve got a few almonds on the trees this year, but you know, in ten years time who knows? Maybe we’ll be getting bumper crops and they’ll be the most profitable thing on the farm, who knows? Or the most productive thing on the farm. But, you know, there’s lots of other trees that, whether it’s strains of trees that already grow; so actually maybe as well as those local oaks we should be selecting some oaks from the south of France, because they’re the ones that are going to be surviving in 30, 40 years time. You know, I’m also interested in things like Black Locust, which some traditionalists sort of throw their hands up in horror because they can be a bit invasive. But in a way, we’ve got to have trees. And if we’re going to lose the ones that traditionally have survived, we need to be growing ones that will survive. Sycamore’s another great example that a lot of people don’t like. But it’s a really good tree and it’s tougher than some of the ones that have been grown. So I think we I think we need to be a little more open minded about what we grow and not be too obsessed about whatever we think native is. Because native is only ever a question of time, isn’t it?
Manda: Yeah. Was it in your book that I read that the jet that’s found in Norfolk was from Monkey Puzzle Trees? It’s fossilised monkey puzzle. That there used to be monkey puzzle in Norfolk, apparently. And, and I remember when I wrote the Boudicca book, somebody writing to me going you can’t have beech trees. Beech trees are not indigenous. They weren’t around at the time of the Romans. And me thinking, my God, I thought beech trees were part of our landscape and they weren’t! And it seems to me that part of the difficulty, I would imagine, is it might get a lot hotter and it might get a lot drier. But if we manage to switch off the Gulf Stream, which is what we’ll do if we kill all the whales, because I didn’t realise, but sperm whales are integral to keeping the Gulf Stream going. And we’re killing them off quite fast. If we kill them off, no more Gulf Stream. Then we have a climate akin to Vladivostok and Oslo, which is a lot colder. So, super cold winters, but also much drier summers. How are we ever going to find the trees that will survive that? It’s going to be really hard.
Ben: Yeah. Which is why we need as many different things as possible.
Manda: Right. Resilience.
Ben: We’ve got to be trialling new stuff. Yeah, exactly. Diversity is the key in everything, you know. Diversity of, you know, of enterprises on a farm, diversity of species, diversity within species. You know, this for me is why genetic modification is a red herring in a way. I know a lot of people get very sort of philosophically or morally upset. I you know, I don’t think it’s particularly dangerous. I don’t think we’re going to die if we eat Gm. But I just think it’s the wrong answer to a wrong question. You know, it’s bringing in effectively, you know, genetic specialism in a time of extreme polarisation, of climate and pests and everything. We need everything to be as diverse as possible, so that we’ve got the best chance of survivin. We won’t hit this sort of mythical maximum yield, that’s a bit of a nonsense anyway, but we’ll get something every year because something will survive.
Manda: Yes. Okay. All right. We’re nearing the end of our time. I had one last question, something that really inspired me when we talked in our kind of pre podcast conversation. That two thirds of the forestry in the UK is not in serried ranks of Sitka spruce and forestry plantations. It’s on farms. And clearly that’s increasing. And that part of the problem with that, is it tends to be in kind of scrubby woodland and where you can’t get the big forestry machinery in. And so, partly because I think horses are amazing and I’ve got a friend who does work with heavy horses, I’m wondering, are you seeing any increase in people having big footed horses that can go into the woods and help them manage the trees? Or if not, are we going to want to manage woodland on farms, or are we just going to leave it to be woodland and let it go? Get on with it’s own thing.
Ben: Yeah. So I think the key to increasing our farm woodland and agroforestry is going to be to develop those local supply chains. To develop local small scale markets. Because you say in the same way that farming has become either massive or tiny, you know, forestry has done the same, and there isn’t as much of the small scale machinery or horses. I haven’t seen an increase in horses yet, but it might well come. But, you know, I think we were talking about this last week, interestingly, at this farm woodland event. And it’s possible that actually the farmers will be the saviours in this, because they understand farms and they understand the scale that’s required to do some of this sort of farm scale stuff. They don’t yet have the tree knowledge or the expertise that the forestry sector has. And so part of the, I think part of the job of certainly what we’re trying to do at the Soil Association, but there’s lots of other people working on it as well; is going to be to make sure that we get that tree expertise that’s in the forestry sector, but that we get it to apply properly and to work properly at the small scale of farm woodland. And it’s about building markets as well. You know, we need to be buying more wood, seems slightly counterintuitive.
Ben: You know, we need to chop down trees to make sure we’ve got more trees. But until trees have a value for farmers, they’re not going to look after them or plant more of them. At the moment, you know, a lot of farmers just see trees as a pain. You know, they get in the way of machinery. I’ve got a flail all my hedges all the time. It’s a cost. Doesn’t bring me anything, you know. It doesn’t bring me any income. It doesn’t bring me any benefit. Why should I plant more of them? And until there’s an economic value, you know, that might be, as we were talking earlier, that might be a benefit for livestock, which is definitely there. But actually, if you could also bring in some income from fence posts or woodchip or, you know, something for building materials. Then it becomes something that they see a value in. Oh, well, in that case, yeah, I’ll plant some more of those, because, you know, I just I just sold that timber from that bit of woodland and got, you know, £3,000 for that. Great I’ll plant some more. And it’s long term, but if they see the value then they’ll invest in it. And at the moment they’re not seeing that, so that’s one of the things that needs to change really.
Manda: Or unless we can change the value system.
Ben: That as well. yeah.
Manda: I keep thinking, this is one of the… In economics we keep talking about how do we create a system where a live whale is worth more than a dead whale because otherwise you end up with no whales? And how can we create a system where trees are valued for themselves and the farmer doesn’t have to? I mean, it’s you know, trees are an integral part of what we build things with and create fences and create homes and create all kinds of things. And that’s fine. But also just having trees to be trees. Which brings me to my last question, because we are running out of time. On the podcast we’re trying to look forward: 2030s and beyond to what happens if we make all the right decisions now. And clearly with trees, it would have been really good making all the right decisions 20 years ago, because trees are are a long term thing. But if you were to look forward ten, 15, 20 years to a world that is as good as it could be, let’s just confine ourselves to Britain, in terms of how we are interacting with trees. What does it look like and how did we get there? What were the choices that got us there?
Ben: Yes, good question. So I think a thing as a starter, you know, and I don’t like dividing the world into farmers and not farmers, but farmers do at least have control, mostly, over the land that they manage. A lot of tenants don’t have full control. But, you know, let’s assume that most farmers have some control over the land that they manage and therefore have the ability to plant more trees or to manage their trees differently. I think the government support for that, for farmers to do that, I think is crucial. And the signs at the moment are very positive. There’s sort of new standards being developed for agroforestry that we’re very optimistic about. It’d be interesting to see how much money is then attached to that. But you know, in theory, the Government is also very keen to see lots of trees and I think recognises that, you know, woodland alone will not meet that or woodlands and forests alone will not meet that. So agroforestry, I think, offers a massive opportunity both to the government to hit their climate goals, but also to farmers to improve the resilience and the productivity of their farms. So there’s a kind of there’s a climate and business peace there, I guess. Let’s say every farm in the UK has some agroforestry, or has, you know, 5 to 10% of their their land covered in trees. I think that would be a really good thing. I don’t think it would massively impact our ability to produce food. I think in some cases it would increase it.
Ben: I think we’ve still got huge opportunities to have more trees in cities. I think, you know, we don’t look after our city trees very well as a rule. You know, there’s still shocking examples. You know, the stuff that went on in Sheffield where they started cutting them all down. I think city planners do not understand trees and they don’t understand the benefits to, you know, to temperature and mental health and reduce crime and things that more trees in cities can bring. I think there’s also a massive opportunity to produce protein crops. You know, so if, as I think a lot of people do, you know, if we accept that we need to reduce our meat consumption; I still eat meat and intend to carry on eating meat; but I don’t think we should be eating generally as much as we are. But we still are going to need protein. And nuts are a great source of protein. Everybody’s eating more nuts. We import a lot of nuts. We can grow a lot of nuts in this country, but we’re not, yet. So, you know, that’s another massive thing that I think we really need to be investing in. And from a government point of view, you know, I think it needs a long term strategic view, of investment in breeding for UK suitable varieties and processing capacity and developing supply chains. So there’s a whole lot of stuff I think that needs to go on as well as putting trees in the ground, which obviously is crucial.
Manda: Brilliant. Okay. And if there was one thing that listeners who probably don’t have farms could do now to make a difference, have you got an idea what that would be? Just ordinary people out on the street?
Ben: Well, I would say try to support farmers that are planting trees. So either by UK sourced wooden products or find a local farmer that you know is planting more trees. There’s lots of them about now, you know, there’s lots of stuff. I know not everyone is on social media, but there’s, you know, there’s lots of things happening on social media. You can find interesting stuff going on. But, you know, it’s like anything. It’s knowledge. It’s embedding yourself in where stuff comes from and wanting to find out more and support it.
Manda: Brilliant. And if people want to find you, you’re at benraskin.com and they can find your books there.
Ben: And I’ve got a new one coming out on Trees in the autumn.
Manda: I think we’ll definitely invite you back on the podcast when that comes out, because that’ll be exciting and inspiring. But in the meantime, Ben, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. That was really inspiring. Thank you.
Ben: A real pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Ben for the depth of his knowledge and the ease with which he imparts it. This is someone who knows as much as anyone else in the world, I think, about trees and how they grow and why they grow. And he offers his knowledge with such groundedness. It’s such a pleasure to talk to him. I’ve put links in the show notes to the various places where you can find Ben on the web and to his books. And definitely, when his new one comes out, we’ll have another conversation. He also mentioned something called The Reindeer Chronicles, not the Reindeer Diaries, and I’ve linked that to in the show notes along with Barn Club and the Farm Woodland Forum. It seems to me that even those of us who don’t have 1500 acres, can all begin to make a difference, as he said, by connecting with farmers who are working with trees and asking them what they need of us. Because everybody needs something different. Everybody is an individual. Everybody’s land is different. Maybe they just need volunteers to help them plant trees. Maybe they need people to buy some of the things that they’re producing. Maybe they just need people to help do some of the research to help them keep on top of things.
Manda: Whatever it is, wherever we live, the Internet connects us. So even if we live in a city, we can connect with people in rural communities. And we can also, as Ben said, work to protect the trees that exist in our cities and work really hard to make sure that many, many more are planted for all of the reasons that he cited. So go for it, people. That’s your task for this week. Befriend a tree. Go and talk to it. Go and sit with it. Spend time with it. Find out what it needs and work to make it happen.
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