George Young farms in partnership with his parents growing approximately 1200 acres of crops, as well as raising store cattle on their farm in Fobbing, South Essex.
“We’ve farmed on this farm since 1954” says George. Originating from Scotland the ancestral family moved down to Essex in 1895.
“We started in Tilbury, then onto Giffords Cross Farm. We briefly went out of farming and then in 1935 when farming was at it’s worst my great grandfather and great uncle went back into farming, and then my grandfather joined the business after the war.”
“That was on a tenant farm at a time when you could work hard dairy farming and save.” With the proceeds they bought Curtis Farm in Fobbing outright. “Try and do that today” says George.
George is 33 now and came back to the family farm when he was 27 – he tells me he had zero interest in farming while growing up. The youngest of four siblings his parents didn’t encourage or discourage him from farming.
“I’ve always been a musician – studied maths at uni – went to London to pursue my passion in film editing. After nine months doing that, money got tight so I ended up going back into banking – something I’d done during Uni holidays.”
He enjoyed working in oil commodities for a time but decided to take up his Dad’s offer to come back to run the farm.
Going no till
“Quite early on I became interested in the ecology side of things and how we could farm a bit closer to nature, so as it’s happens I share an agronomist with Essex biological farmer Simon Cowell.” Visiting Simon’s farm convinced him to make the change.
“It made complete sense, I also knew I wanted to reduce inputs – this was before I understood the impact of over nitrification on soils or over use of fungicides.”
It took about six months of persuasion – putting articles in front of his dad – before they went no till across the whole farm in establishment in 2014. They bought a £130,000 cross slot that year, which arrived on the farm at the end of June 2015 and is pulled by a 300hp Challenger.
Most of the tractor driving is done by their full time workman, who’s been on the farm for 24-years. His dad still does a lot of the rolling and George is the relief sprayer operator with a second hand 36-meter machine he bought from Jake Freestone.
George admits “I’m not a machinery man – which is why you don’t see shiny new kit on the farm.”
I ask whether no till has resulted in better yields. He replies “We’ve ridden the yield train as to what you’d expect with no till. There’s a seven-year turnaround. Our year four (which is the hardest year) coincided with last year – where we didn’t have a single drop of rain for over eight weeks.” This resulted in some disappointing yields admits George.
He continues “I wouldn’t say our yields are lower since we’ve got to year five. It’s difficult to compare as I’m not just zero till. I’m zero insecticide and massively reduced fungicides too.”
educing nitrogen inputs and glyphosate
George caps his nitrogen at 180 kilos and now on pulses “We are getting away without using any fungicides and just herbicides – especially being no till we are herbicide dependent.” He adds “The whole glyphosate thing doesn’t bother me. I don’t think no till is the be all and end all. I’ve been thinking about changing our system and looking at other options of ecological farming” hinting at the re-introduction of the plough or min till if glyphosate is banned.
Results this year have been encouraging despite the recent mixed weather. Yields on his second wheats have been 8.5 tonne to the hectare.
George says: “We’ve got 300 tonnes in the shed that’s above 14.5% moisture but below 16% that needs drying but that’s it. The rest is all dry stuff – versus friends of mine from around the country that regret not cutting at 18%!”
On sales he adds: “I’ve locked in enough selling in September and October to make me happy but should I have sold more? Beyond 31 October who knows?!”
Trial crops and a new approach
After a few years being back on the farm George attended an Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G) day – where he met some interesting organic farmers – which got him thinking about a new approach.
At the National Organic Combinable Crops event in June 2017 he met Kimberly Bell from the Small Food Bakery. She was talking about baking with Wakelyns population wheat – Martin Wolfe’s population YQ.
“I thought that was it! I’d been bumbling along here looking for something. And that was the catalyst of what’s been a pretty incredible two year journey.”
George managed to buy a quarter tonne of seed from the Organic Research Centre. He decided to grow it in his ‘organic’ no-till way – which means “I just use pre-emergence herbicide after which it has to get on with it.”
What is YQ population I ask? George explains that Martin Wolfe crossed 20 modern varieties selected for Y (yield) and Q (quality) to arrive at a population of 400ish genotypes.
Explaining the benefit of this he says: “Here we are planting just one variety – all a load of clones in a field and then what a surprise they’ve all got hit by brown rust or they’ve all got BYBD. With YQ you’ve got a population that can combat an awful lot.
“We’ve grown it for two years – last year was an easier growing year, when it grew so tall it fell over.” Though he adds “I want these taller varieties – it does an amazing job of weed suppression,” says George.
George also likes to test his own YQ wheat. “I’m not saying I’m a great baker and I haven’t had my results back – but I’m certain the hagberg is good. I think everyone should be baking. I think all farmers growing wheat should be testing out what its like – all you need is a Mock Mill for a couple of hundred quid to mill your own wheat and bake with it.”
At another OF&G event later in 2017 George met Ben McKinnon of E5 Bake House in London. “I got chatting and he was really keen for YQ,” said George.
George finally managed to put his grain through the bakery in April of this year.
“In terms of personal satisfaction there is nothing more exciting. It’s a real change to growing milling wheat all my years on the farm” he explains.
“It’s not exciting – you grow it – you put it in the shed – it has or hasn’t hits the specs – you either get knocked back for whatever – they take it – no one is ever happy with it. No one ever says wow – your hagberg is off the charts – we’ll give you another quid or your protein is really good. They’ll only ever penalise you.”
In contrast he took 10 kilos of YQ to his friend Rosie who was baking there for a trial bake and was delighted to receive positive messages on instagram. It resulted in all the 2018 YQ harvest going to E5.
“It was so exciting that someone was enjoying baking with it. Then there was the excitement of being able to go up and see my name on the blackboard and I knew my grains were in the bins there. So this whole idea of producing food for a local market is now what entirely drives me.”
At the same event he met William Hudson of Hodmedods – a small foods company based in Suffolk – which led to an opportunity to grow Buckwheat and Lentils for them.
“It’s all done on relationships – no contracts – I want to move all of my business that way – it’s a much nicer way of doing things. Not working to specifications – its about a conversation.”
They sent him the seed for free, though he admits the lentils didn’t fare well in the drought conditions “I grew 75 kilos of seed and harvested 75 kilos after cleaning!” He continues “The Buckwheat did pretty well and the lentils look amazing this year.”
George became the 13th licensee to grow Hemp earlier this year too and is now the 12th after a company called Hempen got delisted by the Home Office for harvesting the flowers for CBD oil. “They have decided you can only grow it for seed or for fibre now in the UK,” he says. Hemp has huge potential, being used for food, drinks, hand cream and construction explains George.
“All of these trial crops are examples of what I’m trying to do – produce nutritional food for humans – ideally grown without pesticides”
He also finds these crops have a benefit on the farm. “We’re on very heavy land here – blue London clay – all grade 4, some of it grade 3 maybe. We can’t get on it in February or March for me to be able to spring crop, leading to lower yields.”
“Hemp happily goes into the ground anywhere up to mid June – it grows super tall shading out weeds and doesn’t require any inputs – its just a brilliant crop.”
Hemp and Buckwheat are also indeterminate flowerers he explains, which means once they start flowering they will always flower until they are harvested.
“Normally in arable systems you have this dearth of non flowering crops on the farm. You plant buckwheat and within 6-7 weeks from planting they will always be flowering. You are providing forage for bees all the way through to when you harvest it. Same for Hemps” says George.
Agroforestry and re-wilding plans
“The thing I’m genuinely really excited about this year is I’ve got an advisor from the woodland trust coming out soon. I’ll be putting in my first 10 hectares of Agroforestry – around 2000 trees by the end of this year.”
George believes many farmers view Agroforestry as losing land and thinks the government should be encouraging us to plant more harvestable trees “which still do a great job of sequestering carbon and producing nutritious food, as well as getting more labour back onto the land.”
“I’m going for a double tree approach with 6 metre breaks so you’ve always got a corridor down the middle which allows room for insects and mammals to scuttle up and down all those bits. It’s about having a main river of uncropped, wildlife friendly land, with hedges as tributaries off that and then agroforestry as little streams coming off providing lots of access.”
He also has plans for a re-wilded seam of 25-30 hectares running through his farm between 5-80 metres wide, that will encompass a footpath and a farm track “to encourage people to be on an area where they can’t damage things,” he says.
Local magazine and blogging
George is keen on engaging more with the public and writes about his plans for the farm in the local parish magazine. He has just published his twelfth monthly article – which he then re-posts on his blog https://farminggeorge.blogspot.com/ and shares via local community groups on facebook. He says it’s important to “bring the local community along on my journey.” He’s also noticed a significant increase in the number of waves he gets on his tractor!
More generally he thinks as farmers we’ve become too insular and is passionate about educating the public – JB Gill and Heather Simons from BBC Radio4’s On Your Farm recently visited and the program airs 8 September.
George is also part of Just Farmers
@JustFarmersUK an initiative set up by farmer’s daughter, journalist and broadcaster Anna Jones to train more farmers to engage with the mainstream media.
George (@FarmingGeorge) is a keen tweeter himself and has dabbled with YouTube under the same handle but admits it’s hard finding the time to shoot and edit the videos.
On the food system
“Everyone expects food to be very cheap. Most people of my age have a budget of at least £150 a month to go and see a concert,” he says.
“My theory is that over the last 50 years we’ve stripped away all the labour from the land which is why people don’t understand that food should be worth the money. We need to get more people working back on the land producing quality food for them to realise why it’s worth paying more for food – why they shouldn’t be wasting their food. All these bits and pieces that enable food prices to go up.”
George argues that the NFU are shooting themselves in the foot by perpetuating the cheap food system. “If the price of food goes up it’s brilliant as we are able to produce less and earn the same amount or possibly more.”
He advocates more joined up thinking rather than the silo’d approach the government has pushed in recent years.
“We should have an agriculture board not individual boards. No one understands how food is produced as everyone is a specialist. I want us to go back to a mixed farming model, more akin to 100-150 years ago where farmers had small herds of cattle, sheep, dairy and crops.
Instead he says: “We’re pushing for a high yield – it’s difficult to find somewhere to sell it and then the price goes down because you’ve produced too much.”
He goes on: “What we’re doing at the moment is producing a load of stuff that we don’t need in this country, which is now more of an issue – due to Brexit – because we can’t export it.”
“We’re not producing the stuff we do need – which we’re able to produce in this country but don’t as we’re subsidised to produce the other stuff.” He argues Norway have got it right to some extent, using large tariffs on imports to encourage domestic production.
Farm lets and subsidies
George says they have invested heavily over the last three and half years developing the farmyard which now has 14 lets, supporting 17 business. This is an important income stream now accounting for 25% of total revenue.
Of his tenants George says: “We’ve been the next step from their garage and we’ve enabled them to grow. We’ve got five people who have grown from a small let to a bigger let on the farm.”
I ask George if they would survive without the basic payment scheme?
He says: “I would argue with land like ours – which isn’t superb – that you would massively struggle without it – I don’t care what other farmers tell you – most farms are heavily subsidised by other forms of income and they might be covering off some tax – so they can buy shiny kit and look like they are making lots of money. But if they are honest about what they are cropping they will be loss-making.”
A 10 year vision for the farm
I ask George what his farm will look like 10 years from now. He replies “I’d like to see a nice mature re-wilded seam running through the farm. The marshes will be permanent pasture for livestock. Agroforestry on the top arable land with infrastructure to graze all the land too.”
He continues: “The idea cropping wise – we will be entirely de-commodified by then. Everything I grow will go to either a very small food company or directly to a bakery. So people genuinely know where there food comes from.”
It’s an ambitious vision but one that could provide a model for a brighter future for UK agriculture. I for one will be following George’s adventures with interest on twitter and his blog.