In the northeast corner of England’s Cotswolds, Henry Astor’s family have lived on, farmed and managed over 1,000 acres for three generations.
I wanted to talk to Henry about three things: how he’s transforming his family’s estate from conventional farming methods to more sustainable agricultural practices, the new Bruern Farms café, and his motto – Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, Healthy People.
Henry said we had to talk about something else first. “To understand the situation we’re in, you have to go back to 1952, to the Green Revolution.”
He didn’t want to talk about the café’s breakfast menu; he wanted to talk about the geo- and socio-political reality of our food system today. He wanted to talk about what got us into this mess and what each of us can do to get us out of it.
The Green Revolution got us into this
The story of Henry’s family at Bruern is built on a backdrop of the rise of the post-World War II farming-industrial complex.
Before World War II, the agricultural and food system in the United Kingdom was largely characterized by small-scale, family-run farms with limited agricultural inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides) and high labor costs.
In the latter half of the 20th century, several factors converged to change the agricultural landscape and the food we eat. In its Farming with Biodiversity: Towards Nature-Positive Production at Scale report, WWF explains that many of the characteristics of our global, industrial food production systems result from an agricultural transformation known as the Green Revolution.
Over just a few decades, intensive agricultural production methods led to unprecedented increases in yield through capital- and input-intensive technologies. The Green Revolution involved deforestation for monocrops and industrial-scale feedlots, dramatically increased chemical inputs and heavy tillage.
Henry adds, “The Green Revolution was about feeding the world; it was about producing enough food that the world – the world, not the community – wouldn’t go hungry.” The first step was to separate food systems from the local community.
“After a World War, we’ve got a global perspective and mindset; we’re now looking at the globalization of food production and distribution… bearing in mind, by the way, that 99% of the world at that point, even after the war, had evolved a system over ten to twenty thousand years of diversity intercropping nutrient-dense foods. They were perfectly capable of feeding themselves.”
Instead of relying upon that traditional local knowledge, the Green Revolution relied upon expertise of another kind from a different source – the chemical and mechanical innovations of the military-industrial complex.
“Factories that produced chemicals during World War II were put to use making synthetic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides. That’s when the real damage started. At the same time, we started to see modification of synthetic fertilizers and nitrates. So instead of getting a tonne per acre, you’re now getting three to four tonnes an acre. That is huge.”
And it was celebrated. With the post-war population boom, on some level it made sense to shift factories from producing war time-materials – including chemicals – to address post-war food shortages. Increased agricultural production seemed like another victory.
What developed in post-World War II UK and US agriculture was a global, industrial logic paired with militarized scientific expertise and corporate markets. The population boom (and in the USA mass media) fueled narratives that supported and normalized the new system. The final factor was regulatory; this new system needed a policy framework.
The UK government instituted a number of policies designed to drive the new industrial logic, to increase farming production and efficiency. The first was the 1947 Agriculture Act, which introduced a system of guaranteed prices for agricultural products and subsidies, grants, and loans for farmers. These prices were intended to provide farmers with a financial incentive to produce more. The Act also resulted in a significant increase in mechanization, as farmers began to invest in farm machinery to increase efficiency.
At the same time, the government introduced subsidies for farm inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides to improve efficiency. Agricultural use of pesticides, and later herbicides, boomed in the post-war years.
It all worked. Between 1945 and 1952, production of grain in the United Kingdom increased by more than 40%. It didn’t stop there. According to the 7th Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, “British wheat yields rose by about 25 percent during the 1950s.”
This increase in production was accompanied by an increase in the number of farms in the United Kingdom, from 860,000 in 1945 to 1,400,000 in 1952.
The Industrial and Agricultural (Green) Revolutions transformed the UK landscape. Over two-thirds of the UK is devoted to (primarily conventional) agricultural production, and another 8% has been built on. This leaves little room for natural wildlife habitat.
It didn’t take long for concerns to emerge about the environmental impacts of the new agricultural inputs. In the 1950s and 1960s, the UK’s National Agricultural Advisory Service (NAAS) began to investigate the effects of herbicides and insecticides on the environment and wildlife. The NAAS found that chemical inputs were killing birds, beneficial insects including pollinators, and reducing biodiversity.
As a result, the UK has been among the most nature-depleted countries on Earth for generations. The Natural History Museum’s Biodiversity Trends Explorer ranks the UK in the bottom 10% of the world’s countries in biodiversity intactness, last in the G7. More than one in seven species is at risk of extinction, and more than half are in decline. The first Red List of UK mammals shows that a quarter of native mammal species now face “imminent” extinction due to habitat destruction.
Three Generations at Bruern Farms
What has this meant at Bruern? When Henry’s grandfather bought the Abbey and adjacent lands in 1946, there were 40 to 50 employees. Farming was predominantly mixed with a dairy herd, poultry, beef and arable.
In the next generation, when many Cotswolds landowners were maintaining their homes by contracting out farming operations to large corporations, Henry’s father, David Astor, continued to oversee Bruern Farms with a full-time farm manager, Matt Childs.
Together, their priority was balancing habitat protection with sound environmental farming practices. Three hundred and fifty woodland acres were carefully managed through planting, coppicing, margins and hedgerows increased to build back bird and insect life. The estate implemented a policy of renting the 14 cottages on the property for permanent residents of the local community, not as second homes or weekend rentals.
Technology, industrialization, and government policy had changed farming, though. As a result, machinery and agricultural inputs resulted in higher yields with fewer employees.
About 12 years ago, farm manager Matt Childs noticed significant, unsustainable soil depletion.
This is the story Henry stepped into. “When I came back to Bruern, we were down to 4 employees. Hedgerow bird populations had declined by about 75%, insects by 60 to 70%.”
Habitat, Heritage Grains, Local Community
As Henry sees it, he walked into a dilemma: conventional farming relies on glyphosate. Glyphosate dramatically decreases soil health and pollinator populations and increases water toxicity and risk of cancer and endocrine disruption in humans.
On the other hand, organic farming involves tilling, which means tearing up the already-depleted soil’s nutrient-rich mycelium networks, burning diesel fuel, and releasing vast quantities of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.
According to a WWF UK study, agriculture contributes to around 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK (54.6 MtCO2e in 2018 measured as CO2 equivalents), largely due to the release of nitrous oxide and methane. Consequently, reducing these emissions has an important role to play in meeting the UK’s commitment to achieving Net Zero emissions and several agriculture-specific climate targets.
Henry didn’t like his options: glyphosate or tilling.
Instead, at Bruern, they’re employing three broad approaches to developing Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, and Healthy People:
Build & Protect Habitat
Agricultural lands and natural wildlife habitat are not mutually exclusive spaces in healthy, functioning ecosystems. To reintroduce biodiversity and decrease inputs, natural predator and pest management is essential.
“We started by eliminating pesticides, instead planting a variety of wildflowers in and around fields to attract predators to certain animals and insects we didn’t want. That has been very successful.”
“Here’s an example: last year, I tagged 22 barn owls. Six years ago we had four, two nesting parents and two chicks. Now we’ve got seven different barn owl boxes, and we had five nesting pairs last year. We employ a lot of simple strategies to encourage birds, like we don’t cut our hedgerows until late February and we put seed out all winter.”
Decrease both use & effects of glyphosate & tillage
The Glyphosate/tillage dilemma still vexes Henry, so he looks to traditional intercropping and grain varieties. He sought out experts who were returning to pre-World War II methods of farming grains. Heritage grains offer an alternative. “We started growing different kinds of grains and reducing herbicides. We’re using minimum tillage and significantly reducing our inputs.”
Increase employment + build community spaces and foster discourse
At the same time, Henry and the team at Bruern Farms are focused on building local marketing, distribution, and collaboration amongst farmers and landowners, along with spaces and discourse around food systems.
Bruern Farms now employs about 20 people. That number is growing with recent additions of a farm shop and café open for breakfast and lunch 7 days per week. There are event spaces and educational programs, a flour mill and test kitchen.
“What’s needed, though,” Henry says, “is a revolution.” None of this is happening as fast as or on a scale he would like to see. It’s going to take a revolutionary movement with each of us playing our roles to replace conventional industrial farming with regenerative agriculture.
What can we each do now?
Focus on producing healthy food for your local community.
“Now we’ve got three or four generations in farming communities who’ve been told to grow food a certain way and have become reliant upon an industrialized system. I understand not everyone has the resources to risk stepping outside the box. Not everyone can do the marketing required to succeed. What we’ve done here is banded together to form the Northeast Cotswolds Farmer Cluster, a group of local farmers and landowners, interested in regeneration of the farmed environment and local food networks in the North East Cotswolds. We collaborate, share knowledge, and together can drive landscape-scale regenerative agriculture.”
Insist on knowing the provenance of your food and its ingredients.
Seek out the growers and makers in your community. How and where are they distributing and marketing their food products? Support the growth of that local food ecosystem.
Henry says, “Shopping at local businesses is not enough. You think you’re buying local, but your local butcher may have factory-farmed animals from another county. Your local baker’s flour may be from another country; if it’s white flour, it almost certainly is.”
Come to visit the north east Cotswolds
Visit the Cotswolds to see food system transformation in action.
Bruern Farms is located in the Cotswold’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, five and a half miles north west of Burford’s high street and six and a half miles south of Chipping Norton’s bustling, historic downtown area.