Holistic Management Q&A with SOPA Member Alex Brewster

Alex Brewster, Farmer and SOPA Member

What is it about holistic management that caught your attention?

Holistic land management (HLM) means understanding the whole eco-system and the factors at play. Farmers have a responsibility to manage the land, and HLM gives answers to questions. I got into it two and a half years ago through my Nuffield Scholarship, and came across 3LM. I was blown away when after speaking to them!

I felt enlightened, so I started asking questions and testing the theories I learnt a couple of years ago. I found what 3LM were saying to be accurate and truthful, so I’ve continued to implement a changed way of thinking since then.

What have you implemented at home?

Implementing holistic management practices has changed the way we manage livestock. We now look far more closely at products we buy and supply, especially things like vet supplies when they are needed.

One of our current focuses us looking at the secondary effect of the product and the eco-system on the soil; examining how it affects the soil, the micro-organisms and the eco-system.

What impact are you seeing at home?

We’re currently in the infancy of implementing the system and our form of HLM. A the moment, we’re looking to build confidence in the system and address the things relevant to our land (e.g. water) before focussing on other parts of the ecosystem.

HLM has given us a greater understanding of our interactions with the land, and a greater depth of knowledge all round. It’s fascinating looking at the microscopic elements of the land, such as the ground we walk on every day, and addressing issues that we wouldn’t have noticed before under a different management style.

Why is this the future of agriculture?

At some point in the very near future, public perception around land management and the environment will be very challenged. It’s already happening in that we’re becoming more and more aware of the effects of single use plastic and climate change, but things that are relevant to land management are happening too. In the UK, we’re losing more topsoil per day than we’re making, and more people moving away from the equator towards the poles is putting an increased strain on the land.

Thinking of the future generation and their challenges made me realise that something needs to be done now. Addressing the loss of soil and regulating the impact of agricultural chemicals and fertiliser are things we need to start looking at today.

The current generation needs to face up on how to replenish what’s gone already, and understanding what HLM brings is a massive thing for a farmer to have in a their tool box. It’s about learning how a farming business can be both profitable and a win for the environment.

Given the threats of climate change, an increase in veganism and a policy shift away from subsidies, what can holistic management do for Scottish farmers?

We need to look at interactions on the ground, and how we can make businesses more resilient to factors like the weather which, as well all know, can be unpredictable in Scotland at the best of times!

There needs to be flexibility at farming level, looking at symbiotic/mutual relationships and how species work together. It can really open your mind.

Financial and political factors currently have massive control within the failure and success of a farming business, but HLM allows you to control much more than you realise. Making your soil resilient means it’s not exposed to market forces, and that’s a weight off your shoulders.

Is it a new way of thinking old ways?

Literature has been talking about diversity and management, particularly in botany and plants for 140 years, since the 1880s/90s. Now, technology has taken over, and management costs have increased because we’re selling products that aren’t needed that are detrimental to the environment.

Allan Savory (of the Savory Institute) had a curious mind and wanted to challenge conventional wisdom. The global effect of HLM means land has been able to revert back to arable and grazing in places like South America and parts of Africa, climates that are far more challenging that what we have here, have reverted back to healthy soil. There are lessons to learn and it can be possible here in Scotland.

It sounds a bit airy fairy – is that true?

I totally understand why people would think that it sounds airy fairy! 5 years ago if someone had suggested that I’d be working towards a holistic management system, I wouldn’t have believed them.

Initially, I struggled to get my mind around it and join the dots, but it was a far bigger journey than expected, and my mind is now ready to accept it.

Now I’m at an age where I’m looking to answer questions that I couldn’t through conventional farming.

How do we implement change in agricultural practices at ground level?

So much happens below our feet that we never see. It’s worth turning your soil over and having a look. Using a humble tool called a spade- start digging holes. Dig in your hedgerow, the verge, different grazing heights and see what’s happening under ground. It’s essential to understand carbon too.

Mother nature can thrive when left to her own devices. It’s businesses, and trying to run a farm as a business, not an ecosystem that’s causing problems.

Once your mind starts asking questions, you have to be willing to open your mind and accepting that you need to make a change- accepting that what you currently think is right might be wrong.

As the old saying goes, less is more, but we have to work out what less looks like. The land is healthy when the ecosystem is able to take over again.

SOPA is hosting its annual Livestock in Low Input Systems (LILIS) event at Dumfries House Estate’s Home Farm on Friday 7th June, and this year’s theme is Holistic Management. For tickets and more information, head to: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lilis-2019-tickets-61032484805

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