“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself”

Franklin D Roosevelt.

As a farmer, I have always known that everything I produce is dependent on the soil I grow my crops in and the rain that falls on them. Without these natural resources, we would fail. However, it is not just farmers that soils are important to. They are the cornerstone for the survival of life on earth and, as former American President Roosevelt appreciated, the key to the prosperity of whole nations and civilizations.

Ever since mankind turned from hunter gatherer to farmer, we have had the sad record of destroying our soils, which led to the demise of empires. Whether this being the Ancient Greeks, where ancient monuments are now surrounded by arid bedrock, in what was once fertile farm land. Or the fall of the Roman Empire, which spread out north and south from Italy, in the attempt to bring food in from new agricultural lands. Or more recently the fall of the Soviet Union, as the population got fed up with constantly queuing for essential staple foods, where in reality they were not producing enough food to feed themselves.

In nature crops and animals grow naturally quite well, but they are a bit randomly spread out. As mankind started to domesticate crops and animals for their needs, they started clearing areas of land to produce more food in a given area. The land was cultivated by the plough, originally a small implement pulled by an ox or donkey, today it is much larger and pulled by tractors. But the principle is the same. The plough turns over and breaks up the soil surface to create a seed bed to plant crops in. The advantages are that it provides soils free from weeds, provides good conditions and soil structure for plants to grow in. It also gives a nutritional boost to the plants as bacteria breakdown minerals for the plants to feed off.

Over time the disadvantages of ploughing however outweigh the advantages. The freshly disturbed surface of the earth is very fragile, especially when it rains, with soil erosion being particularly noticeable on slopes. As rain drops hit the soil surface, water drains down-hill into streams, rivers and eventually into seas and oceans. But the water takes the fertile soil particles with them, which in time can remove the soil completely; think of those ancient Greek monuments standing on top of rocky outcrops. But it still happens today as this satellite image of the UK clearly shows. Now whilst I am all for us exporting more products to our friends in Europe, I am not sure we want to be sending them our fertile soil.

plough soil erosion

This satellite image, taken on 16 February 2014, shows how soil is washed off our fields and out into the sea. ©NEODAAS/University of Dundee

Also, whilst ploughing creates a lovely loose structure for seeds to germinate in, the action of ploughing exposes the soil to oxygen in the atmosphere. This gets all the soil bacteria really excited, similar to a young child being given sugary sweets, running around really quickly, before collapsing in a heap on the floor once the sugar rush is over. The bacteria ‘run around’ in this high oxygen atmosphere, giving lots of nutrition to the crop, but it is short lived as the bacteria eat up the store of carbon in the soil, respiring as they do so, and thus release the stored carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This has the double negative effect, of gradually reducing the nutritional content of the soil and increasing the global warming effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere.

Having learnt much on soil quality over the years, I took the decision not to plough on our farm back in 1998. Admittedly, my incentive was not just to save the planet, but also to save money as ploughing is an expensive operation. Although it was known my crop yields could reduce a little, hopefully this would be more than compensated by reduced costs. When I stopped ploughing, I made lots of mistakes as yields reduced dramatically for a short period, as well as weed pressure increasing. Our neighbours thought I was a bit daft – they may be right on that one. But over the years, I have learnt an awful lot as the system has improved. The theory of not ploughing is that naturally plant roots and creatures like worms improve soil structure. The bacteria and other micro fauna improve the soil health and biology, converting old plant residues and mineral content of the soil into plant food. So by not ploughing, the soil structure and organic matter content gradually improves year on year and, the carbon from the soil is not released to the atmosphere as CO2. I continue to learn from my experiences as we are making a healthy environment for the plants to grow in, but this is the underlying theory.

plough chinese delegation

Delegation from China, including Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Chinese delegate for the United Nations Environment team.

Today, soil health is something that governments around the world are realising is important and we should be doing something to improve our most important natural asset. I was especially proud recently when, along with LEAF, I hosted a delegation from China which included; The Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Chinese delegate for the United Nations Environment team. They were very interested in what we are achieving with our soil health on the farm.

Plenty of commentators accuse agriculture of being a huge cause of global warming from CO2 emissions, however I can show from what we are doing on our farm, agriculture can play a major role in reducing CO2 emissions when looking after our soils.

no plough results graph

Below Black Barn field, Bottom Farm

graph shows how the soil on our fields is improving in quality, by increasing in soil organic matter. To put this another way, we are actively absorbing CO2 out of the atmosphere and locking it into our soils. If this is repeated around the world, the benefits could be enormous; it has been estimated that agriculture could reduce global CO2 emissions by between 10% to potentially 30%. The graph also shows the increase in Cation Exchange Capacity (C.E.C). In basic terms as the CEC increases, there is more nutrition within the soil for the plants to grow healthily.

So, in the space of a few years of trying to work with nature, the results clearly show we are creating a healthier, more nutritious environment for crops to grow in. Not only is this good for the soil and the wider environment, but it is good for us also, as healthy soils grow healthy crops and healthy crops create healthy food for us to enjoy eating.

Learn more about our environmental credentials here and where to buy our LEAF Marque Cold Pressed Rapeseed Oil here

I have been asked in the past what we do in the winter months. People comment, saying “Surely as an arable farmer, you plant the crops in the autumn, go away on holiday and come back the following summer ready to harvest them?” Nice thought, but I’m afraid the reality is a little different.


Admittedly, on an arable farm, where we only grow crops and do not have any livestock to look after, the winter months are quiet and it can be an opportunity to relax on a holiday if you wish. However, I have always found it the time of year for research, planning and projects, of which we have done many over the years. Back around the millennium, I remember spending many winter months researching the viability of creating a cold pressed rapeseed oil business on our farm, as a diversification project on something I found very interesting and to hopefully bring a little extra income to the family business. Looking back, I think this was time very well spent.


Of course winter is an ideal time for us to service all the farm machinery in preparation for the coming spring and summer months when we will want it to work long and hard without too many breakdowns. We have done many building projects over the years, both for new machinery ideas and for buildings on the farm. Some examples have been building a new trailer, or creating a water bowser. In the past, when I was a young boy and even before I was born, my Father and Grandfather were at their happiest creating new weird and wonderful machines in the farm workshop. Two of the most extravagant examples included a six-wheel drive tractor, converted from a World War II army fire engine. I remember going across the fields with them on this machine, before it finally over heated and was retired in the nettles. Their most famous project was when they took two normal tractors, replaced the standard engines with more powerful versions, before removing the front axils off both tractors and joining them together to make an articulated four-wheel drive machine, driven by one person from the back tractor. This was certainly cutting-edge engineering in its day, that was later copied and refined by machinery manufacturers in future years.


We have restored our beautiful traditional barns and converted them from redundant old farm buildings into offices, including our farm office today. New modern grain stores have been designed and built to cope with storing and drying the grain at the speed the modern combine harvester brings the crops in. Over the years, we have built all of the factory and some of the machinery inside it for Farrington Oils. Some of these projects seem to start as winter job ideas, but tend to stretch through other months of the year and before long take on a whole life of their own. The most recent being the latest expansion of Farrington Oils to create a new toilet and changing facilities, as well as extra space to mix our salad dressings and store ingredients. We have even made a little development kitchen in which Eli is currently very busy with her trusted jam jar creating some possible exciting new dressing recipes. This whole project started in April last year, we had a few weeks break for harvest to take place, before finally finishing the project just before Christmas.

winter Marvin

Marvin planting saplings in Jan 2018


The other main type of project we have done during winter over the years is planting trees and hedges. We have literally planted thousands of trees and several kilometres of hedges since 1987 when my Father planted the first couple of spinneys on the farm. They are now well established, adding beauty and wildlife habitats to the landscape. This year we have been at it again. Marvin spent the time before Christmas with the chainsaw, thinning out dead wood from a copse area and old hedge, in readiness to replant with new young saplings in the first weeks of January. He has now created a few hundred more metres of hedgerow – Father and I have helped him with the spade to get some of the 2,000 hedge and tree plants put into the soil. We will have to weed around the young saplings for the first two years, after that they will hopefully grow and thrive, adding more beauty and wildlife habitat for many years to come. Additionally, we have a pile of wood ready to cut up for the fire to keep us warm at home next year.

spinner winter

Spinney on Bottom Farm that was planted in 1987, photo taken Feb 2018.


Although winter on Bottom Farm may not be spent on a combine harvester or tractor, it certainly is far from quiet!

It’s amazing how a few consecutive days of dry weather completely changes one’s mood after the long wet winter. Fields that were water logged on a Monday morning and looking more appropriate for planting rice than wheat were, by Thursday afternoon, dry enough to start thinking about preparing the soil to plant our spring crops.

From an impatient farmer’s perspective, spring arrived around the middle of March, since when we have been working continuously. It is not just us, as all our neighbours are busy working away in their fields as everything appears to need doing at once.

The first job was to put some fertiliser on the autumn planted crops as soils warm up and day length increases, letting dormant crops realise it is time to start their long growth through spring. To achieve this growth, crops, like humans, require good nutrition to grow healthily, which is gained from the soil and some extra plant food in the form of fertiliser.

Fertiliser applied, attention turned to crops that are not yet planted. Firstly the spring beans, which were planted in pretty much ideal conditions in the third week of March. Next, it is the spring wheat this will take a bit longer to create an ideal seedbed, rather than rushing in just to get the job done quickly. We have started cultivation in preparation for the wheat, but on our heavy clay soils they can change from mud pie texture to concrete in the space of 36 hours, meaning that a mixture of perfect timing, a bit of luck and working with nature rather than fighting it is the name of the game.

In addition to being busy on the farm, we also start thinking about the new season of shows in Farrington Oils. Farrington’s Mellow Yellow is now ten years old and I have always enjoyed meeting customers at food shows, as they provide the perfect opportunity to explain to existing and potential customers why they may like to try our products. The first show of 2015 will be the BBC Good Food Show in Harrogate. We are currently putting the stand together in the office, making sure everything looks spick and span, ready to go, as well as making sure we can get it all in the back of a van to take to Yorkshire. If you are going, we will look forward to seeing you there. If not, then look out for us at other shows during 2015.

Mornings are becoming lighter as day length increases with the tempting hint that spring is coming. Some days are lovely bright and clear, with birds starting to sing and snow drops making an appearance after the long winter nights. Then we have another day of rain falling on saturated soils, just to remind me that spring is not here yet and my hopes of getting to the fields to start our spring planting of crops are still some way off.

I find this time of year frustrating as our heavy clay soils need time to dry out before we can work on them. But if like last year the wet winter persists, April will soon upon us before the crops are in the ground and there is the feeling of fighting a loosing battle with nature, as time runs out for the plants to grow well. Anyway, there is still plenty of time to wait for a few days of sunshine to dry the soils out and bring them back to life after winter.

Until then we have been busy with a couple of winter projects in the workshop. Firstly we have converted an old grain trailer, giving it a new lease of life to transport our digger to different fields. Father and Marvin have cut and welded steel into place and now it is ready for a coast of paint to finish the job off.

The second main project has been the laying of a new drying floor in the grain store. This is a major investment that will dry the crops once it is harvested by blowing warm air through a perforated wood and metal floor. The principle is a bit like a hairdryer, but the scale is somewhat bigger, as the floor is capable of drying around 400tonnes of grain at a time. The floor is laid and now just needs finishing off by laying concrete around the edges. The concrete is ordered and when it arrives, it will be all hands to the deck manning wheel barrows to get the concrete from the lorry to the back of the barn in good time, hopefully without spilling any. If all goes to plan it will be a bit like a synchronised wheelbarrow derby.


Farming Diary

From LEAF Demonstration Farmer Duncan Farrington