It's not been easy, but Douglas Christie's commitment to a 'soil-centric' approach to sustainable farming is paying off in a profitable business, with wider environmental benefits.
Durie Farms comprises of 570 ha of land situated outside Leven in Fife. After taking over from his father, Douglas decided to explore ways of future proofing the farm. A main objective was to improve soil health, increase soil organic matter and biodiversity. He converted one third of the farm and the livestock enterprise to organic in 2006 and the rest of the farm is farmed under a Conservation/Regenerative Agriculture regime. Many of the fields have not been ploughed since 1999 and today the majority of the land is direct drilled with extensive use of cover crops prior to spring drilling and a recent interest companion cropping.
Changing the system is not easy and much has been learned from past mistakes.
2 trips to the USA and 1 to France in 2014 and 2015 on 'Soil Health' study tours confirmed I am going in the right direction with my farming, in many cases questioning 'conventional' methods of production heavily reliant on synthetic inputs. However much of what I am practicing is not new but maybe forgotten. I prioritise the role of the soil, not only enabling for a more resiliant method of food production but also as an important ecoservice provider if managed in a regenerative way.
I am convinced for example that, by nuturing soil biology, traditionally deemed unavailable phosphate is beginning to be available to the crops grown.
The soils are becoming a great deal more resilient and this means that they have the ability to procure wider environmental benefits such as clean water; becoming more drought and flood tolerant due to higher water infiltration rates and water holding capacity; a better ability to hold soil nutrients, reducing soil erosion through higher soil aggregate stability, locking carbon into the soil and creating a platform in which to help biodiversity.
The main principles followed include:
Minimising Soil Disturbance
More Diversity (for example species, rotation, companion cropping)
Keep Living roots in the soil at all times (for example with winter cover crops, have no fallow land)
Keep Soil coverered at all times
Following these principles, over time, has provided opportunities to reduce bought in inputs: for example artificial fertiliser, chemicals, and fuel and machinery use with further reductions possible in the future.
Financially the business is in a healthy state, and I am comfortable hearing that I am in the top 10% of farmers in this respect from my accountant.
Grass based buffer strips surround most fields and watercourses, a shorter arable rotation combined with diverse species break crops are grown including beans, linseed, peas, spring OSR, small patches of summer cover crops and with clovers present in the organic grassland.
Wherever possible small areas of unproductive land have been planted up with trees when time allows.
I am fortunate being able to work with the James Hutton Institute who are interested in work being carried out on the farm and who have set up a trials site on Durie. I am a participant in the Soil Association 'Mob-Grazing' and 'Companion Cropping' field labs, am on the Committee of BASE-UK (non profit farmer based conservation agriculture organisation) hosting on farm visits and field walks on many an occasion with the occasional speaking slot.