How I waged war on a briar patch without a drop of spray. And won

Spend it Better: Regenerative farming can help on a small and a mass scale

We know that healthy soil means healthy carbon sequestration, and hugely healthy food. Photograph: Getty

We know that healthy soil means healthy carbon sequestration, and hugely healthy food. Photograph: Getty

 

They speak of it still, the Great Briar Battle of Ballyhaunis. Well okay, no-one speaks of it but I think of it a lot. Particularly when I pass the herbicide display in Woodies, or see the familiar dry-weather sight of a man with a backpack nuking buttercups. Last Autumn I joined a meitheal militia on Wild Acre Farm in Co Mayo: four women, one man, two of us down from Dublin on the train, to help farmer Claire Templar wage war on a briar patch without the standard slash and spray. 

We spent several hours pulling whip lengths of briar from their ground crowns to “chop and drop” them with secateurs. The strimmer was used but then stopped because we couldn’t hear ourselves. Chats are a key component of a great meitheal.

It was tiring but deeply satisfying. Templar covered everything with a tarp over the winter. By April the darkness had eliminated everything she didn’t want and fed everything she did. Grass, weeds and chopped up briars had been munched into the soil. She aerated the ground with a fork, dug out the last of the briar crowns, and added lime and some layers of cardboard topped with mushroom compost. Where there were briars, now there are vegetables. 

She’s one of a new generation of regenerative farmers. Using permaculture methods, recycling waste materials, a secondhand polytunnel and as much man and woman power as she can muster she has turned small, marginal north-facing fields into healthy land that can feed her community. 

Much farming can involve sitting metres above soil in a tractor weighing several tonnes and crushing everything. Regenerative agriculture starts with the soil, knowing it, looking at the life in it, how it holds together, smells and even sounds (gritty or clay-ey). Regenerative farmers are a worldwide community of experimenters, many of them first generation farmers. There’s a delightful rabbit hole of YouTube videos about their discoveries and successes. 

How do we support them? By buying food from their farms. Claire sells plants and food through her website, wildacrefarm.ie. There’s Kate Egan at anghrianglasfarm.com, Clive Bright’s beef and lamb farm at rareruminare.com and any of the meat and dairy products featured in the hero list at farmingfornature.ie

The high priests of agribusiness say “this is niche” but this is the future. US organic dairy label Horizon Organics is promising a carbon-positive dairy product by 2025, based on some offsets but mainly on regenerative farming practices. We know now that healthy soil means healthy carbon sequestration, and hugely healthy food. Eating well can fix the problem on a small scale with inspiring individuals or on a mass scale when consumers understand that industrial food production is a war we’re waging on ourselves.

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