Photography: Jason J Mulikita
Alastair Sansom started out farming vegetables. The Zimbabwean, now 54, turned a tidy profit from a 1,100 ha (2,700 acre) farm growing mange tout, baby corn, fine beans and pak choi for Sainsbury’s, the UK supermarket chain, as well as exporting to Singapore and Australia.
When land invasions forced him to flee his country 20 years ago, he settled over the border in Chisamba, Zambia, in a job growing vegetables for export with local farming conglomerate Plantation and General Industries. But it was a tough slog. It was 3°C warmer than Zimbabwe, which made the crop harder to raise, and spiralling freight prices were gouging profits. By 2012, with the crop now mainly potatoes, his employer lost interest and sold him the 2,300 ha (6,000 acre) farm.
Worse followed. Zambia’s weakening currency – it has lost more than 60% of its value against the dollar since 2017 – caused prices for foreign-sourced farming necessities such as seed and fertiliser to rocket. It was a crash course in the vicissitudes of international currency markets and the havoc they reap on a farm’s profit and loss. “At the start of the season, the exchange rate could be at 15 [Zambian kwacha to the dollar]; by the time you came to sell [your crop], it was at 20.”
Two years ago, a chance conversation with a neighbour, who had just planted a 3 ha (7.4 acre) block of macadamia trees, gave him an idea.
The healthy-living craze in the US and Europe has created a boom in demand for the tasty, nutrient-rich nuts. “From the research I could see there was an insatiable appetite. It’s a huge crop in South Africa. There is no reason they can’t do even better up here.” Crucially, buyers would pay him in dollars or euros, mitigating the chaos of hitching his business to the Zambian kwacha. In March, he planted 30 ha (74 acres) of the new crop and crossed his fingers.
For farmers like Sansom, the age-old winds that buffet their fortune – lurching commodity prices, the politics of land ownership, tariff-littered global trade – are today being joined by a new set of forces.
Falling freight costs and integrated global supply chains have shrunk the distance between where food is grown and where it is consumed. The growing influence of Asian consumers and the fashion in the developed world for a healthier diet – especially fruit and nuts – is reshaping food production to fast-moving consumer tastes. A growing emphasis on sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation is upending the incentive structure for how many farmers use the land. Meanwhile, the havoc wreaked by global warming on weather patterns is making once-bankable crops virtually impossible to cultivate.
Eight thousand miles from where Sansom is rolling the dice with his macadamia seedlings, Tom Heathcote MRICS, a 36-year-old land surveyor, frets about a different bet placed by UK sheep farmers, 89% of whose exports go to the EU.
"A hard Brexit could see this market dry up overnight,” says Heathcote. Despite this looming precipice, Heathcote reports that sheep prices at local sales are running red hot, fuelled by the £50,000 government bounce back loans designed to steer small businesses through the COVID-19 downturn. “It’s bonkers. They’re just not pricing in the risk.”
Heathcote who is among the army of advisers, consultants and land managers helping steer British farmers through an uncertain future, is a farming progressive, whose ideas have been shaped by his era. “My generation are focused on what food they eat, where it comes from and how it is produced,” he says.
After training as a chartered surveyor, he specialised in land consultancy in his first job, at a rural practice of a large firm, where one client – an entrepreneur and environmental campaigner – opened his eyes to the potential of sustainable agriculture. Today, working in the agricultural consultancy division of Knight Frank, he feels it fits with the times.
“The nutritional content of food is going up the agenda. If we have healthier soils and living soils, this translates into the bread that we eat. Now a quarter of the way through my career I feel very passionate about this. It is very clear to me that unless we make some dramatic changes the industry as we know it may be unidentifiable by the time I retire.”
“The nutritional content of food is going up the agenda. If we have healthier soils and living soils, this translates into the bread that we eat” Tom Heathcote MRICS, Knight Frank
A key spur for the quantum leap engulfing UK farming is currently making its way through parliament. Under the agriculture bill, farmers in England will see the Basic Payment Scheme replaced by a system of agri-environment funding, based on the principle of public money for public goods, as enshrined in the New Environmental Land Management Scheme, over a seven-year period beginning in 2021 (2024 for the devolved nations). As the country breaks from the EU, this will reshape the incentive structure for how farmers use the land.
“The EU’s common agricultural policy was largely constructed to incentivise food production: maintaining land in cultivation [was] part of the condition for receiving money,” says Emily Norton, head of rural research at Savills. “Strip away that element and say ‘it’s up to you what you grow where’ and you provoke a different approach to the land.”
Part of this will mean farmers farming less. For Jock Willmott, a specialist in crop management at Strutt & Parker in Cambridge, the most noticeable trend in recent years has been non-farmer landowners, replacing traditional agricultural farming contracts to benefit from the government’s environmental stewardship scheme, which pays for land management that protects and enhances the environment and wildlife.
“You look to poor performing fields – those with too much or little water, on a slope, at the back of houses or which don’t fit machinery – and take them out,” he says. After costs for seed and planting a field to grasses or wildflowers in this way, profits from stewardship payment are typically between £460 to £480 per ha. “This is better than a poor crop of pulses, and there are no fixed costs.”
Commercial factors are changing what is farmed on the remaining fields. UK farmers, who for years were pinched on prices for staple crops such as wheat, corn and maize by the super-scale farms of North America, are switching to follow current dietary trends with crops such as malting barley and quinoa or are serving a fast-expanding crop energy market.
Pelleted bamboo helps fire modern power stations and local district heating systems, many of them on farms. Short rotation coppice woodlands yield woodchip, another popular biomass fuel. “It’s all linked to the government’s net zero target [for carbon emissions by 2050] combined with its forestation targets,” says Heathcote.
The shifts are coinciding with a vogue for regenerative agriculture. This less intensive approach to farming and grazing benefits including carbon capture by rebuilding soil organic matter and restores degraded soil biodiversity. Firmly established in the US, in the UK it is still a niche, but one that is growing.
“Our clients tend to be the next generation, in their thirties or forties,” says Heathcote. “Many have been in other industries before succeeding to a family farm or estate. They are environmentally aware and can see that the future is not intensive farming.”
The influence of this younger generation has received an unlikely boost from COVID-19, as many move from cities back to family farms. Alternative, non-intensive agricultural practices and new crops provide a new approach that engages a generation who were not attracted to traditional farming, says Norton.
“The past 30 years has seen a stripping of the value and the fun from farming. As well as adding value the new enterprises are very good way to bring younger generations into the business.”
Another driver to shifting land use is the UK’s increasingly unreliable weather. “It has been abysmal recently for mainstream crops such as wheat, oats, barley, oil seed rape, linseed. We have a very wet autumn in 2019 followed by harsh drought this year from March,” says Willmott. Record high temperatures in recent years have damaged winter beans, spring beans and peas. Heavier rainfall, longer droughts and higher temperatures are chipping away steadily at arable productivity.
The disruptive impact of global warming is not confined to the UK. “Across south Russia and south-east Romania, rising temperatures and the change in rainfall is having a huge impact on production,” says Charlie Fowler, an agri-business consultant with RICS-registered firm Brown & Co in Turun, Poland. With rainfall weaker in spring and on the rise in summer and winter, corn and soya, which need moist conditions in spring, are suffering. Current efforts in central and eastern Europe are focused on improving irrigation rather than changing crops, with EU grants subsidising the large capital outlay required for watering equipment or a reservoir. “Particularly in Romania and Hungary, government funding for irrigation is important.”
Much of Africa’s agriculture is highly geared to traditional rain patterns, which are now facing disruption. Tilda Mwai, a researcher in Knight Frank’s Dubai office, base for its operations in the Middle East and Africa, describes a two-pronged season – early heavy rain between April and June and shorter rains between October and December – that is the closest much of Africa has to seasonal change.
Crops such as maize – a staple food for half those living in sub-Saharan Africa – are planted after long rains in July while vegetables are normally planted prior to the rains, in March. If the rain levels fall then the yield will be meagre or none. Too much rainfall, or an overrun of the longer runs, and crops will spoil.
In the south and east of the continent farmers have had to contend with plenty of both in recent years. “Kenya and Tanzania have had significant drought cycles,” Mwai says. Government initiatives to help farmers shift to less rain-dependent crops have been lacklustre. “Unsupported, farmers don’t have the money to adopt the investment that is required,” she says.
Sansom has noticed the patchier rains. “[They] used to come down through Zimbabwe then move up again; you could bank on two periods of rainfall. Today you can’t, and the temperatures are more erratic.”
He is fortunate. Two large dams on his land, each fed by different catchment areas, keep him well supplied. “One big storm and one will fill, with enough to keep you going for two seasons.” But in nearby Mkushi, dwindling rains are pitting local farmers against each other. “Every farmer is on the same river; they fight each other tooth and nail.” Despite his own water security, Sansom is concerned. “[Changing climate] is my biggest worry.”
Mwai says that a combination of the higher prices they command and Africa’s unreliable rain patterns are driving the adoption of less thirsty crops, such as macadamia and avocado. In Kenya these are replacing tea and coffee in many areas, helped by a new avocado export deal with China in 2019. The crops are gaining popularity in Tanzania and Angola, too. “In most countries in the region, people are shifting.”
Easier maintenance adds to the appeal. Avocados and macadamia nuts grow on trees, meaning less weeding, easier spraying and easier control of insects and other pests, reducing labour costs, says Mwai. And a defined harvesting season reduces the backbreaking work associated with crops such as vegetables.
This last benefit is not lost on Sansom, for whom farming’s tough hours have extracted their pound of flesh. His 2,000 ha of vegetables in Zimbabwe may have been lucrative, but constant harvesting and the rush to load freight planes to get produce on the supermarket shelf within days were tough.
“Vegetables don’t stop growing on Sunday. You never went away for the weekend, you never left the farm. And [Sainsbury’s] quality standards are very high. For the field to fork audits the paperwork was enormous.”
Potatoes provided a let-up. In 2003, soon after he settled in Zambia, he lost his wife to malaria. With an 11-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son, the gentler schedule was welcome. “It was more seasonal, not 24/7. It allowed me to change my lifestyle.”
Today, besides 1,000 head of cattle, most of his land is still given over to potatoes. He and a group of neighbouring farmers are in the process of building a factory to make them into chips, and hangars to store them in, before they’re exported to Angola, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
As for his new experiment, his 30 ha (74 acres) of macadamia will start to crop two years from now. By then the nut-cracking plant a South African company is promising to build nearby, which will process the crops of all the surrounding farms, will be up and running. The company has pledged to buy his first crop, of roughly 20 tonnes.
“They will take 4% of the final price and we will take the rest.” By 2023 the operation will have paid for itself and the macadamia business will move into profit. Does he ever consider going back to farming vegetables? “It paid the school fees, sure,” he says. “But would I go back there? No. It owned you.”
“Vegetables don’t stop growing on Sunday. You never went away for the weekend, you never left the farm” Alastair Sansom, farmer