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Ghost Acres

For years, the farm would produce turkeys for Christmas. This year, our fields and barns are very quiet. There are a lot of reasons why we’ve decided not to rear turkeys, but at the fore is that we can no longer ignore our responsibility to produce food which is as ethically and ecologically sound as possible.

We did raise our turkeys organically, which goes a long way to produce meat with as little environmental impact as possible. But we farm a sodden little patch of clay in the beautiful Monmouthshire countryside. We were never going to be able to produce a plant-based feed for the turkeys from our land. Instead, we had to buy in their feed, and this is where the problems lie.

Ghost acres is a term which sprang from colonial era Britain, whereby industrialisation and intensification of our country was, and still is, supported by outsourcing our food production to the land and labour of other countries. In the 1960s, the idea of ghost acres was irretrievably linked with the area abroad used to grow, not the food we consume ourselves, but the feed for animals which we rear at home.

Tethered to global supply chains and shifting national tensions, our turkey feed has been more reliant than ever on soya production in South America. A process which, even with the best controls in the world, undeniably contributes to deforestation, soil erosion and climate change. This isn’t just an issue with organic turkey feed. The majority of animal feed is grown on ghost acres and contributes negatively to the health of our planet, and the majority of animals reared in the UK will have some sort of feed as part of their diet. There are farmers out there who will tell you they cannot produce animals without this feed. And in some ways they’re right. For animals to grow quickly and efficiently, to reach the supermarket shelves in the most cost-effective way possible, animals need to be put in sheds and topped up with feed that they don’t forage themselves.

The problem with ghost acres in our modern world is that the impact of our food consumption is hidden. It’s shifted from our doorstep and obscured by long supply chains. For us, it meant that even though we were trying to produce food in a way which was ecologically sound, we were unwittingly contributing to the very factors we were trying to address.

This all sounds rather doom and gloom. But change is coming. There will be better sources of poultry feed in the near future, and we, personally, are experimenting on the farm to see how we rear poultry on a foraged diet. But we haven’t achieved this yet, and we want to do better now, not in five or ten years’ time. So we’ve committed to producing what the farm can feed itself, with no imported feeds, and by stocking the farm with a mix of animals that contribute to a mosaic of bio-diverse habitats. It’s been a revelation for us to change our way of farming, discovering that we could farm in a way which didn’t just do no harm, but could actively do good.

As put it, ‘We are all haunted by the ghost acreage we devour.’ For our own sakes, we didn’t want to be haunted any more.

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