Farmers should harvest the wind like any other crop says chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Following on from the Great British Wind Meal held in Plymouth in November, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall talks to WMN Editor Bill Martin
about the historic link between wind and food – and why
wind has such potential for farming’s future.
Bill Martin: Hugh, you’ve just taken part in an event which is about farming’s relationship to wind power, is this a subject close to your heart?
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Hugh: Nowhere is a better reminder of the historic relationship between wind power and food production than Royal William Yard, where we are lucky enough to have the River Cottage Canteen & Deli.
The city was once was one of the most important ports and naval stations in this country, defined by its sailing boats and reliant on the power of wind to transport British produce around the world.
Royal William Yard housed the granaries, breweries, bakeries and slaughterhouses that supplied the Royal Navy.
So it goes right to the heart of the longstanding relationship between wind power and farming.
Bill Martin: What role could wind have in agriculture in the future?
Hugh: Wind has always played an important role in farming, not only for transport by ship but in the past when we used windmills to grind our grain. And I think that renewable energy, and wind power in particular, will continue to be important in the future of British agriculture.
Farming is simply the harnessing of the natural resources around us to provide energy for people, for livestock and for communities.
Conventionally that energy takes the form of food calories, but there is an alternative way of farming energy – at a community level, at a farm level and of course on a larger scale as well. Modern wind turbines make all that possible.
Bill Martin: So is it time to think of wind as a ‘crop’?
Hugh: The weather is something that every farmer worries about every day.
You know when the sun shines, your crops will flourish, your produce will ripen, your grass will grow and your livestock will have food to eat.
When it rains you know that is going to liberate the nutrients in the soil that help bring your crops along and nurture your livestock. Freezing is also a vital part of the natural cycle; it kills off the bugs and the parasites, it prepares the ground.
And wind has the potential to be yet another, equally vital, resource for farmers.
So when the wind is blowing, farmers all over the country could be harvesting it to generate clean energy, for our consumption, and we should feel extremely good about that.
It’s getting increasingly difficult for Britain’s small-scale farmers to make a living – and if they can secure a more stable income from a well-sited wind turbine or two, and in so doing preserve their livelihood, that is going to be for the benefit of everyone.
Bill Martin: What do you say to those for whom wind is a very contentious subject?
Hugh: It’s clear that the debate about where to put wind turbines isn’t going to go away – and it’s a completely valid debate. They should be sited appropriately and take into account the impact on neighbours, as the planning process does already. But let’s make sure that the debate focuses on where are we going to put these fantastic harvesters of natural, renewable energy, not why.
UK Farmland has thousands of potential sites where the impact on neighbouring residents would be minimal.
Many communities are only too delighted to have wind turbines nearby, reminding them what an important service in supplying renewable energy these fantastic things are doing.
Bill Martin: So why do you think the media focuses on the negatives of wind so much?
Hugh: The visual impact of wind turbines is always going to come up. I find them attractive to look at – I have one at home, and I see it every day – but I recognise that not everyone does. Unfortunately those who don’t like them, although they are a minority, tend to be a very vocal minority, and that’s what gets the headlines.
I’d like to see the media telling some good news stories about wind, and how it can be viewed as a vital crop that is helping our farmers build a more sustainable future.
Bill Martin: Do you think wind turbines get too hard a time?
Hugh: If you go back in time, the landscape was dotted with wind turbines – not very different to the ones we see now. But I don’t think you’d find anybody who would say that old-fashioned windmills were an eyesore.
It is also interesting that people do not object to pylons, but they do object to wind turbines. While turbines are relatively new, pylons have become part of the status quo.
I personally don’t know many people who wouldn’t gladly swap a row of pylons for a row of wind turbines. Why not bury electricity cables and put up wind turbines in place of the pylons?
Bill Martin: So what is it about wind that gets people so cross?
Hugh: I think there is anxiety about change and about new technology. And the politics of envy also plays a role, when it comes to farmers getting subsidies – but all forms of energy have benefited from subsidies in the past.
We need to persuade people that wind energy can help preserve our unique agricultural landscape rather than destroying it – and remind them that it is temporary, renewable and sustainable, unlike fossil-fuel or nuclear power stations.
We need to move towards the perception of wind energy and turbines as something fundamentally normal, part of the spectrum of our energy needs and also part of the spectrum of our agricultural economy.
Bill Martin: Can you understand why farmers are frustrated about attitudes to wind power?
Hugh: British farmers have had a really tough time of it lately, thanks to more extreme weather events, rising energy prices and other costs. And wind energy can play a really important economic role in mitigating those things and help keep British farmers afloat. Wind is a crop to be harvested, and it’s good to see organisations like RenewableUK and Cornwall Council supporting farmers and their growing wind crops and using it for the benefit of our communities.