Tom Fairfax Mindrum Estate
Tom Fairfax
Tom Fairfax is a conventional turned organic farmer based in Northumberland on his farm, Mindrum Estate. He is growing 40ha of winter wheat for Wildfarmed using a grazed clover & other plant species understory technique. Tom is also growing organic varieties in a trial with the Organic Research Centre, using the Wildfarmed milling blend.

Last year, we interviewed Tom, “The Man with the Microbes”, for our zine 'SOIL'. Here’s what Tom had to say about, you guessed it, soil. 

I wanted to start by asking you to talk about your journey into regenerative farming. What do you do and when did you start this process?

My father moved here in 1955 and we had always used conventional farming methods on our fields. We are a small farm of 1150 acres in Northumberland here on the Mindrum Estate and it was about 4 years ago that it became clear to me that everything was feeling a bit thin. Our profits were becoming tighter year by year and it struck me most when we had a couple of years where our winter crop yield was not much different from our spring crop yield due to the difference in input costs. Conventional farming methods are hugely dependent on chemicals which doesn’t help to create the healthy conditions we need to support the soil and make good crops. It doesn’t invest in our systems. Unlike regenerative farming. And so, about 2-3 years ago, we began to make the switch to regenerative farming and we have been converting ever since. 

How are you working to create healthy systems on your farm and what processes have you been looking at? 

In conventional farming, we have replaced biology, which is integral to a healthy farming cycle, with agro-chemistry, which is a lot worse for the system in the long term. And what we want to do here (on the farm) is put the biology back. To start, we want to try to understand what’s going on, understand what we are trying to achieve and then aim to design strategies to achieve this. I started doing the foundation course by the Soil Food Web which was difficult but brilliant and it illuminated how vital this switch to regenerative farming is. The Soil Food Web has helped to provide me with a framework that gives a detailed understanding of the soil and a variety of methods to fit each farm. Every farm is different and in conventional farming, the ‘one size fits all’ framework doesn’t adapt to the individual conditions needed for healthy soil. We have only just begun to understand and design strategies to help our land and the Soil Food Web is giving me a great, holistic context within which to operate, showing how biology is essential to the soil in order to build healthier, resistant systems that can survive by themselves. 

I read that one of the things you do to build healthier systems is use the technique of Korean Natural Farming. How did you get involved with this technique and could you briefly explain what it is? 

I came across Korean Natural Farming (KNF) when I was desperately trying to find answers. In KNF, there is a really good set of disciplines and tools to produce natural additives which have really helped my farming. It is a process of collecting indigenous microbes, such as fungi, in your surrounding area, conservating them at farm scale and then deploying them to support soil biology and soil health. I collect the samples myself but you can also buy them in bulk, so it’s pretty easy to start. 

How does this technique help you on your farm? 

KNF builds up the amount of natural, local microbes in the soil. The fungi and bacteria we collect help the plants to find sugars and generate nutrients which boost the diversity of life found in the fields, creating healthier food and helping to contain carbon and water in the soil. 

So, talk to me about soil. How could we tell if soil is healthy or bad? Are there any key features? 

There are many different things you can look at because there are many different types of soil. You can feel the difference. You can smell the difference. It smells, I hate to say it, earthy. I can really tell the difference when I use my microscope. When you really look at it, you can see it’s alive. My microscope is essential for my farming. I think at the moment, everyone is talking about soil but no one actually looks at it. 

Why is regenerative farming the way to go? 

Conventional farming is like filling a glass of wine and drinking from it. At some point, the wine will run out and we will be left with an empty glass. And this is what is happening right now. We are destroying the soil by taking too much or overfilling so we have nitrates spilling into the rivers. Regenerative farming gives us a way to create more balance and support healthy life for everything, not just us! And I think it is the way forward. 

Completely, so why do you feel like we should care more about the soil? 

Because it is the basis of everything that we depend on to live. If we don’t have healthy soil, we don’t have a healthy world with healthy people. There are more organisms in a tablespoon full of soil than there are human beings on the planet. And that’s incredible.


See the full SOIL ZINE here