FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

What Happened When I Let a Group of Artists Take Over My Wheat Field

I’ve been farming for 35 years or so and suddenly I was questioning values and decisions that I’d never necessarily thought about.
Photo via Flickr user Jon Bunting

The Field of Wheat project was something quite unique to me as a farmer. I was approached by two artists, Anne-Marie Culhane and Ruth Levene, to see if I'd be willing to host this art project to grow a 22-acre field of wheat. Decisions around how to best grow the crop were taken by a collective of 42 people with very different backgrounds and very different values on food and farming—members of the public, artists, researchers, and food industry people.

Advertisement

I provided the base template I use to manage a field to begin with, then we had discussions about various aspects of farming—like nitrogen use and insecticides throughout the year, from planting to harvest time. A generic feed wheat crop was grown, which was destined to make biscuits and chicken feed.

I see farming as a part of the rural economy and environmental enhancement. I don't see farming as being solely about producing food to the lowest unit cost.

I have some alternative views on farming, so I guess that's why the artists found me and maybe why I was open to the idea of the project. I used to be a director of GM Freeze [an organisation that campaigns against growing, importing, and patenting GM plants and food] for many years and about 15 years ago, I tried to set up an organisation called FARM, which promoted an alternative, sustainable future for farming. I see farming as a part of the rural economy and environmental enhancement. I don't see farming as being solely about producing food to the lowest unit cost.

I'm a conventional farmer, which means I use agrochemicals and try to use them responsibly. The Field of Wheat project was interesting for me to explore the commercial growing of wheat and the global food chain, and how a 22-acre field in Lincolnshire links with that huge global anonymous commodity market. I think some of the people involved in the collective may have preferred it to be a lovely heritage variety of wheat that was being grown that went to a lovely local mill and the onto the local baker to be turned into the most wonderful bread. But unfortunately, that's not the story of the huge majority of the wheat that's grown in this country.

Advertisement

READ MORE: These Teenagers' Science Project Discovery Could Revolutionise Global Crop Production

I fully support organic farming and artisan production, and am not criticising it in any way, but it is very niche. It doesn't make it less valid, but it is a niche market.

I found it fascinating to use art to have a conversation which I've never had in my farming career. But the first thing I had to do was shut up and listen! My job was to assist in the process but not dominate it. I had to help the collective to come to their own opinions about what needed to be done.

I would always start by answering question from the collective with, "Well, of course it is because … " and then you stop and think, "Why do I do this?" I've been farming for 35 years or so and suddenly I was questioning values and decisions that I'd never necessarily thought about in depth.

I found it fascinating to use art to have a conversation which I've never had in my farming career. But the first thing I had to do was shut up and listen!

One of the issues that was explored at great length throughout the process was the use of nitrogen. It's a highly contentious area about whether we use artificial fertilisers or not. For me, as a conventional farmer, of course you do. People started off with polarised views but through the process, it was possible to have a sensible, coherent debate. The collective came to an answer that I wasn't absolutely confident was the right one but it wasn't my job to stop it. It was my job to make it work as best as it could.

Advertisement

They decided to use about half of what my agronomist recommends because one of the members of the collective is a specialist in the area and he put forward a valid, reasoned argument about what would be the right amount, given the soil type, the variety of wheat being grown, and other variables.

It turned out, I think, that the collective was right. It's now made me completely question nitrogen use on this land and the amount of nitrogen I've been using.

We tried to set things up beforehand so we'd talk about insecticides, and I knew what the collective decision was if and when a problem occurred. There were some decisions that I had to make on the day—like when to start combining—as it's the kind of thing you can't do by the calendar.

When we got to the harvest, the yields were not too bad, actually—just over nine tonnes per hectare. It's not world record stuff but for this summer, not bad. Costs were reasonable and we did actually make a small profit. I was surprised at that because I did warn everyone at the start of the project that making a profit was very unlikely.

It's been a busy year but it's also been extremely valid. A lot of people didn't understand what we were doing. Sadly, a lot of the farming industry didn't understand what we were doing. There was a real reticence and notably only one bank and a couple of advisory companies got engaged. No fertilising manufacturers, no agrochemical makers, no grain merchants got engaged. I think this is one element of this story that's very valid going forward.

Advertisement

READ MORE: This Engineer Created a Real-Life Version of Farmville

We keep saying that the public don't understand the farming industry and they only care about whether it's cheap, but here was a real opportunity for these companies to engage and for some reason, they felt it would somehow tarnish their image or brand.

Until we can get this dialogue going, I think the farming industry has a real problem. With Brexit on the cards, it shouldn't be me having a conversation in a field with 42 people, it should have been every farmer having a conversation with everyone in the country. I hope it's not too late to have that conversation.

As told to Daisy Meager.

Farmer and sustainable agriculture campaigner Peter Lundgren has been farming for 35 years. Between 2015 and 2016, his Lincolnshire farm was involved in the Field of Wheat art project. During this year, decisions over how to grow a crop of wheat were taken by a collective of 42 people, including members of the public, people in the food industry, researchers, and artists.