I personally feel connection to a well known saying: “Live as though you are going to die tomorrow. Farm as though you are going to live forever.”
It’s easy to think about long stretches of time on my farm in Scotland, north of Edinburgh. This area of Scotland has been farmed for thousands of years. On the farm and nearby, we have a Bronze Age burial mound, a stone circle, and a ruined castle. When I was 10, helping to feed sheep in the fields, I found an ancient carved stone ball. Today it’s in a museum in Dundee.
Even as we think about the past and the future, farmers must focus on the problems of the present. We live in a world of 8 billion people, and every one of them needs to eat every day. Whether they realize it or not, their food security depends on healthy soil.
That’s the importance of World Soil Day, commemorated by the United Nations every year on December 5. It seeks to remind people how much we owe to the soil beneath our feet. And that food is produced by farmers who care, nourish, and maintain the health of the world’s soil.
Scotland is famous for its mountains, glens, and terrible weather—and we have a wide and diverse range of soils across the country. Only about 7 percent of Scottish land is arable, and most of this cropland is concentrated in my area, in a strip down the east coast between the hills and the sea.
We live in Angus, a region that is ubiquitous in agriculture for having given its name to a breed of beef cattle. On our farm, which I operate with my wife and daughter, we grow winter wheat for animal feed and whisky, milling oats for human consumption in porridge, vining peas for freezing, and seed potatoes for farmers in the UK as well as for export.
We produce such a wide range of food because our soils are so diverse. Generally, we work in a sandy loam from an old red sandstone parent material, but it can change radically in just a few steps to everything from light sand to heavy clay. We can plant the same crop and across 50 meters its yield can vary by a factor of four.
For a farmer, nothing is more frustrating than treating a crop exactly the same but growing one portion of it at a profit and another at a loss.
A generation ago, we set out to study and solve this problem with technology. In 1996, we fitted an early yield monitor with a GPS receiver to my combine. At the time, this device was worth more than the combine—but a few companies wanted to try this new tool. Working together, we made some of the first yield maps in the UK. With follow-up soil tests, we discovered that low-yield areas suffered from a low soil pH. By applying a higher rate of lime to these areas, we completely corrected the problem—and created some of our farm’s best-yielding patches.
This led to the founding of SoilEssentials, a company that delivers the technology of precision agriculture to farmers and businesses. We help with mapping soil chemistry, sampling soil quality, and delivering solutions through variable-rate applications and autonomous vehicles. Our latest product allows farmers to spray individual weeds in a crop, reducing use of agrochemicals by as much as 90 percent.
By harnessing the power of technology, we’ve enjoyed a series of soil success stories. A recent one involves Nether Aden Farm, a barley and beef operation here in Scotland, where soil sampling and analysis helped a husband-and-wife team reduce their reliance on fertilizer, save money, and maintain crop yields.
Tending to soil health today allows farmers to reap profits right now as well as to guarantee a successful future.
On World Soil Day in Scotland, the weather was about what you would expect: cold and wet, or what we call “dreich.”
Despite the poor conditions, the dog and I walked through our fields to the top of the hill, where we stood beside the old burial mound. I reflected on the hundreds of generations of farmers who have worked and cared for the soil before us. They gave us a chance to improve upon our inheritance, and now we’re striving to leave the soil and Hilton of Fern in a better condition than when we got it.