Suffolk, Cambridgeshire & Essex - 5th & 6th November 2019
Organised by Innovation for Agriculture
Innovation for Agriculture’s Soil and Water Department have recently organised a two-day regional study tour for the National Trust’s Tennant Farmers based in the East of England. The study tour travelled to innovative farm businesses across Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex over two days in early November looking at a selection of industry-leading farms who specialise in a range of different agro-ecological approaches to productive agriculture. The study tour was funded as part of the FABulous Farmers project which is part of the European Unions’ Interreg North-West Europe Programme.
FABulous Farmers is a European project designed to support farmers in the transition to more agro- ecological practices on their farms. The project aims to reduce the reliance on external inputs, like chemical fertilisers and pesticides, by encouraging the use of methods and interventions thatincrease the farm’s Functional Agrobiodiversity (FAB). These are targeted measures of biodiversity in and around the field to improve pollination, pest management, soil and water quality on the farmland.
Photo 1 - The 2019 National Trust FABulous farmers group.
The attendees of the study tour were mainly farmers from the National Trusts tenant farms from Blickling estate in in North Norfolk, Copt Hall in Essex and attendees from the National Trusts Agricultural management office. The tour began at the beautiful Ickworth Estate near Bury St. Edmunds and continued on to North Suffolk to see Lodge Farm, Westhorpe, farmed by Brian and Patrick Barker. The 513Ha LEAF demonstration Farm and AHDB strategic farm grows winter and Spring Cereals, Oil Seed Rape, Spring Beans and Herbage Grass Seed on a clay soil type. The Barkers prioritise farm biodiversity as a major focus in their farm management plan as well as producing high yielding crops for a range of markets. They told the group of the importance of the role of a balanced ecosystem with regard to farming and increasing biodiversity and how they are continually aiming to reduce their farm energy usage by reducing the machinery fleet, monitoring fuel usage, recycling farm wastes and how they have made energy saving alterations to the crop drying facilities including installation of two solar large solar power systems on farm buildings.
Photo 2 - Patrick Barker talks to the FABfarmers group about the ‘Green Grassland Corridor’ that has been created through the middle of the farm to allow for safe wildlife movement by linking vital habitats.
The study tour then moved along to David White’s Hawkmill Farm between Cambridge and Newmarket. David is farming 160ha of combinable crops on light land over chalk and is in his 5th year of practicing Conservation Agriculture, a farming system that promotes maintenance of a permanent soil cover, minimum soil disturbance (i.e. no tillage), and diversification of plant species. David is passionate about use of no-till systems - direct drilling directly into catch and cover crops with the aim of maintaining growing crops on the farmland for as long as possible. He took the group into the one of his cover crops and explained how the range of species benefits the crop establishment as the species grow in different manners and how he tries to drill the cover as soon as possible after harvest to achieve the largest crop biomass possible. He also talked about the comparison with his current conservation agriculture system and his old conventional crop production model, where he needed 3 times the crop establishment machinery that he has now - two drills and some infrequently used Cambridge rolls. He also talked about the time it has saved him, allowing for his other business interests as co-founder of RTKFarming and Vice Chairman of Camgrain Stores.
David is a true believer in “pushing boundaries and making mistakes is the only way to learn” and going from full cultivation to 100% no-till in a single step was a big change that could only be made successfully by trialling different things to see what works best on his soil type, with many new things still being tried each year. He took the group to see some field trials he is conducting looking at testing multiple companion crops for Oilseed Rape including field beans, vetch, phacelia and several varieties of clover.
Photo 3 - David White talks to the FABfarmers group about his on-farm crop trials on companion planting with oilseed rape.
On the second day of the tour the group visited the 2018 ‘Soil Farmer of the Year’ Simon Cowell at his farm in Essex. He farms on heavy clay soils and as a result began to prioritise soil health 15 years ago and began the process of improving his soils. He has done this by stopping all tillage, producing his own highly biologically active compost on the farm with the aim to build mycorrhizal fungi populations which he sees as a key part to healthy and stronger crops as the two work in symbiosis exchanging the plants photosynthetically derived energy for the fungi’s nutrients scavenged from the soil. Simon finds that compost is the best soil fungi inoculant method as it also adds the carbon source where the fungi can live and feed. Removing tillage from the farm management plan has also been key as it reduces physical disruption of the fungal hyphae therefore improving fungal populations.
Simon aims to reduce all farm inputs in the future and has already cut out seed treatments, plant growth regulators and insecticides throughout his crop rotation. He believes that a balanced soil food web can provide all the nutrients a crop needs, and to prove this theory he hasn’t applied anyphosphate or potash fertilisers in over 20 years and has started experimenting with cutting out nitrogen applications as well. He has managed the nitrogen reduction by growing perennial legume crops such as Lucerne which is grown for 3 years and is harvested 3 times a year. The crop helps tofix atmospheric nitrogen and improve the soil structure for the following cereal, pulse and linseed rotation. Simon also grows a mix of 4 different feed wheat varieties to reduce the risk of disease by improving the crop diversity and reduce the use of fungicides.
Photo 4 - Simon Cowell explains to the group the physical comparison between the soil found in his fields and the non- agricultural soil found under the hedge which he hopes to restore his soils to in the future.
The final visit on the tour was to see George Young who is farming 486 hectares near Fobbing in Essex. The farm grows wheat, beans, barley, oilseed rape, peas and linseed all established using zero-tillage. George also has an interest in niche foodstuff production so also grows heritage cereals, buckwheat for Hodmedods, hemp and teff all with the aim of producing nutritious, natural, unprocessed food for a local market which George is incredibly passionate about.
He is also on a mission to reduce his farm inputs; he has cut out the use of insecticides and has significantly reduced his use of fungicides and fertilisers. Although his farming system is zero-tillagebased he is hoping to build a system which significantly reduces the reliance on glyphosate. He is also working hard to improve the ecology and biodiversity on his farm trying to create a large‘wildlife corridor’ that would link up the majority of the fields on his farm to act as a network for wildlife to traverse with field hedgerows as further tributaries off the seam to allow nature as much access to the fields as possible. However, George wants to go one further in the future and establish a silvoarable agroforestry system throughout the farm to improve the agro-ecosystem.
Photo 5 - George Young explains his agro-ecological management system to the FABulous Farmers Group.
The study was a thought-provoking trip for the attendees having witnessed 4 farmers who were all incredibly passionate about improving the sustainability, resilience and the ecology on their individual farms however they had all decided to address the issue with slightly different agricultural systems. There was much discussion and debate on the bus on the way home about the ideas and methods that the group had seen over the duration of the tour and how they could be implemented on their own farms. Many thanks to all who were involved.
Next week, Innovation for Agriculture are running the National Trust Farming Innovation Group (FIG) study tour in North East England and Southern Scotland. If you are interested in reading what we get up to then please tune in to nest months newsletter. Also, remember to check our website for more information on the work we do and the resources we produce on soil regeneration and management.
Joe Collins – Soil and Water Researcher at Innovation for Agriculture