Agro-forestry – two inspirational farming examples.
“You’ll notice that the diversity theme keeps coming up” began Martin Wolfe “diversity in farming is the only sustainable way to farm and Agroforestry is the best way to maximise diversity”.
It was a huge privilege to be shown around Wakelyns Agroforestry Farm by the wonderful and hugely knowledgeable Prof Martin Wolfe - a true example of science, farming and inspiration combined. Also to be shown around Whitehall Farm by the enterprising and passionate Stephen Briggs - an example of Agroforestry working on a large scale, both financially and ecologically.
Agroforestry is a production system where you grow - in these cases vegetables and cereals - between rows of trees. The trees act as wind breaks for the crops and provide additional crops of fruit or biomass. On top of that the diversity in the cropping system not only reduces pest and disease but encourages an abundance of diversity. As Stephen said you find most biodiversity in edges – the edge between water and land, forest and meadow – and Agroforestry creates lots of edge!
Martin and Stephen have quite different examples of Agroforestry farms. With a background as a scientist, Martin’s 23 acres is a research station – researching the best ways to grow the different mixes of cereal and vegetable varieties but also mixing the different types of trees. He grows 8 different species including wild cherry, apple, poplar, willow and plants them in random order. In an experiment working with another farmer from a traditionally laid out orchard, they found this random order dramatically reduces pest and disease problems and increases yield.
Stephen’s 104 acre Agro-forestry system (of the 254 acre county farm that he rents) is an example of Agro-forestry working on a large commercial scale. He mainly focuses on wheat and apples – what Stephen describes as “apple pie in a field”, but also grows gluten free oats. Stephen only has a 270 tonne grain store on site, so he plans his cropping accordingly. Winter oats fill the shed in mid-august, 2.5 weeks later those are gone and spring oats harvested, followed by the spring wheat.
Some of the benefits of agroforestry described by both Martin and Stephen:
- Minimum inputs - neither of them have imported any fertility (fertilisers, compost or manure) on to their sites over the years bar a couple of instances of compost. This is not only ecologically beneficial but also results in financial savings – and when you think about it is incredible! (We and many other growers add compost every year!)
- The windbreaks provided by the trees prevent soil erosion – another crucial element of sustainable farming. As Stephen said “It’s just not acceptable to lose the most valuable resource on the farm” a problem which many conventional farmers have to deal with by the digger load (literally - having to clear soil blown on to the roads).
- There is a distinct lack of disease on both of their farms, due to the diversity of crops (although Stephen only grows apple trees he has planted a number of different varieties).
- And to go back to where we began with Martin Wolfe - an abundance of biodiversity. Stephen has 4 annual RSPB surveys (other farmers generally have one) and findings have included the only breeding pair of quail in Cambridgeshire for 30 years and more pairs of barn owls than you can shake a stick at.
We learnt so much from both Martin and Stephen (and about them – their backgrounds are so interesting you could write a novel) it’s hard to know where to stop. Their farms were great examples of what is possible in the UK food and farming landscape and both farmers were a real inspiration and wealth of information - and made us feel like we can (and must) do this ourselves.
They sent us home buzzing with ideas, chomping at the bit to get the Kindling farm (and get those trees planted!) and feeling like we have very concrete examples and support to help us make this happen. A huge thanks to both Martin and Stephen for giving us your time, but also for all your years of hard work.