Sunday, 23 July 2017

I feel a movement coming on

Movements are funny things and I’m not talking about a movement brought on by syrup of figs, I’m talking about a movement of thinking, of enlightened souls carving a new path, casting out the old with the new, capturing the zeitgeist of the moment. I’ve been caught up in a few movements in my time including Punk, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and then the Organic one.

But there’s a new one, and they’re sealing all our words like, soil health, mycorrhiza, green manures and allelopathy. They are called Conservation Agriculturalists.

There are several different types of Conservation Agriculturalists. The lowest of the low are those who have just given up the plough for a cultivator, the zonal tillers. Next you get the strip tillers, they do a little bit of tilling during seedbed preparation but only where the seed is placed and they look down on the zonal tillers. The Mothers of Conservation Agriculture are the no-tillers, who would rather cut off their right arm that move a particle of soil to place their seed and they look down on everyone. 

But the farmers that all Conservation Agriculturalists look down on are those of us who use the plough. That’s me, but I’m trying to stop, I promise.

I say that movements are funny things, they are actually not funny at all, they are earnestly serious but they do start off fun. Converting to organic agriculture in the 1990’s was a blast for me. I was no longer wedded to my sprayer receiving orders from my agronomist with his better-spray-it-just-in-case attitude, buyers were beating a path to my door as the market grew in double digits amid food scare after food scare and villagers hailed me as a local hero as barbecuing on a Bank Holiday in the Parish was now possible without me adding a cloud of free pesticide to their carbonised burgers.

Then It got serious when I discovered that I was in fact the lowly zonal tiller of the organic movement. I was stockless and arable. I also made other serious errors in attempt to win favour. Firstly I had too many acres to be properly organic, secondly I admitted that I had converted for financial gain, but the worst error I made was the fact that I was from East Anglia, the home of the Range Rover driving, shotgun swinging Barley Baron. Stamp Duty means that moving could be costly, so where should my practical aspirations lie? 

Should I set my sights on the mixed organic farmer who looks down on the stockless arable farmer due to his lack of natural fertility building beasts, jealous of his ability to lie in at the weekend, merrily turn on his straw chopper when a single dark cloud appears in the sky at harvest time or mercilessly cuts and mulches perfectly good fertility leys only to plough them in? Or should I aspire to the organic God, the grower, the he/she with soil underneath their fingernails, the digger and harvester with their bare hands and purveyor of muddy vegetables directly to their customers in a rustic box? I am afraid that I will never be able to wear the crown of grower, but my recent livestock purchase has elevated me up somewhat and I now call myself, “Arable, with some sheep”.

It’s also not fun when you realise that your movement doesn't necessarily have all the answers, like when the Sex Pistols brought out The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, having a nuclear deterrent did and still does actually work and my inability to spray my beans with a fungicide means one year in five they do get chocolate spot, defoliate and die as bean-less stalks.

Having said all that, movements are incredibly important and no meaningful change has ever come about without a radical beginning usually started by a lunatic, tempered by diplomacy and delivered by compromise. 

We have to recognise that just because our neighbours are doing something different to us doesn't mean that they are necessarily right or wrong, they are possibly trying to find alternative solutions to challenges that we all face which is to produce food profitably and hopefully impacting positively on the farmed environment. As farmers we need to stop looking over the hedge and start talking over it. We have so much to learn from each other.

To be sitting on a panel at the recent Organic Farmers and Growers National Organic Combinable Crops event with equal representation from the Organic and Conservation Agriculture movements was a first for me and it felt good. I suspect that we will always have points of difference in our production systems but that's a good thing for farming because it challenges us and gives our customers choice. 

I am happy to give Conservation Agriculturalists some of our words, as long as we can have some of theirs.

For the National Farmers Union Organic Forum blog, July 2017

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Organic No-Till

The concept of no-till organic or non-organic with cover crops ticks pretty much every box. Lower fixed costs, lower variable costs, less time spent on a tractor, better soils, more efficient water infiltration, more earthworms and if you practice it right the chance of more stable and higher yields. Fitting neatly into the “Conservation Agriculture” bracket it even sounds a bit sexy and something that the average shopper might want to pay a little more for, so we could be adding higher prices to the list of plusses. What’s not too like?

For organic farmers like me there is one stumbling block. Glyphosate. We can’t use it. 

From what I am being told the key element for no-till success is the ability to kill your cover crop with glyphosate pre-sowing, but not according to Jeff Moyer who published “Organic No-Till Farming” in 2011. The trick is to get your cover crop to anthesis when it’s just about used up all it’s energy reserves and then bruise it to death with crimper roller. So no excuses for us soil moving addicted organic farmers then?

I know two organic farmers who are dipping their toes into the concept but I am taking a rather more cautious approach and have signed up to an Innovative Farmers project with Anglia Farmers and am one of the fools giving it a go with some trial work starting this autumn. As harvest 2016 wasn’t particularly kind to us, for the first two years I am going to try and achieve my part of the trial with equipment I already own. The plan goes as follows:

Year 1: spring oats. The preceding crop is spelt and by the time you read this article we will have under-sown into the spelt, in half hectare strips, buckwheat, phacelia, mustard and berseem clover. They will be sown individually and in a mix. Under-sowing the cover crops in May should mean that after harvest they should be well established and get to anthesis before winter when I will roll them with my Cambridge rolls. If that fails to kill them I will have a second chance of cover crop death through frost action over the winter. The best outcome I am hoping for is a thick mat of cover crop to smother weeds over Christmas and then an easy spring for me to slot in the spring oats with my low disturbance Cameleon drill. The worst outcome doesn’t bear thinking about. 

Year 2: winter beans. Again, the intention would be to under-sow a cover crop in the previous year’s oat crop in April/May with the most successful option or a mix of what did best in year one. However, to sow the beans I am considering putting some low ground disturbance Sabre tines onto my existing Cousins sub-soiler (not very no-till I know) and dribble the bean seeds down the back of the tines. Will it work? Will we actually get a frost? Your guess is as good as mine. 

Year 3: spring barley. Beans are a notoriously dirty crop for organic farmers, but having not disturbed the soil (much) over the preceding two years and under-sowing a cover crop in the winter beans, maybe, just maybe we might get away with a weed free entry into a spring barley crop  which itself will be under-sown with a two year diverse grazing ley.

Year 4 and 5 will be the fertility reset button for the rotation and provide grazing for my sheep before going back into a spelt crop in year 6 and the whole malarkey starts again.

But, how will I terminate the ley and start cropping again?

This is where I put my Jeff Moyer No-Till New Testament down and pick up the Zonal Tillage Old Testament of Gary Zimmer. Conveniently Reverend Zimmer still falls under the religion of “Conservation Agriculture” but he does allow zonal tilling with cover crops which enables me for at least one part of my rotation to “dig” (do you see what I did there) either my ageing Horsch Terrano or Gregoire Besson out of the nettles and mineralise a bit of nitrogen. Phew! 

And that’s it. Obviously, there will be howling errors in this ridiculous plan and I would be extremely grateful if you would email me ( with your thoughts and advice. At least I will be able to blame someone else if it all goes horribly wrong. Just before you do write though, I may have made a mistake with the berseem clover and the frost idea, so don’t remind me.

I have no idea how I will be farming five years from now, but what I do know is that it won’t be how I am doing it now. I also know that to farm organically and get enough yield to make a profit we have to mineralise some nutrients. Given that our organic matter has gone up since I started farming organically I am pretty sure that we are headed in the right direction with our existing system of using cover crops and leys and that has involved a lot of ploughing and tillage. However, we can always do better. 

In reality, if we continue to rely on legumes and animals to build fertility, a biological approach to weed, pest and disease control we will always have to adopt a managed approach, which will include no-till, zonal tillage and (I haven’t mentioned it yet) the plough.

Written for Groundswell Event, June 2017

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Three important decisions

Weeds and fertility are the two areas of most concern for organic farmers when challenged about weaknesses in their systems. For us they certainly were. Some of it was self Inflicted especially as far as weeds were concerned as I was growing too many autumn crops driven by the hope of greater yields and an insatiable local market for organic pig feed which required large amounts of wheat, barley and beans. All the statistics say that winter crops yield more than those planted in the spring but it took me a couple of rotations to realise that those stats did not tell the whole story. Very quickly we selected a gamut of autumn germinating weeds with the king of yield robbers, Black Grass dominating. Sure, a winter sown crop does yield more than a spring one but only if it is allowed to reach it's yield potential which it can't when it's light, fertility and water supply is being shared with a forest of grass weeds.

Fertility building, the backbone of any organic system was a hit and miss affair for us. We have always struggled to establish fertility leys in the autumn as the clover is either devoured by weevils in brutalised 'seedbeds' of fist sized clay boulders or tickled up by a surprise early frost while the emerging grass lies yellowing under clods that until they breed a grass variety built like Charles Atlas will never establish evenly in September at Shimpling Park Farm. No, to establish small seeds on clay they have to go into fine, warming soils with hopefully a firming roll afterwards to ensure good seed/soil contact, and those conditions on our farm are in the spring ideally under-sown into spring barley. Job done. Well nearly. 

Sticking out into the North Sea, East Anglia is blessed with more of a continental climate than the decidedly maritime West Country where they are guaranteed rain every hour, on the hour. We however, increasingly, experience long dry springs when the grass stops growing and our crops panic into ear in early June. It can also mean that under-sowing can be more like under-scratching with our harrow comb weeder carving miniature furrows into a baked out and cracked soil sowing seeds onto concrete. A morning dew can usually persuade the clover seed to send down an exploratory root only to be burnt off by the midday sun. Two years of almost complete fertility ley failures were not only taking their toll on our rotation's performance, it was also negatively affecting my bank balance.

Of course fertility, or lack of it, goes hand in hand with weeds. A crop with adequate nutrients can complete with it's weedy neighbours but a depleted crop can not. Equally a healthy plant can deal with disease whereas a slickly plant will succumb. 

Something had to change so we made 3 important decisions.

Decision 1. Our currently rotation of winter wheat, winter barley, winter beans, winter wheat under-sown with a pure stand of red clover had to change. The fertility period was too short and we had to mix up the winter and spring cropping and make our rotation more unpredictable to outwit our weeds. Two year fertility leys with as much diversity in them as possible to spread the risk of one or more species failing as well as a mixture of plants with different rooting depths to condition our soil seems like a good start. Winter wheat follows the ley but the winter barley is replaced by spring oats with their aggressive shading and allelopathic effect on weeds. Winter beans still feature as they allow us to extend the rotation to the final cereal crop which instead of winter wheat is spring barley, again because of it's superior weed shading properties and that is under-sown with the diverse ley and we are back to the start of the rotation again. In practice our actual rotation is a bit more complicated than that as it can include spelt and more recently quinoa but lets keep it simple for now. Anyway, all of the above looks great until you run the figures though a spreadsheet when you discover that the two year ley has a nasty effect on overall farm output so;

Decision 2. Buy some sheep. Actually I bough five hundred. Five hundred New Zealand Romneys. That’s 2,000 golden hooves.

New Zealand Romney ewe lambs arrived September 2014
All great, but how to address the hit and miss nature of our under-sowing and subsequent fertility issues as well as weeds that pure rotation cannot solve.

Embarrassingly, especially for my children, I have a YouTube channel. Amazingly I get lots of feedback from farmers about the stuff that I put up and one person in particular, Joel Månsson, engaged me to the extent that I invited him over to England to have a look at what we were doing and try to figure out how to solve some of the problems we were experiencing with establishing leys. Joel having accepted my invitation, I announced to my family that I had a young Swedish farmer coming to stay who I had met on the internet. My wife asked me if there was something I needed to tell her and my children suggested… well I'm not going to tell you what they suggested because it's rude and untrue, but anyway, Joel came…. with his partner, Emma, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

On Joel's return home he sent me an email about this fantastic Swedish farmer's invention of a seed drill which was also an inter-row hoe. At that stage I had almost given up inter-row hoeing as the hoe that I had wasn't really designed to work on our heavy flinty soils and just left too many weeds behind as there was too much movement at ground level for the hoe blade to get near enough to the crop without ripping it out and it tended to jump over large tillered weeds due to the nature of it’s spring tine which was what the design was based on. Joel said that this Swedish machine was a totally different design and that I had to come and see it.

I went out to Sweden on two occasions, once in the autumn of 2014 to see Gothia Redskap's System Cameleon sowing and again in spring 2015 to see it hoeing. 

Decision 3. I bought a System Cameleon and have now used it for a cropping year. So how have we got on?

First day sowing with System Cameleon September 2015

Firstly, it's a great seed drill. You only need 20 horse power per meter to pull it and so you can pull an 8 meter machine with 150hp. We have actually extended ours to a 9 meter machine to fit in with our controlled traffic system on a 180hp tractor but that’s another story. Every coulter is independent to its neighbour and so the drilling depth is extremely accurate meaning that crop emergence is even making blind weeding possible. It's also a low disturbance drill so you are not recreationally cultivating, but if you do want to cultivate out weeds when you sow, you can use the Flexibil coulter and leave the hoes on while you are sowing. You can also sow more that one seed at a time (bi-cropping or intercropping) from two tanks or apply fertiliser, or even both. 
Flexibil seed coulter with A hoes attached
Secondly, and most importantly, in my opinion it is the best inter-row hoe on the market. In fact it’s the best inter-row hoe in the world. There is nothing out there that can touch it, or if there is I haven't seen it. Although having an level seedbed is a good start for any hoe, the Cameleon is able to cope with unevenness because every hoe is independent. Setting the hoeing depth is very precise and so you can set it to scalp weeds just under the soil surface meaning that resetting of weeds is less likely. Because the hoes are so rigid and the Cameleon has sown the crop that it is hoeing, you can hoe right up to the edge of the crop rows meaning that more land is hoed. The camera that guides the hoe is extremely accurate and because the machine is trailed, it eliminates the twitchyness of a hoe that is mounted on the three point linkage of a tractor. On windy days it is often difficult to hoe as the crop's leaves blow across the rows which can confuse a camera, but the Cameleon has a simple but effective set of dividers that part the rows in the camera's line of sight giving it the definition to continue steering the hoe. Gothia Redskap also offer a rear steering axle on the Cameleon meaning that the machine follows your tractor on the headlands reducing compaction and crop damage if operating in less than ideal conditions or hoeing at later crop growth stages. You can also specify spreader plates on the bottom of the seed coulter which means that rather than sow your crop in a narrow row you can sow it in a band giving the crop a little more room. However, that does mean that you hoe less soil. Currently we are sowing on 25cm rows in approximately a 5cm band and are hoeing 70% of the soil but we are considering going to 33cm row sowing in a 10cm band and will be hoeing 80% of the soil. Gothia Redskap have set up a Cameleon plot drill working at these row widths and have been running trials and they are finding that there is no loss in crop yield but better hoeing coverage and a lot of Swedish farmers are switching their Cameleons to this system. Sowing under-sown leys on a band is also more desirable than narrow rows giving better plant coverage.
Fully tillered Black Grass plants ripped out by first pass with Cameleon hoeing
Thirdly, it is the absolute master for under-sowing, establishing leys, green manures, bi-crops or anything you fancy. The first time I went to Sweden, Joel took me to see Josef Appel who had done an experiment in a field where he had sown half the field with a harrow comb with a seeder, the way we did it at home, and the other half with a Cameleon. That was my road to Damascus moment. The difference was incredible. The scratched-in and hope for the best half that the harrow comb had seeded was patchy and comparable with my efforts at Shimpling, while the Cameleon half had 100% establishment. The Swedes are finding that the establishment of small seeds is so good that they are cutting back on their seed rates by dramatic amounts so the Cameleon is not only lessening the risk of fertility building crop failure and subsequent lower yields in the rotation, but is also delivering quantifiable savings in seed costs as well. In our first year, all of our under-sown fertility building leys are 100% established and racing ahead now that the combine has taken of the crop. We also sowed an experimental green manure strip of buckwheat in a standing crop of spring oats just as its ears were coming out to try and keep a green manure in the field just as the crop is dying off and to help smother weeds as the crop lets in more light near to harvest. Currently the buckwheat is up and away waiting for the spring oats to be harvested. We might even get a seed crop off the buckwheat!

Diverse under-sown clover ley fully emerged on organic spring barley
When you start to think about the versatility of the Cameleon the possibilities are endless and that’s not just for organic farmers. With herbicide resistance now a real issue I can see it being of increasing interest to non-organic farmers alike.

But all of this comes at a cost and System Cameleon is not a cheap tool. However, to replace my previous 8m drill and inter-row hoe I would have seen little change from £130,000, whereas an 8 meter Cameleon will still save you around 25% on that total depending on the spec that you opt for. When you start taking into account better weed control, less wheelings, less damage to crops on the headlands, more timely sowing, better fertility building ley establishment and potential savings in seed cost it all starts to sound like a good long term investment.

I have always said that organic farmers should go away on holiday for the month of May as it is when weeds are just popping their heads out of the top of the winter sown crops and a field that had previously looked like a fantastic crop of wheat starts to look more like a meadow. In May this year for the first time since my organic conversion the farm looked a picture. We are beginning to reap the benefits of those three important decisions.

Winter barley emerging and nearly ready for hoeing

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Blind Leading the Blind

The greatest thing about the Horsch CO8 seed drill is the amount of air between the tines. It's rather like looking under the bonnet of my old farm mechanic's Morris van: lots of space to work and it all looks so simple. 

If you get a blocked coulter on the Horsch, there is enough room for a well built man to thread himself through the tines to the middle section and do his work without too much discomfort. As far as simplicity is concerned, the Horsch makes an egg whisk look complicated. There is no dallying with closely packed discs, all independently sprung and leaving a gnats breath between them, not a bit of it. The Horsch is essentially a sparsely shod cultivator with some tubes loosely attached to the back of it's tines spaced generously at twenty five centimeters with a boot at the bottom out of which the seed Is liberally sprayed. 

Aside from the thousands of tyres at the back of the drill used for consolidation, if a young leveret managed to avoid the Case Quadtrac's thunderous tracks, he could easily wander through the working machine without parting a hair, whereas any other drill on the market would see him sliced and diced. This life saving ability also allows the drill to cope with any amount of trash that we farmers can throw at it. When a little bit over overnight rain has kept other drills in the farm yard, the Horsch has been working since six o'clock in the morning with another hundred acres under its belt.

So why haven't we all got one?

Two words: seed placement. Another two words: It's crap.

With many of our tractors steering themselves these days we all have a huge amount of time to look out of the rear window of our metal horse to get a proper look at what we are actually doing. In the good old days of steering wheel caressing you normally saw what had happened during your last bout when you turned around at the end of the field, but with RTK steering our tractor, I have spent many long autumn afternoons looking at the leading tines of the Horsch diving in and out of the seedbed with alarming imprecision. Unless you have achieved a seedbed that would satisfy an onion grower, the Horsch's construction will never enable it to place seeds at an even depth, but what is the problem if an acceptable percentage of the seed comes up in the end?

This is the argument that I have always applied. You might have had to put your seed rates up to compensate for the seeds that the drill had put beyond Hades, but what it costs in extra seed is outweighed in the sheer hectares per hour you can achieve in all weather conditions and in any amounts of trash saving time and sowing costs. That was all fine until this year when we tried blind weeding.

Although blind weeding is common practice on organic farms in many countries, we have never tried it here as historically we have relied on post emergence methods of weed control. It wasn't until an introduction to a young Swede, Joel Massön, who came to see me last summer and extolled the virtues of the technique, that I considered attempting the method. Joel rightly likened our weeding programme to dealing with the problem after the horse had bolted, and he had a point.

Essentially blind weeding relies on weeds emerging before the crop, and this year due to dry weather when my bête noire black-grass was flowering, mean’t that the shed seed would not be dormant and so a good kill might be possible at sowing time. Black-grass generally germinates at one to two centimeters depth and should emerge quickly in a warm seedbed, while wheat sown at one and a half inches should emerge a few days later  leaving you a small window to harrow, or blind weed the back-grass at it’s most vulnerable without damaging the crop.

Timing is everything and so an extra tactic has to be employed. Using a cloche placed on the seedbed straight after you have sown your crop you can predict a day or so before the weeds will emerge, making it easier to kill them before they have a chance to put down proper roots or even see the light of day. 

It was exactly a week after we started sowing our wheat when it all started to kick off. I had been keenly inspecting the cloche on a daily basis which was strategically placed as soon as the field had been sown, when on the seventh day I saw the first blades of black-grass emerging through the artificially heated soil. Scrabbling down into the dirt I found that the wheat had just germinated and had a shoot on it about one centimeter long. Perfect. 

The harrow comb weeder was immediately summoned and after a few adjustments to the rake of the tines we were bravely weeding at twelve kilometers an hour. I hung around in the field nervously for a few minutes feeling slightly under confident about my decision, seeing my beautifully rolled fields being pulled up again. The theory was right, but it looked so wrong, never mind the fact that at that speed with a twelve meter machine you can do an awful amount of damage in a morning.

That night was sleepless. I had visions of thousands of wheat shoots lying mangled in the dry soil with the exhausted seed disgustedly withdrawing it's roots in protest and submitting itself to the inevitable slug. I could hear my seed merchant sniggering into his coffee at the end of the phone as I placed a new seed order to repair my foolish mistake. 

The next morning I sheepishly ventured into the fields that we had decimated the previous day and to my huge relief I discovered that my nightmare had not been realised. The wheat was still growing strongly and I could easily find evidence of weed seedlings lying lifeless in the soil or drying out in the September sun. Joy of joys, it had been a huge success!

However, on closer examination I noticed something else. I could also find wheat seeds that the Horsch had sown at one to two centimeters that although had not yet germinated had been upheaved by the harrow comb and were now too close to the soil surface for comfort. The weakness of the Horsch was laid bare for all to see: horribly inaccurate seed placement. 

In my experience the Horsch places around fifty percent of the seed at the required inch and a half, but the remainder is spread shallowly above the moisture needed for germination, or buried to such a depth that not even the most vigorous seed could ever produce a shoot to see the light of day. All fine if accurate seed placement is not the be all and end all, but as far as this weeding technique is concerned, accurate seed placement is essential.

So, where do I go from here? The plan is to do some plant and weed counts on the fields that we have blind weeded and compare those results with the occasional strips we left unweeded in the fields as a comparison. A further test of the blind weeding will be performed later this month when we sow our winter beans which could be more interesting as the beans are sown at a depth which should, weather permitting, allow a much bigger window for the practice. 

Blind weeding makes complete sense to any farming system where black-grass is a problem, and if it is the success that I think that it could be we may be looking at a new drill. 

For the National Farmers Union Website - October 2013

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Just say NO to neonicotinoids

The first time I used a neonicotinoid on the farm was when British Sugar offered sugar beet seed with a seed dressing called Gaucho which contained imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid. It was a bit of a revolution as far as I was concerned because the threat of Virus Yellows carried by Myzus Persicae or the Peach Potato aphid hovered over our beet crop in it’s early growth stages and an infection could result in serious damage to the crop’s yield potential. 

The solution before Gaucho was usually a succession of early forays before bees were foraging into my beet fields with the sprayer and an insecticide to deal with the problem, or even a dusk spray if early morning bright sunlight or frost mean’t that the spraying in the morning might risk damage to the young beet leaves, but also avoiding bees at work.

With Gaucho all those unsociable hours could be avoided by having the seed ordered with the neonicotinoid dressing and to top it all, because Gaucho was a seed dressing and not a spray, bees were now protected from any spraying which might have formerly strayed into foraging hours. Result! Or was it?

I do remember having a conversation with my agronomist at the time about how the neonicotinoid worked and he told me that when the aphid fed on the sugar beet plant it also took up some of the chemical which disorientated it and made it stop feeding. By stopping the feeding it then prevented the aphid from transmitting the virus and hey presto, no Virus Yellows. As the plant grew the chemical remained in the plant which continued to offer protection. At the time I was entirely focused on the positive (or should that be negative) effect that this wonder drug had on the aphid, but I didn’t for one minute think about what effect that the chemical was having on other insects visiting my crop. It’s this unbalanced focus that affects many of us farmers when we are endeavoring to get all the jobs done that we have to do in a day and we often fail to see the wider consequences of our actions until someone from outside of our industry points them. When that happens we usually throw our toys out of the pram feigning doom and gloom for the future of farming. 

That is where we are now with the proposed two year ban on neonicotinoids.

For me, when the whole neonicotinoid verses bee debate kicked off what my agronomist had said to me all those years before about the aphid on my sugar beet plant becoming disorientated rang alarm bells especially with the escalation in the chemical’s use since my sugar beet growing days. I’ve since listened to both sides of the debate, to all the convenient scientific arguments depending on who you are batting for and have come to the conclusion that all farmers should come to given our knowledge of how the chemical works. Neonicotinoids must be having an effect on our bees as well as other pollinators. My conclusion is not science based, it’s common sense based.

I applaud supermarkets and garden centres who have said; we don’t know if there is an issue here or not, but until we know that there isn’t a problem with neonicotinoids then we don’t want to be associated with the product. 

I feel that we as farmers have missed a massive public relations trick here. Instead of hiding behind the doom and gloomsters who apparently speak on our behalf in the press and media who have warned of impending yield losses and even more environmental destruction we should be standing up and taking a leaf out of the supermarkets and garden centres book and we too should be saying No to neonicotinoids.

By the nature of our ever changing job we farmers have always had to be incredibly resourceful. In my farming career I have managed to overcome various challenges; farming more land with half the amount of labour and machinery, overcoming the straw burning ban with a different approach to straw incorporation and weed control, addressing the decline in farmland wildlife species with the help of environmental schemes and more recently as an organic farmer bringing in as much diversity into my rotation to mitigate against climate change as well as naturally finding ways of addressing pests and diseases and ultimately rounding my nutrient cycle by providing the major elements for crop growth with the reintroduction of livestock onto the farm. 

Every farmer has a different story to tell and it’s usually more impressive than mine.

My point is that the banning of neonicotinoids does not necessarily mean more cost to farmers, loss of yield or more environmental damage but it will mean that we will have to think about solutions for ourselves rather than waiting for someone to provide them for us. Increasingly the concept of crop husbandry is being wrestled from our grasp by agronomists and agrochemical companies. We are becoming fearful and under confident of our own abilities resulting in us all running around like headless chickens every time a chemical ban is threatened.

We have always been a diverse and inventive industry and we should have the confidence to find solutions for ourselves and if saying No to neonicotinoids means that we gain more customers, achieve more resourceful farming community and save our bees along the way, everyone is a winner. 

For the National Farmer’s Union website

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Environmental Evolution

The first environmental scheme we undertook was way back in the dark ages with a pilot scheme called Arable Stewardship. If my memory serves me well it was trialled in two areas of the country, East Anglia being one and somewhere in the West for the other and it was the scheme that spawned what we now know as Entry Level Stewardship (ELS).

Since then we have been in ELS, the organic version OELS, and now as of this February we have entered into our second OELS agreement topped up with Higher Level Stewardship (HLS).  

As the HLS scheme is competitive to ensure that we came up with an application that was attractive, we and various advisors spent considerable time researching not only the farm's historical story, but also what it has to offer as far as existing wildlife is concerned to determine how we can build on and preserve that inherited base. Without going into too much detail the agreement focuses on four main areas: farmland birds, wood pasture restoration, the reintroduction of livestock and educational access.

Key options selected for farmland birds include grass margins, field corner management, cultivated stubbles and a large area of pollen and nectar mix. With the changes in the scheme’s options after 1st January 2013 I was able to use the pollen and nectar option on larger areas than previously allowed. Being an essentially stockless arable farmer the leguminous element of the mix enabled me to use it for a dual purpose, providing food for the lower elements of the food chain as well as under-sowing it in cereal crops to improve fertility in my organic rotation.

I did have some fairly lively debates with my project officer about wether or not a large area of pollen and nectar was conducive to providing worthwhile public goods. My argument went as follows:

On the heavy clay lands of south west Suffolk there is a huge lack of any over-wintered stubbles, those important sources of over-wintered food for farmland birds. This is due to the fact that trying to achieve a spring seedbed without having ploughed before Christmas to get some decent frost action on our "loving” clay soil (once it's stuck on you, it doesn't want to let go) it is pretty impossible to do so without doing a huge amount of potentially soil damaging cultivations. However, through the under-sowing of legumes for our fertility building we have around 110 hectares of over wintered stubble every year.

In fact, one fifth of the farm is under-sown with red clover which provides two major elements as far as the farm’s wildlife is concerned, over-winter feed for birds through the gleaning of cereal and weed seeds left by the combine harvester and from our run-down plants in our weeding tram-lines and then subsequently pollen and nectar from the legumes flowers. Our farm is an oasis in this respect sitting in the middle of some of the most intensively managed land in Suffolk, and we are going to improve what we do even more by no longer sowing just red clover. The plan is now to sow all our fertility building areas with a pollen and nectar mix to maximise their environmental potential which will be predominantly unfunded by the scheme.

As far as addressing the historical and archeological element of our application we are restoring two moated sites which would have been the entrances to the medieval deer park which was Shimpling Park. Recognising those entrances lead me into researching more about where the boundaries of the park were in medieval times and how it has changed since. This meant looking for wood banks, pollarded trees and pouring over as many historical maps as possible searching for boundary suggestions. My search took me to the National Archives at Kew as the farm had at one time been part of the Crown Estate where I found many clues as to where the park was. My most exciting find was a huge estate map of the farm on vellum with subtle colouring of the different land uses and also the then field names many of which still exist today. Interestingly the part of the farm that is Shimpling Park Farm is pretty much the area of the whole park then, meaning that it is likely that it’s entirety has remained in single occupancy for hundreds of years. While I have no immediate intention to try and recreate the whole of the park, we are under HLS going to restore 25 hectares of wood pasture which will also be the catalyst for the reintroduction of livestock onto the farm and the start of my journey to return to a mixed farm enterprise.

The really fun part of our HLS application has been the educational access part of our scheme. Since becoming organic we have had numerous requests to do farm walks which have become a major highlight of what we do. While I take around groups of adults be they farmers, locals or other interested groups, my wife Alice has been hosting increasing amounts of school visits. With no suitable indoor area to teach the children we have had to confine most of those visits to when the weather is likely to be fine. That will all change now with an amount of money we have been given through HLS that will help us convert one of our redundant farm buildings into a classroom with loos and washing facilities. As I write building has stared, and although the farm yard has been turned into a hard hat area, it is incredibly exciting to see redundant farm buildings being brought back to life with the expectation of hoards of young interested minds who we can share our farming story with.

Do you know what, it really is an exciting time to be a.....I was going to say a farmer, but we are so much more than that now, aren't we?

For the National Farmer Union’s website

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Buy local and make sure that it is organic

One of the reasons why I converted to organic production was because I felt unable to guarantee that the food leaving my farm was completely safe. To have given the buyer of a tonne of milling wheat that left my stores with all the possibilities of contaminants that I had applied to the crop during my tender I would have had to have given them a declaration that went something like this;

“This product could contain glyphosate, prothioconazole, metaldehyde, isoproturon, trifluralin, diflufenican, cypermethrin, chlormequat, iodosulfuron-methyl-sodium, mesosulfuron-methyl, boscalid, epoxiconazole, urea, ammonium nitrate, chlorothalonil, proquinazid, pyraclostrobin, chlorpyrifos”.

Now I am not remotely suggesting that the cocktail above is dangerous to human health or our environment, perish the thought, but to tell the whole story of how food was produced on my farm I would have had to included all the potential additives that could be present, and I as a son of the soil and not an advanced chemist felt unable to stand by my sale any more and with my hand on my heart and say, “It’s all fine.”

I am one of those who would also like to know if what I am eating contains genetically modified organisms. Not because I that think that by eating it I will keel over and die because I am going to be eaten inside-out by some Frankensein mutant worm tunneling through my stomach, but as someone who is sceptical about the financial benefits and the technology's environmental performance I would like products containing GMOs to be labeled so that I can make a choice of wether to buy or not.

I fear that increasingly I will not be the only more discerning customer in my local high street or supermarket.  

With the current debacle over horse meat in beef products scandal I can’t help feeling that certainly us supermarket frequenters are going to want a little more clarity about what goes on in our food chain. We certainly can’t depend on our toothless Food Standards Agency any more. 

The cost of cheap food has become painfully apparent, and although there will be plenty of punters out there who will buy the most expensive camera they can afford and then buy the cheapest “value” chicken on offer in Tescos, more and more of us are going to want to invest in better quality food, sold to us by someone we can trust and who can help us understand it’s journey from field to fork. That journey should be simple and as short as possible.

The organic story on this farm is very simple. We don’t use any artificial fertilisers to grow our wheat, instead we use green manures, compost and farmyard manure to build long term fertility ensuring that our soil will continue to serve us for generations to come. Neither do we use a cocktail of chemicals to control insects, funguses and weeds as we find that careful choice of rotation, a mixture of autumn and spring crops, disease resistant varieties will ensure a yearly harvest. We plant the seed and tend it in a natural way, farming with nature, not waging war against it. All farmers understand that nature will have it’s way, so why fight it?

The checks and balances in an organic arable combinable crop system go far beyond any assurance scheme that any of my non-organic neighbours have to endure. Balance sheets of all products coming in and out of the farm have to be produced and physically accounted for. Detailed rotation plans for three years in advance are checked for integrity and long term sustainability, the list goes on. In fact, getting a non-compliance through the rigorous inspection is like trying to persuade an organic certifier that the livestock in Lower Meadow are a herd of cattle and not what they look like which is a herd of ponies. You just wouldn’t do it, would you?

So while the supermarkets shuffle, blame and re-stock, you would do better to buy your weekly groceries from your local supplier with farmer connections and if you really want to make sure that it is safe, buy organic.

For the National Farmers Union Website - February 2012