Farmer/grower name

Stephen Briggs

Farmer
The Farm: 

We mainly produce cereals: spring wheat (1.6 - 1.7 tonnes per acre, 13.5% protein for milling), winter wheat (2 tonnes per acre), spring barley (malting), winter oats, spring oats (2 tonnes per acre). Spring wheat is sold via direct sale to a local windmill producing Cambridgeshire grown and milled bread. Our spring oats are produced for breakfast cereals. Oats are sold via direct contract to an organic dairy farm. Clover is grazed by sheep. Cover crops grown include mustard and phacelia.

In addition to cereals we have fruit trees, all apples. We grow 15 varieties (6 heritage, the rest modern). 90% of the fruit is sold wholesale, 10% is pressed into juice by a subcontractor who produces 750ml bottles for sale. In the future we would like to move into self-retail.

We are half way through a Natural England higher level stewardship agreement. Options include: wild bird, pollen and nectar mixtures, 15 hectares of over-wintered stubble, margins/buffer strips on all water courses, educational access, field corners and hedge planting.

In the past we have also produced home grown field scale vegetables including organic leeks, broccoli and beetroot. Our vegetable production varies depends on marketplace opportunities.

There is no stock on the farm which allows us to use some stockfree marketing. We are currently negotiating planning permission for a farm shop which will include a deli and education centre.

Sustainability in practice: 

Agroforestry: a new approach to increasing farm production

If you want to increase farm production consider the space 2 metres above and 1 metre below the surface. Agroforestry offers an opportunity to utilise this space.

I became aware of agroforestry when living in Africa and since then I have wanted to apply ideas from tropical agriculture to temperate systems. Our fen farm is blessed with soils with a 23% organic matter content. When we took over the tenancy in 2007 I was staggered to see the level of soil erosion from the winds. On a ‘fen blow’ day you can literally see the soil disappearing over the ditch - there are no hedges here! As I would rather keep our own soil than give it to my neighbour, I started to think about ways we could modify the farming systems.

Windbreaks were an obvious solution, but we also wanted to generate an income. These considerations inspired the silvo-arable system we have designed and implemented at Whitehall Farm. At 125 acres it is the largest agroforestry system in the UK. Martin Wolfe from Wakelyns Agroforestry and other experts were very helpful during the design stages.

Agroforestry provides risk management against climate change and extreme weather events. It also means we can grow a mix of perennial and annual crops. As tenants we needed to design a system that would enable us to see an economic return within the tenancy period, hence the fruit trees. We use semi-dwarf rootstock that grows to about 12 ft., creating a microclimate.

We have designed the system so there is a 27 metre row spacing between the trees, with a 3 metre pollen and nectar strip under each tree. There are 24 metre alleys for the cereals, suitable for modern farm equipment. We created a controlled traffic farming system with 12 metre tramlines between the rows. This meant we had to invest in new equipment (e.g. 6m cultivator, drill, hoe and combine. Everything is weeded using a Garford Robocop vision guided hoe with a 6 metre wide camera. 7 years ago a lawn mower was the biggest machine we had on the farm!

The trees have helped reduce wind velocity at ground level and soil erosion. We can’t quantify this at the moment but we are involved in research to measure the impacts. In terms of biodiversity we have witnessed increased species abundance and spatial distribution has improved. We took a baseline survey of the farm before the agroforestry was implemented which included a botanical and bird survey. RSPB monitoring shows a positive impact on farmland birds especially tree sparrows, reed bunting, English partridge, barn owls and little owls.

There are challenges with profitability, but this is the same for every farm. The biggest problem we face is rent increases. Our local authority landlord is facing budget cuts and the money has to be found somewhere! Rent has increased by 50% when compared to 10 years ago but our margins haven’t gone up.

For those interested in implementing an agroforestry system, think about the market you are going to produce for and the timescales involved. It is important to consider land tenure and your skills.

Most information on agroforestry is very disparate and fragmented. Here are some good places to start:

Motivations: 

I have always had passion for farming, for nature and for the soil. For a long time I have been concerned that we are taking more than we are giving from one of the earth’s most precious resources, the soil. I started life as an engineer, but realised that my love for farming was greater. I retrained via an HND, BSc and an MSc in soil science. I spent a number of years overseas in Africa and India, working with farmers on soil and water management.

After getting married, my wife and I returned to the UK and worked in agriculture and advisory positions. In 2005 we purchased some farm land, followed by securing a 15 year tenancy on a farm in Cambridgeshire in 2007. Alongside my role as Director of ‘Abacus Agriculture’, providing farm management advice, I manage our farm land in partnership with my wife Lynn, who is also a Soil Association inspector and provider of environmental management advice to other farms. In addition I have recently been appointed as 'soil and water manager' at Innovation for Agriculture based at Stoneleigh - in this role I am bridging the void between research and practical farming, translating messages on soil health to an industry wide audience.   

Growing crops on our farm and advising other land users on how to grow crops and manage their land and resources provides me with immense satisfaction and purpose. However I have deep concerns for our future. Industrialised farming has risen to the challenge of producing more ‘output’ over the last 40 years but at what cost to the soil, water, biodiversity and landscape resources that for too long we have taken for granted? This is partly why I farm organically.

We started out wanting to farm organically because it is good for the soil, wildlife and biodiversity, but also because of the strong market demand. Whilst our production output is only 75% of where the farm was under a conventional system, our inputs are significantly reduced and our profitability greater. Moreover, our reliance on artificial inputs is significantly reduced and our stewardship of the soil on the farm is, I believe, much improved. A primary motivation for us is risk management, we want to have control over as much of the business as possible and have limited reliance on third parties. Organic enables us to do this.


For more information see:

You can also follow Stephen on social media.

Farm Size: 
254 acres (Whitehall Farm), & additional 20 acres (Rutland)
Manpower: 
Me and my wife part time, 1 staff member part time, 3 seasonal staff (fruit production).
Farm Type: 
Mixed
Silvo-arable
Tenure: 
Tenancy
Rainfall: 
24 inches per year
Altitude: 
-1 to 1.5 metres above sea level
Soil: 
Whitehall: peat, 23% organic matter. Rutland: Cotswold brash
Approach: 
Organic
Agroforestry

Agroforestry


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