Green Acres is an organic mixed arable and sheep farm that my wife Liz and I have been farming organically since 2000. We are certified organic with OF&G. The farm is mostly in a five-year arable rotation including clover-based leys for seed, silage or grazing, wheat, oats and peas. Our milling crops (mostly wheats) are all grown for direct sale to millers and bakers all over the UK. We did breed a herd of pedigree Hereford cattle but now just have New Zealand Romney sheep - which we are increasing to 200 ewes. They are managed deliberately to compliment the arable side of the business.
New Zealand Romney sheep
Our experiences over the past year with the impacts of Covid (particularly with difficulties experienced during the first lockdown in spring 2020) led us to make some changes and stop two major components of the farm business - the beef cattle and our composting operation.
We had run a composting site here on the farm for over 20 years, receiving green waste and then producing compost, but we have deliberately changed this business over the last few months. Covid highlighted, as it has done for many people in many businesses, how reliant we were on staff and when staff were unavailable for whatever reason, we were the ones who were responsible, and I particularly was left feeling overwhelmed with work last year. The cows were a big and personal responsibility which reluctantly we had to change. There were a number of reasons for this, two of them being the difficulty of running a small extensive herd profitably alongside the ongoing challenge of TB.
Compost was slightly different, it created a lot of work on the farm which became a problem, and we felt that the time had come to close the site and refocus our attention on our core farming business. We are increasingly diverse and the ending of the compost business and reducing our application of it has really made me focus on trying harder with improving all those other aspects of our management which are good for soil. We’re continuing to explore ways to reduce heavy cultivations and improve our carbon, reducing our carbon impact.
We have recently changed the sheep enterprise, again in part in response to the impacts of Covid last year, and have entered into a loose partnership with another farmer who is responsible for the day-to-day management of our sheep. It is not a share or contract farm arrangement, but similar to that.
We always enjoy engaging people with the farm. We have a classroom providing a base for on-farm education and are connecting more and more with people who eat the food we produce.
Diversity in practice
We are looking to increase diversity at a number of levels…
In our genes…
We have been growing the ORC Wakelyns Population; a highly heterogeneous winter wheat made from 190 crosses of 20 different varieties. We grow it because of the increased resilience to pest, disease and climatic risks that we gain from having so much genetic diversity in the mix. Some of this has been sold to bakers such as The Small Food Bakery in Nottingham (winners of 2018 BBC Food and Farming Awards!). We have really enjoyed building relationships with people along the value chain who are interested in how we produce food and want to support us to farm using agroecology.
We are also looking at diversity at a variety level. We are growing about 25 different milling crops now - which are a mixture of ancient, heritage and more modern interesting varieties. Again, when Covid was at its absolute peak of misery last year, we did something we've been thinking about doing for a while and ordered a small stone mill from France which we have now set up. At this stage we are very much enjoying learning how to use it! Once we feel confident in the flours that we can produce, we intend to start to retail flour from the farm and in doing so, further add value to our specialist crops.
The new French stone mill
We have been part of a network of farmers trialling organic wheat varieties with the Organic Research Centre and Organic Arable, each growing a selection of winter wheat varieties in different combinations to enable comparison between them. I chose to grow all seven varieties to help showcase the trial and gain more insight on the farm. The enterprise has been funded in part by LIVESEED, an EU project designed to try to boost organic seed and breeding across Europe and is now part of the Farm Based Organic Variety Trials Network: LiveWheat.
The heritage varieties and populations we grow have a lot of potential in a low input sustainable farming system. Weed suppression can be fantastic, they are good at scavenging nutrients and they could hold resilience to pest and climatic variability which we have lost in modern bred varieties.
I am also keen to enhance diversity at a crop level - both over time by diversifying the rotation and in space through practices such as undersowing and intercropping / companion cropping.
We have been undersowing since the farm became organic - usually when crops are about 8 -10 cm at tillering (early May). We follow the harrow with a Techneat air seeder, followed by the rolls.
Carlin peas (see below) marketed as ‘black badger’ are a pea traditionally eaten on Bonfire night in Lancashire. They have a lot of biomass and often end up on the floor, affecting yield and quality, so I was interested in it as a cereal to provide some scaffolding.
We have been involved in a DIVERSify / Innovative Farmers Field Lab, where we did an intercrop trial with different seed rates of triticale (0%, 5%, 10%, 20% and 30%RD) in full rate carlin peas (240kg/ha) in 1 ha strips across the field to see what the impact would be on lodging. Visual assessment at harvest suggested that 20% and 30% were doing the best job at holding the crop off the floor (although the thistles were also helping in the 0%!) and the 30% was definitely the easiest to harvest. However, analysis of the yield showed no significant difference between the treatments. This was a low lodging year and there was not a large amount of loss in any of the treatments. If we were to do it again, I think I would go for the higher rates. You can see more about these trials in this video.
The images below show 5%, 10%, 20%, and 30% triticale rate and combining the 30% triticale rate
Building on the outcomes of this trial, we have gone further down the road with companion cropping and are now adding 20% cereal to all our peas. I felt sufficiently comfortable with the idea to commit to doing it everywhere. Our peas are all grown with barley now, and we are adding peas to most of our spring wheats. We are also growing some pea cereal vetch mixes for whole crop silage for a dairy farming neighbour. We still grow the Carlin peas for Hodmedods, and our biggest crop is oats that we grow for Organic Arable and sell to White’s in Northern Ireland.
We are doing more and more trials on the farm. The most interesting of these is part of the Innovative farmers and ORC living mulch trial - where we are growing a permanent understory (a living mulch of white clover) and direct drilling cereals into it.
Direct drilled rye over clover living mulch
We are exploring more and more ways to improve our soils; using living mulches is particularly aimed at reducing our cultivations, decreasing our heavy cultivations, and ploughing for the benefit of the soil and to also help interrupt weed life cycles. We don't know whether it's going to work yet (although it looks quite promising at the moment) and we don't yet know how much we can extend into the wider farm, it’s still at trial level. However, in farming you only get one chance every year so we have taken the plunge and have now undersown a whole field for next year with living mulch. We hope to increase it and further explore over the next few years. We bought a Simtech direct drill to allow us to experiment further with direct drilling of crops.
Simtech direct drill
Rotation, livestock and cover crops
Our rotation changes but currently includes clover ley, winter wheat, spring peas, and spring oats undersown with clover (see right). We did have fodder beet, driven mainly by being interested in the principle of a completely different crop having clear merits in relation to interrupting the lifecycles of some problem weeds.
The sheep graze a mixture of longer-term herbal lays, short-term fertility building leys and cover crops. We’re trying to use them primarily as a management tool for weed control (particularly docks), so try to manage them for the good of the soil and the good of our system. We don’t have much ambition to make large profits out of the sheep but feel they add to the diversity of the business.
We have been growing 1-year leys - undersown so they last for 18 months, and have diversified the mixtures, adding more grass species and clover. We are interested in more diverse mixtures, but as we have a short ley we are not sure we would get the benefit from the deeper rooting species etc. to justify the cost.
We have increased diversity in our cover crop mixtures (see right) and moved from just using brassicas to over 7 or 8 species mix in one field. We have also experimented with adding seed into mixtures (buckwheat and phacelia) to encourage mycorrhizal fungi.
I have realised that you have to accept different levels of diversity - weeds and pests are part of the diversity, as are their enemies! We have more biodiversity on the farm because we don’t spray and weeds and pests are not always the problem we thought they were going to be!
We are building agroforestry into our system and have planted some trees with assistance from the Woodland Trust. We have planted wide rows with 9 hazels planted inbetween rows of walnut, which are still in the establishment phase. The idea is that the hazel will be cut on a 5-year rotation, with 20% cut each year, to provide wood for our biomass boiler. The rows are running east to west to provide maximum shade and shelter on the north side, where it borders with a field which has a grass ley in rotation. The idea is that it will provide shade (previously for cattle in summer) and shelter for sheep in winter. As the grass ley is coming out, we will harvest from the line on the edge, that way the sheep will have the benefit of the highest line of hazel.
The benefits of agroforestry are multiple - just changing and improving our landscape is quite a big factor for us - we’ve deliberately put the trees in very open ground to change the landscape for the better, providing more trees on-farm.
Walnut & hazel agroforestry
It is all about diversity! First of all, it makes life more interesting! But we also think that diversity across the farm builds resilience.
We are keen to increase diversity of the crops, the business and the people we work with. Connecting with the people who eat and process our food makes us feel like food producers rather than commodity producers and is much more rewarding!
We valued peas in our rotation but felt they were not fairly valued by markets, especially given how difficult they are to grow. Growing yellow (see right), blue and marrow fat and carlin peas for Hodmedod's not only helped us to maintain a diverse rotation but also helped us build meaningful connections with our customers.
I feel sure that the principles of agroecology are evident throughout our whole business. The way everything fits together has always been a priority and is I think essential in organic farming; we are trying to diversify our marketing, add value, deal with local people, and be kinder to ourselves. The Covid pandemic has forced us to reflect on life and whether it is as we want it to be. In common with many people, we found ourselves in a situation where change was forced on us, so we decided to try and take control of that change and make life a little better if we could. We had deliberately developed a very diverse business which was complicated and personally very demanding. We had been quick to talk about the ‘sustainability’ of our business, it being key, but this last year really highlighted how unsustainable our own input into that business had become.
Mark is a key contributor to the UK Grain Lab, a project supported by and co-founded by OF&G. It is a collaborative project where seed breeders, farmers, millers, bakers and chefs all come together to share knowledge and insight to drive better seed and grain development for greater agronomics for low and zero input agriculture while also building flavour and nutrition in grains and end products.
All photos courtesy of Mark Lea