Stephen & Lynn Briggs rent a 105ha farm in Cambridgeshire, UK.
Stephen is also a farm business consultant of Abacus Organic Associates www.abacusorganic.co.uk, where he specialises in organic arable production, as well as being an author of the book Organic Cereal and Pulse Production. Lynn is also an environmental consultant as well as helping run the farm.
Given their passion for organic farming and conservation, it is unsurprising that the farm was converted to organic farming as soon as they started renting it in 2007 on the basis of a 15 year agreement.
Their overwhelming challenge is to develop an organic farming system, with a balance of productivity and environmental management that is suited to high quality peat soils, producing a good financial return which is sustainable in the long term, on a farm where soil fertility is good but where the challenges for weed control are high.
Another major concern is that the light peat soils on the farm have very high levels of organic matter (c.23%) and are subject to oxidation and wind erosion, which give rise to a loss of the farm’s most important resource. They wanted to do something that would protect the soil whist retaining productivity and enhancing biodiversity.
With previous experience from the time spent working in Africa and recognising the environmental benefits of agroforestry, they were keen to develop a system at the farm to create a mixed tree & arable crop landscape on 52ha.
In the light of the changes made to the EU CAP Pillar 1 Scheme in 2009, which made fruit, vines and nursery crops eligible, apple trees were chosen as a tree species. They chose apple trees as they wanted to get a commercial return within the 15 year farm rental period (if they had had a longer rental period, nut, coppice or timber trees would have been considered).
Diversification into apples - alongside or indeed, mixed in with arable crops - creates a greater enterprise mix and spreads cropping risk, whilst also capitalising on a resurgence in demand for English apples.
In late 2008, an order for 4,500 apple trees was placed with a nursery after gaining approval for the project from the land owner.
After setting out the planting rows, 1yr old apple trees on semi-dwarf root stock were planted by hand, supported with a wooden stake, as well as a 1m2 mipex mulch mat (for weed control) and a wire tree guard.
Thirteen different varieties were planted for the eating apple and juicing market, with varieties selected for taste, good storage, pollination ease, disease resistance and late ripening.
Late ripening was important so that apples could be picked after the cereal harvest in the autumn.
After harvesting arable crops in the autumn, the farm will move straight from cereal to fruit harvesting and the risk of a difficult harvest will be spread over a wider harvest window.
Compared to a normal orchard with over 850 trees per ha, a planting density of under 100 trees per ha allows normal farm equipment to be used, eliminating the need for specialist orchard machinery. This keeps fixed and operational costs down and means any equipment is multi-purpose.
Between the rows of trees there is a 24m wide cultivated area for the cereal, root or vegetable crops.
They held their breath when drilling the first cereal crop between the rows of trees, but the layout worked, the cereals performed well and there were no problems with harvest. They did, however, remind the combine driver to drive straight!
Unlike a new orchard, where all the land is occupied by trees and narrow alleys, approximately four percent of the land area is now occupied by trees. This means that they can continue to crop ninety six percent of the area whist they wait five years for the apple trees to reach full productivity. This is a major plus point for the system with regard to cash flow. The arable crops provide short term income and the trees and fruit provide longer term income and are a capital asset.
They have also introduced a wide range of conservation measures, including over winter cereal stubbles, feed plants for wild birds and nectar flower mixtures, multi species legumes and wild flowers sown beneath the tree strips to attract insects and pollinators (which is important for fruit production and beneficial to surrounding crops).
In developing a new system, they have learnt lots and made a few mistakes: They should have used bigger tree guards and taller wooden stakes as they would have had problems with rabbits and deer feeding on tree stems and some tree stem breakages from fat pigeons!.
On reflection Stephen and Lynn sum up we think what we are doing at Whitehall Farm is creating a sustainable business integrating conservation and a profitable farm by using some very novel approaches, which we believe have a bright future and which create new horizons - literally !
Agroforestry - Cropping the extra dimension
Agroforestry is a concept of integrated land use that combines elements of agriculture and forestry in a sustainable production system. Agroforestry systems are classified as silvo-arable (trees & crops) or silvo-pastoral (trees & animals).
With an emphasis on managing rather than reducing complexity, agroforestry promotes a functional bio-diverse system that balances productivity with environmental protection.
Systems can combine production of a wide range of products including food, fuel, fodder and forage, fiber, timber gums and resins, thatching and hedging materials, gardening materials, medicinal products, recreation and ecological services.
Tree species can be timber, fruit, nut, coppice or a combination etc, and the rows in between trees can produce cereals, vegetables, fruit, forage etc.
Careful selection of crop components is required in relation to market outlets, local climate, soil, alley spacing, tree height, planting and harvesting timing, tree leaf production and shading etc.
Agroforestry systems modify local microclimatic conditions (temperature, air water vapor content, evaporation and wind speed) and provide benefits to crops which are grown with the trees by reducing soil degradation and enhancing biodiversity, pest and disease control. Agroforestry also reduces nutrient loss by maximizing internal nutrient cycling through leaf litter return.
Cropping the extra dimension
Most crop production systems exist by exploiting sun, air, water and soil nutrients in a relatively thin layer above and below ground, typically no more than a meter or so.
Combining trees in the system can make much better use of these resources in space and time.
Tree roots access nutrients and water at greater soil depth than most farmed crops and branches make better use of sunlight above an understory crop.
Agroforestry systems use resources over a longer period of the year. The secret is to combine complementary components. For example, cereals require most resources from April - June, whereas a later-leafing tree species may require most of its water, sunlight and nutrients later in the summer and autumn, after the cereal has ripened. This allows the farm to better utilize natural resources and also crop an extra and widely underutilized dimension, upwards!
There is a growing understanding that agroforestry can provide multi-functional land use and environmental benefits.
These are not yet clearly acknowledged or understood by UK farmers or policy makers.
By integrating trees into the agricultural landscape, there is also a real potential to impact on the local economy by increasing economic stability, diversifying local products and economies and rural skills, improving food and fuel security, as well as the cultural and natural environment and landscape diversity. Combined with the positive impact of agroforestry on resource use, resource protection and climate change mitigation, the benefits of agro forestry are slowly becoming better understood and documented. However, the role of agroforestry in protecting the environment and providing a number of ecosystem services has not yet been fully appreciated in the UK.