Many contemporary farmers – despite a hostile economic environment and growing pressures to intensify – are finding new ways to make ecological farming viable. Colin Tudge and Graham Harvey have tracked down some inspiring examples.
They include Charlotte Hollins who, with her brother Ben, runs England’s first community-owned farm. Fordhall Farm near Market Drayton in Shropshire, became famous in the 1960s when Arthur Hollins pioneered organic farming.
He built a nationally-renowned yogurt brand and developed a unique system of winter grazing known as ‘foggage’. Instead of being cut and harvested for hay or silage, the standing grass is left undisturbed in the field, until grazed down section by section.
Community owned …
After his death the historic farm was threatened with development, but Charlotte and Ben led a campaign to save it through community ownership. The farm is now owned by a community land trust and has 8,000 shareholders.
With a lifetime tenancy on the farm, Ben and Charlotte now raise nutrient-rich, grass-fed beef, lamb and Gloucester Old Spot pork.
Horticulture lends itself most immediately to organic farming and small-scale polyculture. A regular among the ORFC’s horticultural participants is Ed Hamer.
And community supported
He with his wife Yssy and partners Chinnie and Annkatrin make the better part of their living supplying veg boxes from Chagfood – the Chagford Community Market Garden.
This Community Supported Agriculture project (CSA) is based on two rented plots of farmland on Dartmoor.
As reported in The Ecologist Guide To Food, customers pay in advance for the year and must take what grows – but they generally do well out of the arrangement. Each year numbers grow steadily.
Ed is also a pioneer of intermediate technology. He has imported various small-scale cultivators from France and the US (they don’t exist here) which are powered by his two small horses – a Dartmoor pony and a Welsh Cob X Dartmoor.
Wheat among the trees
But the principles of agroecology apply equally well on the grander scales. In the very first meeting in 2010 Professor Martin Wolfe of the Organic Research Centre described his pioneer studies with agroforestry and wheat.
This is ultimately polycultural agriculture, with farming as a whole integrated with trees. And the wheat – genetically heterogeneous, the very opposite of current monocultures – is planted between the trees.
At Wakelyns Farm in Suffolk – just under 60 acres (a little more than 20 hectares), all entirely organic – Martin has planted rows of trees all aligned north to south, with alleys that are mostly around 12 metres wide in between (agroforestry alley-cropping).
The trees actually benefit the crops
The rows contain hazel and willow for short-term staves and biofuel (a source of biofuel that doesn’t compete with crops), plus fruit trees (“the worse place to grow fruit trees is in an orchard”) and hardwoods (“my pension”).
The alleys are devoted in rotations to arable and horticulture alternating with leys rich in a wide range of clovers and their relatives. (He would like to keep livestock but hasn’t yet got enough labour).
The trees are a financial and aesthetic bonus – and, contrary to common lore, they benefit the crops between. They help to conserve moisture; bring nutrients up from the depths and leave it on the surface in their deciduous leaves; and provide a beetle bank for pest control.
The shading is minimal because the trees run north-south and in any case it is not the problem that is commonly supposed. As Martin says, cereals grown in big open fields are often heat-stressed – even in Britain.
Thriving on biodiversity
Voles make their burrows along the rows of trees and bumble bees nest in the burrows and pollinate the clovers and fruit trees, and barn owls have returned to catch the voles.
The wheat in the alleys is mostly heterogeneous, either grown from mixtures of the seeds of different varieties, or as largely self-selecting populations grown from deliberate intercrosses of many different varieties.
Given such heterogeneity, in any one year some individual plants do well and others less well – it differs from year to year and field to field. The point is that the crop has in-built resilience – whatever the local environment throws at the crop, it will thrive.
Applied ecology for sustainable intensification
The average yield over different seasons and fields is higher than single pure varieties can achieve. Using this same principle both within and among crops means that the overall output of the farm is greater than would be achieved if the same cereals (and other crops) and trees were grown separately.
In other words the land equivalent ratio is increased above one. This is ‘sustainable intensification’ not by high tech – which is how those in official circles who coined the term seem to intend it to be used – but by applied ecology.
In some years the mixed populations of cereals have out-yielded the highly fertilised monocultures in surrounding fields – and profits can certainly be higher because the inputs are so low.
Agroecology is profitable
Wakelyns is primarily for research rather than commerce but it seems nonetheless to demonstrate that agroecology, particularly as agroforestry, can be profitable even in the present economy, which is so attuned to high-input monoculture. With a more sympathetic economy, it could clearly become the obvious choice.
Colin Tudge is a biologist with special interests in natural history, evolution and genetics, food and agriculture, and moral philosophy. The author of Good Food for Everyone Foreverand Why Genes Are Not Selfish and People Are Nice, he is co-founder of the Campaign for Real Farming.
His latest venture is Funding Enlightened Agriculture which seeks to help new entrants to farming find start-up funds and become investment ready.