Sunday, April 18, 2021

Challenging year is catalyst for change

September 24, 2020 by  
Filed under Profiles

Flooding chaos and the coronavirus pandemic have triggered big changes on a coastal farm in Norfolk. Judith Tooth reports.

Looking up the field on a still summer day, it’s hard to imagine torrents of water rushing downhill, tearing deep rifts and gulleys into the light stony soils at Deepdale Farm, Burnham Deepdale, Norfolk.

But back in February, that’s exactly what happened: heavy rainfall fell on already saturated fields. And with nowhere else to go, the run-off turned into a river – and rushed straight into the house of an elderly lady.

A few months earlier, the field had been inadvertently drilled with tramlines going down the slope, rather than across it. And when the soil started to erode, the Norfolk Rivers Internal Drainage Board was called in to carry out emergency works

But further storms hit as designs for a flood mitigation scheme were being drawn up. Jason Borthwick, the farm’s managing partner, was soon left staring at culverts two metres deep. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, forcing the closure of the farm’s retail and tourism complex.

Remarkably, though, there was a silver lining.

For Mr Borthwick and estate manager Nathan Nelson the twin disasters of flooding and Covid-19 were a catalyst to make big changes – and an opportunity to gather ideas. Just a few months later, those changes are taking shape.

Mr Nelson says: “We had the wettest February in 10 years, and the wettest January in seven. But they are no longer freak events. We knew we needed to build longterm resilience against floods and droughts, to be able to deal with both extremes.”

The drainage board introduced the two men to the Norfolk Rivers Trust. Zac Battams, the trust’s water sensitive farming adviser, was soon asked to get involved. “Nothing was off the table,” he says. “There was a refreshingly open-minded approach from the get-go.”

Ed Bramham-Jones, the trust’s head of farming and water, offered practical help and advice on how to avoid losing more soil and water from the farm. Part of the plan was to keep the water on the land to infiltrate and support the aquifer recharge.

Two broad sediment traps were dug across the field, each with a series of check dams – to slow the flow of wate – topped with new hedging, with a large pond at the bottom of the slope. The pond was full to the brim in March and empty in April.

Expert advice

Funding for trust’s Water Sensitive Farming initiative comes from the WWF Coca-Cola Freshwater Partnership and the WRAP Courtauld Commitment 2025. It operates at a catchment scale, mainly in the Broadland Rivers and Cam and Ely Ouse catchments.

The farm is in the River Burn catchment. Mr Bramham-Jones says: “While the flooding didn’t affect the river directly, from a catchment point of view we don’t want diffuse pollution going into freshwater drainage ditches, and the marshes, which are incredibly valuable habitats.”

Norfolk Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group adviser Henry Walker suggested suitable environmental management options under Countryside Stewardship. Abacus Agriculture consultant Stephen Briggs advised on the potential for agroforestry and organic production.

The search for ideas continued more widely too.

“It started with reading Wilding [by Isabella Tree] and then Gabe Brown’s Dirt to Soil,” says Mr Borthwick. Then he joined the community created through Land Management 2.0 – a knowledge sharing network set up earlier this year.

Action plan

“It led to many fascinating conversations and has been hugely supportive. The Holkham farming conference in March – the last event we went to before the lockdown – also threw up some amazing conversations around cover crops, rotations and so on.”

An action plan was then drawn up, says Mr Borthwick. “All the questions we’d been asking, all the work with flood mitigation… suddenly the bits of the jigsaw came together. We realised we needed to rest the soil. And we all needed to rest, too.”

The result is a Countryside Stewardship scheme giving a much needed five years of breathing space as well as a regular income. Resting the soil was overdue and necessary, says Mr Walker. But the farm continues to be productive, albeit on a smaller more specialised scale.

“I’ve worked on five whole farm restoration schemes in the past two or three years and this is the only one – bar one – that still incorporates arable cropping.”

Cropped areas have been simplified by creating 20 plots, each one 5ha, which will grow two-year clover leys, wheat, peas or beans and barley in rotation. These will replace the carrots, potatoes and maize grown until now.

There is also a new focus on local markets, adds Mr Borthwick.

“We’ve always been really good at creating local opportunities in all our diversification – with local producers at our Deepdale markets, local acts at our music events, and so on, but on the farm, the crops have gone out into the big world.

“It’s a logical link up to find local markets for our crops, so, for example, we’ll grow just enough barley to go to Crisp Malting, and then have locally produced beer at our events, and we can use our wheat to make flour for our pizza nights.”

Looking ahead to when the clover rich leys will need grazing, Mr Nelson is making contacts through Liz Genever’s Carbon Dating service for livestock farmers. It helps build carbon levels in arable soils by linking farmers who want land with growers who want livestock.

“I’ve had some good conversations so far, with a shepherd in Yorkshire and a local beef farmer with a suckler herd,” he says.