Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Farming in three dimensions

September 3, 2018 by  
Filed under News & Business

Cambridgeshire farmer Stephen Briggs is harvesting two crops from one field. Judith Tooth joined an agroforestry workshop on his farm to find out more.

For farmer Stephen Briggs,  agroforestry is 3D farming – a way to make the farm bigger by using more space.

“It’s an open flat landscape here with very good fertile soils – which in itself is an issue as they are very susceptible to erosion,” says Mr Briggs, an organic farming consultant, arable farmer and apple grower from Farcet, near Peterborough,

“It’s a small farm here, and being a commodity producer is increasingly challenging. I wanted diverse cropping, to reduce soil erosion and improve soil quality, increase the variety of habitats and create new market opportunities.

“I trained as a soil scientist 27 years ago, and the erosion here is incredibly concerning: we would often dig soil off the road with a JCB.  I wondered if there was a role for agroforestry – I’d worked in Africa in tropical agroforestry. Could it be adapted to work here?”

Being on a farm business tenancy, Stephen needed an economic return within 15 years. But with issues of CAP eligibility – agroforestry has tended to fall through the gaps between agricultural and forestry policies, particularly in the UK – limited capital, no livestock facilities, and a vibe from neighbours that ‘it won’t work’, reaching a decision to invest wasn’t easy.

“I began the agroforestry scheme on the farm in 2009. I went for apple trees, 85 to the hectare, because I liked the idea of perennials and annuals growing together, the increased biodiversity they would bring, and the buffering effect from climate change.

Regular fields

“At that time fruit trees were CAP eligible species but at a maximum rate of 50/ha; above that they were a forest. But the EU Parliament got that changed to 100/ha in 2012, and 85 is well within that.”

Some 4500 apple trees, were planted as two year-old feathered maidens across 50ha on the farm’s regularly shaped fields, the equivalent of 1100 trees/ha, an investment of £60,000.

They are planted north to south to reduce shading in an alley cropping system, with the trees spaced 3m apart in 3m wide rows sown with pollen and nectar-rich seed mixes. Subsoiling along the edges of each row encourages the tree roots to grow downwards.

There are 13 varieties of apple, a mix of heritage, local and modern, all eaters except for some Bramleys, grown on MM106 rootstock and they are now at the height Stephen wants. If they’re whistling they’re disrupting the wind, he says.

Apple juice

A new farm shop, Harvest Barn, opened early this year at Whitehouse Farm, is selling the resulting harvest: “The apples are juiced at Sandringham Farms. They treble in value by putting them in a bottle, and quadruple in value selling them fresh. Now that we have cold storage on the farm we have that potential. There’s less scope for adding value with cereals.

“But even if there is no fruit one year, it’s important to remember the trees take up only eight per cent of the area; the cereals use 92 per cent.”

Between each row of trees is 24m of land to grow crops – currently clover, wheat, barley, broccoli, red beet and oats. While there’s more biodiversity in agroforestry than plain organic, and much more than conventional farming, says Stephen, there is still a need to use conventional equipment.

“We were using contractors then with large arable machinery; now we’re on controlled traffic farming, all 6m wide, which lends itself really well to the system, and we’ve moved to wide row planting with a GPS guided hoe system.”

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