Agroforestry event write up - Stephen & Lynn Briggs - 6th April 2011

12 April 2011

40+ farmers, growers, advisors, certification officers, apprentices, merchants and scientist were welcomed onto Stephen and Lynn Briggs farm, near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire on April 6th 2011 for a review of their establishing Agroforestry system on a joint Abacus and Soil Association farm walk.

 
Stephen opened the afternoon excellently with a presentation on what they are hoping to achieve on their 15 year farm tenancy of the 100ha county council farm. The farm benefited from being on fen soils, with an average organic matter content of 23.8%! 
 
Keen to preserve the precious soil from wind erosion, along with increasing biodiversity and make the most of the 3 foot plus of peaty top soil, Stephen and Lynn set out to look at farm solutions that could answer all three. Previous experience in Africa highlighted the benefits of agroforestry and with financial support under the Organic Entry Level Scheme (OELS) top fruit orchard conversion option; paying £600/ha/year (first three years) it made economic sense also. 
 
Therefore 4,500 apples trees were ordered a year in advance for planting on half of the farm area. In autumn 2009 a professional planting team were employed to space and plant the rows, which are 27m apart, giving a working width of 24m after a 3m pollen mix is planted down the tree rows. This is enough space to allow ‘proper sized’ arable kit to operate and avoid additional expense on new orchard spec equipment. Stephen commented that if they had a longer tenancy then they would have chosen nut trees, as these should work out more profitable longer term.
 
Initial results are encouraging for bio diversity and arable yields. Numbers of butterflies and bumble bees are up substantially on the non-organic field studied (see presentation). The trees have established well although it was a very dry autumn, snow covered winter and dry spring in their first year! The farm has had to beef up security to ensure the trees don’t grow legs, and also beef up tree guards and posts due to pest damage from hares and heavy pigeons. Average arable yields so far are 75% of what was achieve as non-organic.
 
Walk 
 
On the walk both crops and trees looked in good health. The trees were just budding, and the apple blossom would not be far off. Bees could obviously sense this too with high numbers being recorded in pit fall traps around the trees. The spring wheat seen was drilled accurately and had established very well, giving a thick carpet to reduce soil erosion from the spring winds blowing across the farm.
 
We moved into another area of interest and research for Stephen, this being establishing wheat with minimal cultivation. Stephen had identified that any activities to move soil resulted in a great gross lost of soil carbon then what can be sequestrated while cropping on the fen soils. Therefore research is being carried out upon establishing with minimal cultivation into a clover ley. 
 
Minimal cultivation involved going through and lightly scrubbing the clover (releasing nitrogen) before using a disc seed drill to slot the seed into place. This year wheat was sown at -16 degrees due to availability of drill, but thankful still established well.
 
Various varieties of wheat plants are being used from the 1900s to today. The group examined Maris Wigeon, which at the time of viewing had tillered well but was being overtaking by the clover. When the clover goes to seed, the wheat crop should then outgrow the clover and establish itself for harvest, suppressing the clover until the wheat is cut and the clover can once again access more light to re-establish.
 
It was truly an excellent and inspiring farm walk for all, and left a few farmers considering their options on future crop plantings! It will be interesting to follow the farm developments once the apples trees are fully into fruit, along with seeing which wheat varieties work most successfully with direct drilling.
 
Throught the methodical data collection and analysis done by Stephen and Lynn, Organic Research Centre and Reading University I’m sure it will not be long before scientific papers are published and the wider farming cycle can see the benefits of this system. Indeed, Stephen has been selected to be a Nuffield scholar this year and therefore gets to embark on a round the world study tour of agroforestry systems. We at Soil Association wish Stephen and Lynn all the best in the future and look forward to learning from their work in the forthcoming years. 
 
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