By Helen Woodcock from the Kindling Trust

This spring three members of the Kindling Community Land Initiative visited two pioneering agroforestry farms established by the amazingly inspiring Martin Wolfe and Stephen Briggs. Agroforestry is a system of intercropping between rows of trees. It can result in higher yields, lower costs, less disease, more biodiversity – what’s not to like?

“You’ll notice that the diversity theme keeps coming up,” began Martin Wolfe, “diversity in farming is the only sustainable way to farm and agroforestry is the best way to maximise diversity.”

It was a huge privilege to be shown around Wakelyns Agroforestry Farm in Suffolk by the wonderful and hugely knowledgeable Prof Martin Wolfe – a true example of science, farming and inspiration combined. And also to be shown around Whitehall Farm in Cambridgeshire by the enterprising and passionate Stephen Briggs – an example of agroforestry working on a large scale, both financially and ecologically.

Agroforestry is a production system where you grow – in these cases vegetables and cereals – between rows of trees. The trees act as windbreaks for the crops and provide additional crops of fruit or biomass. On top of that the diversity in the cropping system not only reduces pests and diseases but encourages an abundance of diversity. As Stephen said, you find most biodiversity in edges – the edge between water and land, forest and meadow – and agroforestry creates lots of edge!

Martin and Stephen have quite different examples of agroforestry farms. With a background as a scientist, Martin’s 23 acres is a research station – researching the best ways to grow the different mixes of cereal and vegetable varieties, and also mixing the different types of trees. He grows eight different species including wild cherry, apple, poplar and willow, and plants them in random order. In an experiment, working with another farmer from a traditionally laid out orchard, they found this random order dramatically reduces pest and disease problems and increases yield.

Stephen’s 104 acre agroforestry system (of the 254 acre county farm that he rents) is an example of agroforestry working on a large commercial scale. He mainly focuses on wheat and apples (what Stephen describes as “apple pie in a field”) but also grows gluten free oats. Stephen only has a 270 tonne grain store on site, so he plans his cropping accordingly. Winter oats fill the shed in mid August; two and a half weeks later those are gone and spring oats are harvested, followed by the spring wheat.

Various benefits

Some of the benefits of agroforestry described by both Martin and Stephen:

– Minimum inputs – neither of them have imported any fertility (fertilisers, compost or manure) onto their sites over the years, bar a couple of instances of compost. This is not only ecologically beneficial but also results in financial savings – and when you think about it is incredible! (We and many other growers add compost every year!)

– The windbreaks provided by the trees prevent soil erosion – another crucial element of sustainable farming. As Stephen said: “It’s just not acceptable to lose the most valuable resource on the farm”, a problem which many conventional farmers have to deal with by the digger load (literally – having to clear soil blown onto the roads).

– There is a distinct lack of disease on both of their farms, due to the diversity of crops (although Stephen only grows apple trees, he has planted a number of different varieties).

– And to go back to where we began with Martin Wolfe – an abundance of biodiversity. Stephen has four annual RSPB surveys (other farmers generally have one) and findings have included the only breeding pair of quail in Cambridgeshire for 30 years, and more pairs of barn owls than you can shake a stick at.

Inspirational examples

We learnt so much from both Martin and Stephen (and about them – their backgrounds are so interesting you could write a novel) that it’s hard to know where to stop. Their farms were great examples of what is possible in the UK food and farming landscape, and both farmers were a real inspiration and wealth of information – and made us feel like we can (and must) do this ourselves.

They sent us home buzzing with ideas, chomping at the bit to start the Kindling farm (and get those trees planted!), and feeling like we have very concrete examples and support to help us make this happen. Huge thanks to both Martin and Stephen for giving us your time, but also for all your years of hard work.

This photo of Stephen Briggs is taken from the Woodland Trust’s five minute video on YouTube in which Stephen Briggs introduces the ideas behind agroforestry www.youtube.com/watch?v=63VYutmrRvY

Tolhurst Organic in Oxfordshire are also experimenting with agroforestry, and in February 2015 they planted up seven acres of agroforestry in one of their fields.

“A total of 660 mixed hardwood native trees in strips were inter-planted with 60 apple trees. The area between the trees will continue to grow vegetables, as we have done for decades, hopefully aided by the trees bringing increased biodiversity and shelter to the site. This project has been granted to us by the Woodland Trust, and is part of a large programme to promote agroforestry within horticultural units. The species we are planting are alder, birch, maple, hornbeam, oak, whitebeam, wild cherry. We also planted 60 apple trees within the area. So in 2-3 years we will be starting to harvest apples from the site to add to our range of vegetables.”

This was followed up just before Christmas: “A superwarm December meant that we could go ahead with our agroforestry project, planting 8,000 daffodil bulbs between the over 600 trees now growing in the field. The daffodils will diversify our business, offering cut flowers in spring (over eight different varieties were planted).” The photo below shows the December work party. Website (type ‘agroforestry’ into the search panel): www.tolhurstorganic.co.uk

This article was originally published on Kindling’s website www.kindling.org.uk and appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 37 (Summer/Autumn 2016), p32.