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Agriculture Community Ecology Food Growing Health Nutrition Organic Practice Regenerative Soil Wilderness

FarmEd

Looking down from the entrance on the A361 down onto the FarmED buildings.

On 7th July I had an appointment in Gloucestershire at 9am in the morning. I’d had to rent a car to get down there in time, so I was faced with the possibility of either heading straight back to London, or trying to find something else to do that day to get some value from my journey. Purely by chance I was scanning through my mailing list folder and found a message from FarmED saying that they were giving a walking tour that very day.

Set up by Ian and Celene Wilkinson at Honeydale Farm in Oxfordshire, FarmED is a demonstration farm created to explore and promote regenerative agriculture. Ian’s background was as the director of Cotswold Seeds, a company which made its reputation developing cover crops to restore soil fertility. Celene, a veterinary nurse by training, has expertise in matters of health as they relate to diet in both people and animals. FarmED have trial fields, host events and seminars, have a restaurant which cooks their own produce, run a profitable market garden, shelter a small dairy, and even produce their own honey. It could be considered “meta” farm.

Honeydale Farm’s location is right next door to Diddly Squat and Kingham, “meta” farms in their own right. However, unlike neighboring Jeremy Clarkson and Alex James, the Wilkinsons don’t have access to unlimited capital.

Is a “meta” farm less valuable than a “real” farm? My view is that farming (and especially organic, biodynamic and regenerative farming) needs advocates. Part of the problem with the urban/rural disconnect, and with it our alienation from the sources of our food, is the absence of dialogue to connect farming with contemporary culture and values. FarmED fills that gap convincingly. Its relatively low agricultural productivity is more than compensated for by its educational services to farming. It’s the same yardstick by which I would judge my own extremely humble efforts.

Collection point for the FarmED CSA scheme.
Rewilded.

Right away I noticed that the farm’s architecture differed drastically from the farms I knew in my childhood with their massive drafty, steel barns and never-ending concrete yards. They are, frankly, very chic. Furthermore, every spare space between the buildings was allowed to grow wildly, if sometimes augmented by carefully sown wild flowers.

The FarmED library.

As we were gathered together in the meeting I room I had the opportunity to marvel at FarmED’s incredible library of classic books on the subject. This is the kind of intellectual heft I delight I seeing behind farming.

Ian Wilkinson.

Ian Wilkinson gave our group an introductory talk explaining how he came across the farm, and negotiated the perils of its mortgage, so as to bring the couple’s dream to life. I definitely got the sense that this was a risky undertaking. The farm also employs a staggering 34 people which must make for a steep wage bill.

Ian passed us over deftly to the brilliant Kate Henderson, who he took great pride in informing us was the granddaughter of farming legend George Henderson. George’s classic book “The Farming Ladder” has been feted by none other than Eliot Coleman and Joel Salatin. Kate got the job as a result of showing up one day in her car with a box of the books, enquiring if the Wilkinsons had any use for them.

Interestingly its publisher Faber, through the efforts of Richard De La Mare, historically editor of the firm’s agriculture and horticulture lists, was a stalwart supporter of the organic cause putting out such notable titles as Eve Balfour’s “The Living Soil” and Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s “The Earth’s Face”. Faber even republished Darwin’s study of the earthworm. In recent years I associate the imprint mainly with books on music.

Kate Henderson.

Our initial port of call was the first of two trial wheat fields. This one sown with Crusoe milling wheat. Crusoe is a modern “chemical agriculture” wheat which has been bred with short, stubby, strong stalks. These are able to bear the weight of its massive head of grain which has been designed to convert as much of the 170kg of synthetic fertiliser applied to the control plot as possible.

The use of chemical fertiliser to run this ongoing trial is one of the reasons why Honeydale Farm is not certified organic. Any use of fertiliser on the entire site would disqualify them. FarmED’s stated reason for not certifying, however, is that they need to be relevant to all farmers within any specific scheme. The chemical field is also sprayed with a litre of the herbicide Glyphosate.

Kate brought a spade and dug out a clod of earth which we were invited to feel, crumble and smell. I would lying if I claimed to notice much difference between the two plot’s soil based on just these physical characteristics. In fact I was expecting the difference to be greater. There was only a very faintly brackish odour to this, the first.

Chemical soil.
Our group.

Now, on this our march, I took the opportunity to size up the rest of the group. It had a truly remarkable profile with people hailing from diverse fields of expertise. There was Daisy Wood and a colleague from LEAF; Dr. Sarah Watkinson an Emeritus Research Fellow in Fungal Biology from Oxford University; Elizabeth, a farmer from nearby Coln Rogers with two of her colleagues; Celia Leverton a regenerative farmer and travelling scholar on a Churchill Fellowship from Tasmania, and Richard Buckley from Bath and his family (who run an acclaimed vegan restaurant Oak) along with their affiliated grower Georgia. The very tall man was a computer scientist from Boston, USA who was perhaps arriving at the field from the same angle as me. How that angle should be characterised I leave to you, dear reader.

The winter bird seed field.

Sandwiched between the two fields, and separating them as it were, was a field dedicated to growing seed which the birds could eat in the winter. Apparently they love it.

Heritage wheat.

While the conventional field reached Kate’s waist, the heritage wheat field came up to her shoulders. FarmED are this year growing the varieties Emmer and Einkorn – seeds which, unlike the Crusoe, nobody owns the rights to, and which had been provided to them by local farmers.

Right away you can understand why Norman Borlaug and his team set their sights on breeding the Green Revolutions’ characteristic short rigid stems. One heavy rainstorm or gale could flatten the entire field and ruin a crop. It ripples very appealingly in the breeze. Beneath the canopy of the heads of grain is sown clover which not only, as a legume, fixes nitrogen in the soil, but also keeps its temperature down and moisture up.

Soil.

Kate invited us to pick at another clod she had dug, and this time I found a friendly worm; others also found worms in the chunks they picked off. Apparently below 4 worms per sample (spadeful) indicates poor soil, and above 8 worms is good. A healthy earthworm population is calculated as being about 250 worms per square metre. Certainly there were none in the chemical plot.

Kate regaled us with some statistics, however, which put some perspective on our gathering ecological delight.

The heritage wheat field yielded 50% of the grain that the chemical field did. Although I was prepared to overlook the difference in the gluten levels between the heritage (12%) and chemical (28%), modern bakers want higher levels of gluten which give a more buoyant loaf. Of course, the gluten-free lobby argues that these “unnaturally” high levels of gluten have unleashed a plague of inflammatory symptoms in society. Slightly more troubling was that the heritage wheat had lower amounts of protein (9.78%) vs the chemical wheat’s (12.83%).

As much as I dislike modern wheat, in fact I don’t eat it, the arguments in its favour are in some respects convincing. This is even if you take the view that its relative cheapness is complicated by the cost of inputs (fertilizer and herbicide), the hidden cost of its associated environmental damage (soil erosion, biological harm etc), and, as is alleged, its poor flavour.

Sheep.

As we carried on our Magical Mystery Tour we encountered a man who was running a controlled experiment in the next top field. He had sunk two pipes into the soil – one open at the sides – one closed all the way down – and was measuring CO2 output atop both.

His hypothesis here was that the mycorrhizal fungi which, in theory, will have penetrated the sides of the open pipe, would affect the respective carbon dioxide emissions issuing into the atmosphere. Presumably better mycorrhizal integration would mean a lower carbon output, as these rhizomes are believed to draw from the soil and distribute?

The very impressive meter.
Our man demonstrating the technology.
The sensor giving a reading of the ambient CO2 levels.
When our man breathed into the sensor the levels shot up.

The final field along the top contains the market garden’s poly tunnels. I absolutely love poly tunnels and also green houses. If I had a green house I believe I would probably die of happiness. These are managed by the growers Dan Betterton and Emma Mills for the organisation Kitchen Garden People who run the CSA. The Kitchen Garden People Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme organises 130 veg boxes which are collected from the site every week. Very heroically they even produce veg in the “hungry gap”, a hard time for the UK’s farmers which occurs in April, May and early June, after the winter crops have been used up and before the new season’s plantings are ready to harvest.

This year, for the first time, the growers employed a no-dig strategy. In their case, on this medium scale, they sow a green manure, leave it in the ground for one to two years, before eventually allowing it to break down under tarpaulins.

There are many ecological arguments being put forward these days for the positive benefits for soil health through not digging. Unfortunately, in a number of cases this has mean that powerful chemical agriculture conglomerates like Syngenta have begun to argue, I believe speciously, that with no-till (no-dig) methods regenerative agriculture is compatible with the use of herbicides like Glyphosate. This is a kick in the teeth for those claiming that what is known as organic agriculture (very broadly no chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides) is the path to truly regenerative, and ecological farming.

This picture is further complicated by the fact that many organic growing practices, which accommodate massive monocultures, organic fertilisers (as opposed to the use of compost and leys), and ploughing, are seen as ecologically damaging. I understand that currently the UK’s Soil Association is seeking to remedy this with a Organic Regen label. Elsewhere at Honeydale farm they have a policy of tilling only the top 3-4 inches. This is generally accepted as being much less disruptive.

The automated temperature-controlled door panel swung open bisects this photo.

Our group was full of admiration for how the temperature within the poly tunnels was controlled by automated doors and by the irrigation system in evidence. A number of us were intrigued by the growers’ “chop-and-drop” policy which is evident in the stems visibly strewn on the ground. This is a very efficient way to compost, you just let the unused vegetable matter decay right there on the soil rather than wheeling it away to a compost pile, only to then have to wheel it back once it has decomposed. However, some vegetable gardeners argue that “chop-and-drop” increases the numbers of slugs, snails and other pests. It seems there’s often a case to be made for these alternative methods.

Water is not exactly abundant on the site. It’s frugally collected off the building’s rooves and also from a spring on the land. Last summer the team had resort to using the mains during the drought and so this year there are discussions about the possibility of drilling a borehole. I know from experience that this is costly business, and where they are, on top of a hill, they’d probably have to dig deep to reach the water table. Needs must.

The bees at Honeydale Farm, are looked after by what FarmED rather wittily call The “B” Team. I was fascinated to see that the hives are installed into tree stumps. Interestingly the honey is used as much for a skincare range as for food.

Then we walked down the hill on what was truly a most glorious day.

Where, at its foot, we admired the series of drainage ponds.

The walking tour was such a fascinating experience in exquisite scenery alive with nature. Fortuitously the weather was beautiful (it wouldn’t have mattered of course…) and my fellow students were an amazing, multifaceted bunch. As the glow of the summer has begun to fade it makes me misty eyed to think back to it now. Many thanks to Ian and Kate.