The Straw Cottage

eco-accommodation and growing experiments on a small scale

Oxford Real Farming Conference – biodiversity first and foremost

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There has been an annual farming conference in Oxford for 68 years. This “alternative” one I attended was in its 5th year. There were more speakers and more attendees at the alternative conference – but no Royalty, no Ministers and no mainstream press! In this and following blog posts I’m going to discuss the speakers I listened to. There were many others as you can see on the website.

Julian Hosking was first up for me. He talked about how the importance of biodiversity isn’t restricted to wild species – it needs to be built into farming species too. Of the hundreds of thousands of plant species on Earth, only a few thousand are cultivated for food and three crops – rice, wheat and maize – account for 60% of the calories and protein obtained by humans from plants. There is a great deal of single trait selection going on in these crops too, such as wheat varieties bred for higher gluten content.

Six huge corporations control 60% of agricultural seeds and 76% of the chemicals used to grow them (Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer, Dow and DuPont). As an aside, I suspect that companies such as these are behind recent EU moves to make it illegal for small growers or gardeners to collect and swap their own seed. This is a really worrying situation and I would strongly urge anyone reading to support the heritage seed library run by gardenorganic.org.uk or look at the open-pollinated-seeds.org.uk. Saving seed is certainly something I need to do more of in the future.

Julian mentioned yield may not be maximised in a polycultural system but resilience would be. I think it depends how you define yield. I hope I can show that we can have biodiversity, yield and resilience.
Before I started on my Village Farm plot last spring I counted 9 main species (in order of dominance – couch grass, dandelions, ryegrass, white clover, creeping buttercup, nettles, docks, thistles and chickweed). As I reseed areas over the next few years I hope to include at least 40 species of traditional grasses, herbs and wild flowers.

In the new vegetable beds on the Village Farm plot last year I grew potatoes (3 varieties), amaranth (2), quinoa, strawberries (3), asparagus (3), peas (2), mange tout (3), climbing beans (2), broad beans (2), French beans (3), lettuce (5), leeks (2), onions (7), carrots (5), beetroot (4), cabbage (2), kale, kohlrabi (2), turnips, radish (3), calabrese, courgette (3), summer squash, pumpkin (2), sweet corn, rainbow chard, parsnip and mizuna. That’s at least 28 crop types in total. Year on year, the aim is to increase both the number of crops and the varieties of each.
At the end of each vegetable bed I planted a flower bed which included mainly borage, pot marigolds, alyssum, lupins and French marigolds. The borage was far too big for those beds so I need to move that elsewhere next time (the bees absolutely love it). Again – aim to increase flower species year on year.

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Author: Carol Atkinson

Farmer's wife, mother, straw bale builder, running two eco holiday cottages - now delving more into food production

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