The Straw Cottage

eco-accommodation and growing experiments on a small scale


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The good old days?

The second speaker up on arable farm day at ORFC14 was Henry Edmunds, a Wiltshire organic farmer. Henry is an advocate of rotational ley farming – pretty much how farming was pre WW2 when grass and grazing animals improved soil ready for combinable crops later in the rotation. Over the last 60 years arable farms have become dependent on machinery and chemicals, creating a clinical environment. Grazed animals, on the other hand, build high organic matter in the soil – holding and providing more plant available nutrients. Henry showed amazing photo after photo of flowers, birds, butterflies and other insects on his farm to illustrate the biodiversity his farming methods encouraged.

Henry employs 15 staff on his 2,500 acre holding. I know that is a much higher employment rate than on most large modern farms. A quick online search found a report from the UK Food Group stating that there was roughly 1 person employed per 210 hectares (520 acres) of arable crops in 1993. On that basis Henry would employ 5 people (probably less now as employment rates have continued to decline in the last 20 years), so he is doing at least three times better than the UK average.

The same report stated that in 1950, 1 person was employed per 31 hectares (77 acres) so back then Henry’s farm would have provided a livelihood for 32 people. Agricultural work in 1950 was physically very demanding and I wouldn’t recommend a return to the past in that way – there’s nothing wrong with appropriate machinery making physical tasks easier. But 32 clever human brains working to improve natural and agricultural biodiversity – now that would be interesting work.

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Oxford Real Farming Conference – biodiversity first and foremost

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.