Case studies that have transitioned to agroecological approaches
The Lakes Free Range Egg Co Ltd, Cumbria, Lake District
David Brass took over the beef and sheep farm from his father in 1989. A year later, his wife Helen introduced layers. In a move to further refine the farming operation, they planted woodland and hedges, and the farm started to produce woodland eggs. An organic enterprise was added more recently to meet the growing demand for organic eggs.
In 1989, when David took over the farm, it consisted of about 30 hectares of beef and sheep. The first change was one of intensification to move to early lambing, and a year later 200 layers were introduced as David’s wife Helen’s enterprise. In 1997, David and Helen decided to plant trees for their hens and have since worked with various organisations on range enrichment for the layers through the tree and hedge planting.
In the next few years, the laying flock’s size increased considerably, producing free range eggs, and egg production became the main business. Currently, there are 135,000 free-range hens on the farm. After building their own pack-house, the family was able to take on a contract with a supermarket, which gradually expanded in the next 10 years.
In 2001, a small proportion of the business was converted to organic, as David and Helen saw a growing demand for organic eggs and decided to get on board. However, they do not think organic certification offers a clear advantage in terms of profitability on their farm, compared with woodland free-range eggs. The farm now supplies several multiple retailers with woodland and organic eggs.
The family and the staff feel good about the direction the farm took, for the animal welfare and the benefits for the environment, and they feel there is demand from consumers for this type of product.
This is more about management, less about chemicals, which is always good. We enjoy working with the marketing chain. It fits our ethos.
Home Farm, Screveton, Nottinghamshire
The farm has been in the family since 1933. Prior to transition, David Rose found himself questioning the intensive way of farming on the arable farm and began looking for alternative approaches.
The medium-sized enterprise used to be all arable and farmed in partnership with other farmers. David looked to diversify the business, including a mixed enterprise with cereals and sheep, and the creation of an edible woodland for the local community. The farm is a member of LEAF and the arable enterprise is run as a joint venture with one other farmer. David himself focuses on agroforestry and livestock. Several years ago, David decided to plant about 6.5 hectares of edible woodland on arable land. The planting of the edible woodland is in an early stage; in total about 4,000 fruit and nut trees were planted.
His initiative was partly motivated by the desire to leave some of his land to a community-led agricultural scheme. The project has been supported by the local community, for example by volunteers planting trees. David set up FarmEco on the farm, which aims to educate and inform people about what is happening in the working countryside, hosting about 60 school visits per year.
The farmer also hopes to offer creative and practical courses, including tree identification workshops. The woodland should become a community resource, offering volunteers the chance to plant, tend and harvest the crop as well as have a say in how it should be used, or where it could be sold.
David thinks that for the transition to be successful, the management of the environmental areas needs to be given the same attention as that of the cropped areas. David found the environmental stewardship application process to be helpful and the relationship with the adviser is good; he found the LEADER application process quite long but rewarding in the end.
I tried it the big way but what I am doing now works better economically. I like the way the land looks now and I enjoy engaging with the community rather than working on my own all the time, which can be quite lonely. I also like working with the livestock.
Pitt Hall Farm, Kingsclere Estates Ltd., Hampshire
Tim May is the fourth generation farmer in his family. He took the arable business over from his father in 2010. After a Nuffield Scholarship in the United States on farm economics, Tim started to look for new ways to keep the business financially viable and introduced a livestock enterprise in the arable business.
Seeing the crop yields flat-lining, whilst expenditure on inputs and technology kept increasing, Tim realised that something had to change in the arable business. He started to explore a range of options to make the business both profitable and resilient in the long term. A financial review showed that the savings on inputs for arable could finance the purchasing of livestock for a new enterprise, providing return from the newly planted leys.
Tim believes in investing in soil health. In 2012, 360ha of less productive land was converted to grassland. Half the farm is now under grass-clover leys that maintain green cover all year round. The objective was to increase organic matter, help aerate the soil and make available many more nutrients that are locked up in the soil profile.
Another objective was to convert more solar energy into human usable energy and to diversify the enterprises of the farm. In 2014, Tim did a course in holistic management. His next move was to introduce a pasture-based sheep enterprise and implement mob grazing. He worked with the neighbour which also enabled him to learn more about sheep farming. In a second transition, Tim has been moving away from sheep towards a mobile organic dairy unit. The farm has now converted to organic to benefit from the premium market for meat and milk. Introducing livestock has made the original all arable enterprise more profitable.
Though the farm provides uncropped habitats to help support wildlife, agri-environment schemes have been less useful as the options and mechanisms are not a good fit for the holistic approach Tim has sought to implement.
Ongoing projects include further improvements to marketing and developing direct sales. Tim also intends to generate new business opportunities for new entrants through share farming agreements.
Overall the process was less daunting than anticipated. According to Tim, ‘the biggest step is getting started’’.
I really enjoyed walking through fields, seeing blackgrass and knowing that I don’t need to do anything about it, and coming back 8 months later and there is no blackgrass.” “Holistic management has totally changed the way I think.
Durie Farms, Leven, Fife
After taking over from his father, Douglas decided to explore ways of future-proofing the farm. A main objective was to improve soil health, increase soil organic matter and biodiversity. He converted one-third of the farm and the livestock enterprise to organic in 2006 and the rest of the conventional arable area has not been ploughed for roughly 20 years.
Douglas started to re-evaluate the inputs that were used when the father stepped down, with the aim to reduce fixed costs and future proof the farm.
For the arable enterprise, Douglas got interested in direct drilling, and after doing some research, thought the approach could hold great potential. Direct drilling proved very tricky to begin with, and there was limited experience around to benefit from. However, Douglas decided to persevere. He incorporated other conservation agricultural principles such as growing cover crops and increasing species grown on the farm for diversity. This has led to increased organic matter and improved soil health. There has also been experimentation with companion cropping and intercropping; mixing oilseed rape and cereals with various legumes, such as oats and beans, oilseed rape and peas, vetch and oilseed rape and peas and barley, with varying degrees of success. Douglas is going to continue with these practices this year. Though experimentation can be a hassle, it is certainly rewarding when it works.
When Douglas took over the beef herd in 2005, the financial analysis showed that the suckler cows on the farm were not really paying their way, so he decided to enter them into conversion to organic farming to improve profitability. He also grows some organic cash crops.
The difficulty was getting used to messier fields as it is against the mainstream norm in farming. For Douglas, based on his experience, it is more important to focus on the monitoring the long-term goals of the farm (improving soil fertility by getting more carbon into the soil), rather than short-term profitability, even if there are short-term setbacks, for example in terms of yield penalties. Patience and flexibility are the words.
Among his new plans, Douglas now wants to further reduce his reliance on artificial nitrogen and other synthetic inputs such as pesticides and is taking active steps in exploring mob grazing.
The soil health, and spin-offs coming from this, is like future proofing the farm. Carbon into the soil through photosynthesis is like putting money in the bank for a rainy day.
Balcaskie Estate, Anstruther, Fife
The process of buying the current farm started in 2005 with the purchase of separate parcels that were not farmed as one holding before. Since then, more land has been added. The mixed farm, which includes arable, beef and sheep enterprises, is now 60% organic. Toby Anstruther decided to convert to organic and be certified to access the premium that would reward his way of farming.
The large mixed farm was set up new by buying land from several farms and is now converting to organic management, with the intention to convert the whole farm. The farmer, Toby Anstruther, and his team have been experimenting with various improvements to cropping and soils, such as reduced nitrogen use in conventional production. In May 2016, 60% of the farm went into organic conversion. The beef and lamb are now certified organic and the arable enterprise will also be converted in time.
One important reason for the conversion was that there was no direct reward for the farm for using less nitrogen in conventional agriculture. The farm management was getting closer to organic, but they could only qualify to get a premium for doing what they were doing with organic conversion and certification.
The arable enterprise is currently farmed according to the principles of integrated crop management and the farm is a member of LEAF. Experimentation on the farm included diversification of different cash crops, and to improve efficiency, Toby and his team have also turned to precision farming technologies. Toby reflected that it is important to be able to question practices on the farm and why they are doing things using a particular approach. They are experimenting all the time, both deliberately but also by making mistakes and learning from them.
Toby feels that compared to the effort in establishing the farm in the first place, the transition to organic was not a very big change. However, he feels that the available agricultural grants could not really match what he wanted to do on the farm.
One important learning process during the transition was to engage with buyers and the whole supply chain and not just primary production. Toby wants to contribute to improving consumer perception and be more involved in the marketing of his products. Food production units are being established to support small businesses that can use products from the farm. The farm is now more community-facing than in the past and Toby is delighted at how supportive the local community has been.
The soil health gives us confidence that we are heading in the right direction. Several small farms that we brought together were pretty much unworkable on their own and they have now come into reasonable health.