Wakelyns Agroforestry open day

Wakelyns Agroforestry Open Day took place this year on 26th June with 28 visitors attending, some from as far afield as Ireland. These included farmers, seed producers, small-holders and advisors. The weather was kind and the sun shone for much of the day, with the downpours waiting until everyone was on their way home. The morning included three presentations by experts offering challenging views on the use of energy in society and agriculture, showing how the application of agro-ecology to crop production can improve energy balances while maintaining or improving biodiversity and the valuable services it provides to agricultural systems. After a delicious homemade organic lunch, which has become something of a ‘Wakelyns Tradition’, the afternoon continued with a farm tour led by Martin Wolfe. The tour showcased the range of cropping ideas in progress, including cereals, vegetables and inter-copping trials in the alley system, plus the latest from Brussels on regulations affecting wheat populations.

Tour of the Wakelyns Agroforestry site

The Multifunctional farm – Finding room for all in farming

Barbara Smith from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust gave an interesting presentation entitled The Multifunctional farm – Finding room for all in farming. The central message of Barbara’s talk was that biodiversity on-farm is not a luxury; it is a necessity. She illustrated this by describing the wide-reaching impacts of conventional agricultural practices, particularly large-scale monoculture, on biodiversity loss both at the species and landscape level.

Approaches that can be used to enhance wildlife habitat include the use of multifunctional seed-mixes designed to attract beneficial insects and targeted management of field margins. The common thread underlying such strategies is an increase wildflower abundance and, in turn, nectar.

Focusing on cropped areas, Barbara discussed recent studies which looked at the importance of common arable weeds with respect to invertebrate abundance and contrasted this with how much ‘tolerance’ there is for those same weeds on cropping land. Projects looking at how much land is ‘enough’ to raise biodiversity to a level sufficient to bring measureable benefits found that, although a threshold couldn’t be defined, there was a positive relationship between the percentage of uncropped land and diversity, the spatial arrangement of that land was not critical.

Barbara concluded by introducing a new study, QUESSA, which aims to quantify how much semi-natural habitat contributes to key ecosystem services, and will include a financial impact assessment. The QUESSA team is still looking for arable farms growing oilseed rape and/or wheat to participate in the study from 2014 so do contact Barbara if you are interested.

To download Barbara’s presentation as a pdf click here (3.6mb pdf file)

Functional biodiversity – Arable weeds

Pete Ianetta gave an excellent talk, packed full of information on the research he has been conducting at the James Hutton Institute on sustainable agriculture, wild plant ecology, and functional biodiversity. The scene was set by describing the general misconceptions and attitudes towards arable weeds, and the resulting extinctions and population reductions that have occurred in the UK.

Pete then went on to talk about his research, and his chosen model plant – Shepherds purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), which was chosen based on its national prevalence as well as its huge intra-specific trait variability. Shepherds purse has particularly high variability in the characteristics of its leaves and leaf hairs, seed colours, and also phenology. In particular, the Time-To-Flowering (TTF) has been studied in terms of its links to species-coexistence, and has been related to a number of very interesting and agriculturally-relevant traits such as plant size, fungal resistance, seed dormancy, and the relative ability to capture N from the soil. These trait differences and their ecological implications have also been correlated to the prevalence of the different sub-species in the UK. For example, the most common species tend to have larger seeds and intermediate TTF values.

Pete went on to explain how arable weeds and crops have co-evolved over quite a long period of time, and how this has resulted in crop mimicry and also herbicide tolerance in a number of species such as Giant Hogweed. He also suggested that many common arable weeds may once have been grown as crops in past times. However, Pete noticed a distinct lack of ecological and genetic information of the majority of wild plants, and in particular, believes that there is un-tapped potential in the use of wild legumes in agriculture, to provide better ground coverage, improve soil structure and fertility, support more diverse communities of invertebrates and other wildlife, etc….

Legumes are pioneers of nutrient-poor land, and are usually found in nature growing in amongst other plant species rather than as pure stands. In this way they are adapted for inter-cropping, and can provide many benefits to their neighbouring plants, for instance a substantial amount of atmospherically-fixed Nitrogen is “gifted” to neighbouring plants, even during the active growth of the legume! Pete intends to conduct further work on the functional biodiversity of wild arable plants and especially wild legumes, and is very interested in the breeding of wild legumes for traits that will allow for harmonious co-existence along-side arable crops.

During the discussions ignited by Pete’s talk, many of the practical, management implications of what was presented were brought to light; such as whether or not legumes will fix more Nitrogen in species mixes, and whether or not the removal of cut herbage will benefit this process. Evidence suggests that removal of green mulch may encourage greater fixation of Nitrogen by the rhizobia-legume coupling.

Download Pete’s presentation here (3.7mb pdf file)

Agriculture, Sustainability and Permaculture

Steve Jones began his talk by outlining his background with Cwm Harry (Local Grown) which began by promoting waste minimisation in mid Wales and progressed to setting up community gardening projects based on cyclical systems of organic permaculture with urban regeneration highlighted as the key to localising food systems.

Steve then went on to talk about our energy future and the rapid reduction in returns from using energy based on fossil fuels. As fossil fuel resources are depleted and become harder to extract, the costs involved increase so that we are approaching a turning point when it will be cheaper to produce energy from renewable sources. An Energy Profit Ratio (EPR) can be calculated for different farming systems which shows the energy put into the system, be it from fossil fuels or manual labour, against the energy produced as food. When considering how energy dense fossil fuels are, subsistence farming is clearly shown to be a far more efficient system than intensive agriculture which is simply turning oil into food.

Interestingly this downward turning point in oil production can also be linked to socio-economic changes. Several graphs show that in a number of countries that are experiencing civil unrest the trend in oil consumption shows that it is at the point of becoming greater than production.

Two key industries that will be severely affected by this change are transport and agriculture. The solution proposed is a relocation of food systems from centralised to local production and farming systems that make use of natural processes of carbon sequestration or ‘carbon farming’.

Discussions after the talk focused on the potential difficulties of a shift from subsidised intensive agriculture and the timescale over which it would happen.

To download the presentation click here (5.6mb pdf file)

To view photos of the day see our Flickr page

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