Written Sept 2020
I have always found that pioneering a different system of farming is a lonely task, there is lot of contradicting advice out there but ultimately you have to make the decisions yourself. I have read stacks of books on soil biology and regenerative agriculture and follow all the latest ideas from around the world, but I have increasingly found that a lot of information is not evidence based and relies on wishful thinking. Additionally, I receive advice on what I should be doing and what other farmers are doing from a conventional agronomist who is tied to a chemical distribution company, but this seems to be working on the same principal as paying life insurance premiums just in case the crop is going to die next week.
Being exposed to vast amounts of diverging concepts and ideas makes decision making challenging. For example, whether or not to use a fungicide on my wheat this year has been a difficult decision that had to be made several times during the growing season. The agronomist began by finding the first signs of yellow rust on several leaves - conventionally, a hefty fungicide would be used to kill off the disease and protect the rest of the crop. However, I had to balance this option with a wealth of unsubstantiated ideas that I have picked up over the years - fungicides damage soil life and interfere with photosynthesis, thus reducing plant sap sugar levels and increasing susceptibility to disease later on.
Furthermore, after years of biological farming, I consider my soil to be somewhat “disease suppressive”, meaning that the crops ought to be capable of fighting off disease themselves. My crops came out of the winter in poor condition from standing in water for five months and with the onset of drought, I was expecting lower than normal yields, meaning costs had to be saved wherever possible. All these variables meant that deciding what to do with my wheat relied upon gut feeling and guess work; being a risk-taker and optimist, I applied very few fungicides this year and the yellow rust disappeared. I can only assume that the plants’ natural defences may have protected the wheat from yellow rust. Therefore, despite the benefit of hindsight, I am still unsure if these chemicals would have paid for themselves in a low yielding year or not.
The decision of whether or not to apply nitrogen this year was also tricky. The first two splits of three went on as usual, but then drought set in and it became obvious that the last application would never get washed in and become available to the crop. Tissue tests showed that there was plenty of nitrogen in the plants, so I was presented with another opportunity to save money on what was obviously going to be a lower yielding crop. Typically, when I can’t resolve a dilemma, I experiment and hope to learn for the future; so with my gut feeling saying that it would be a waste of time and money to apply the last nitrogen, I put the last dose nitrogen on only one field and left the rest. Unfortunately, this did not teach me anything because although yields were quite variable, there was no correlation with nitrogen rates at all. In fact, in one trial, a strip with no nitrogen out yielded the half rate strip, and the rest of the field which had the full rate of nitrogen.
My only conclusion is that the wet winter and spring drought had an overriding effect on yields, and there was nothing that could change them, whatever was applied. It is generally recognised that building a natural soil structure by increasing organic matter and not cultivating will enhance the soil’s capacity for holding water. High levels of mycorrhizae are supposed to improve water scavenging and roots should go deeper when not encountering cultivation layers. Unfortunately, I have yet to see any difference between my farm and any others around the area. There is a possibility that it works on light land, but on clay I have not found this to be the case. It seems to me that as clay shrinks through the course of drying, it allows more air into the soil which dries it out further.
This drying puts the soil biology into hibernation, a real problem when you are hoping that this biology is going to do the work of fertilisers and chemicals. I think that the more we rely on natural systems, the more vulnerable we are to weather extremes, sort of the opposite to hydroponic farming where everything is controlled so that the outcome is guaranteed. Conventional high input farming would be somewhere in between, still vulnerable to the weather but the nutrition being taken care of to a large extent by mineralisation from cultivations.
There is also the fact that building soil organic matter levels requires nutrients, it is a biological process in direct competition with the growing crop. Unfortunately the bugs eat first, so there is very little left for plants when natural availability is limited by very dry conditions. Like many farmers in the UK, I have not had a very good harvest. Winter crops were disappointing; however, some spring crops have done reasonably well considering the conditions they endured. With cost savings in so many areas of my business there is little stress on me when growing conditions are less than ideal. All farming has it’s up and downs, but if we are able to step back and look for answers, progress will continue to be made.