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Why take the regeneration road?

Written by Nick Woodyatt, Agronomist and Soil Fertility Consultant at Aiva Fertiliser. Featured in Issue 13 of the Direct Driller.

In the January edition of Direct Driller, I was impressed by the article ‘Regenerative Agriculture…. Fad or system’ (William Waterfield) because it showed how useful this system is becoming and it took me back to my youth, (which is a challenge) when what we refer to as Conventional agriculture was at its height and still growing. On numerous occasions we watched as new ideas, normally based on organic farming, came to the fore and were then carefully laughed out of existence. Time and time again I heard the phrase, ‘this is it this time’, just to watch it dwindle away in the smoke of exhaust fumes from the chemical delivery lorry. I too have to admit that back in the day when I had a proper job actually growing plants that a non chemical system didn’t register at all, in fact if modern me turned up to see me back in the seventies and eighties I would be told to sling my hook (or something similar to that anyway).

Now this started me thinking, what was it that finally turned us, (well some of us), from chemical junkies towards a more sustainable system that our children will not look back on in despair and anger which is how I view my own growing past. My reason for this is not just being nostalgic but perhaps those who are just thinking about coming into the light might like to hear this from me and a few others who I have asked this question.

For me it started in 1995 just after I had stopped growing and entered the shady world of sales (yes it is, I was there). To be honest my old boss and I never really believed what we were told; consequently, I did all my own trials the results of which are so valuable to me now, so I didn’t get caught on the con but as soon as I went into the office scene it really was quite frightening. My own epiphany came when a chemical called Fongarid disappeared which had been the go-to chemical to kill Phytophthora, Fusarium, and Downy Mildew. As there was no replacement the industry was doing its normal, ‘oh woe is me’ routine so I decided to have a go with Bacillus Subtilus which was so much better than the chemical had ever been. Since then, nearly all my trials have shown that this is a way forward but unfortunately, we will have to wait to see the fruits of this work as most of the powers that be are joined at the hip with the chemical companies. Over the past two years with my overseas contacts, I have rid soils of Leatherjackets and Wireworm with Beauveria Bassiana, Frit Fly larvae with Bt and no end of diseases with a batch of bacteria. The thing we will have to note when we can do this is that they work better in groups with a food source rather than as lone wolves. So this, along with my experience with chemical companies when I was a National Sales Manager (I had to move to New Zealand to escape), was what prompted me to look at a more sustainable way forward. By the time I returned from New Zealand the terms Regenerative Farming and Carbon Capture Farming were the terms being used to soften the blow and move away from the frightening organic word. The question is, `What was it that moved others?’ They cannot all be cynics like me, surely.

John Joseph Trecorras Farm

John Joseph Owner of Trecorras Farm
See more about Trecorras Farm

John Joseph is a farmer in Herefordshire and started his journey back in the nineties which explains why his soils are so much darker than his neighbours. John says that he had felt like he was on the hamster wheel just adding more and more products and spending more time working for his suppliers and needed an alternative. Added to these, two wet years had done an enormous amount of damage to the top soils as there was nothing holding them together explaining why no root structure was visible. This threw up many questions but the main one was simply economic as there was no future following this system. My question to John was that for smaller farms is it not easier to follow a conventional system with its list of fertilisers and chemicals rather than the hard thinking that is necessary for regen systems. John replied that the work is worth it in the end. He had started regen farming almost by accident as he started using cover crops in the early nineties; ‘People thought we were trying to pinch their pheasants’, John says. `I was drowning in a sea of cultivation and poor crops, so I needed a change and direct drilling gave me the time I needed.’ The cover crop work that John did meant that the change from ploughing to direct drilling was fairly simple, but it is this change that can define the successful regen farmers from the ones who are trying to get from A to Z far too quickly. Now John is starting to enjoy farming again, reporting that he can see more root on a grass lay in 3 months than I did in a year before. The strip till arrived in 2013 which is a marvellous first step, in my opinion, as it keeps air in the soil at a maximum. This last winter an Avatar drill has arrived and has a place of honour in the shed and John reports it as fantastic. John also agrees with me that a liquid applicator on the drill is an excellent investment and allows so many options from fertilisation and microbial inoculation.

Farm owners can make the decision to jump to regen farming as they only have themselves to please but looking at change from a manager’s point of view can be whole different ballgame. In my working lifetime I have always had a respect for managers as they have to balance the needs of the crop with the expectations of the owner or the board. In fact, I think I can make the statement that any manager has to have a like-minded owner to even contemplate going down this route.

Jake Freestone Overbury Enterprises

Jake Freestone
Farm Manager at Overbury Enterprises
See more about Overbury Farms

In the case of Jake Freestone at Overbury Enterprises he was brought onto the farm by a family who felt the responsibility of the past and the future and needed someone to take the soils forward. Jake was a Nuffield Scholar who had studied regenerative farming and had the necessary knowledge to put the right team together and to work out a system that trialled products and systems so that they could be fully incorporated if they gave the required results. As well as getting the desired yields Jake says that his overriding mission was to increase the value of the land for future generations. Jake introduced trials of cover crops and direct drilling onto the farm but still managed to balance yields and soil improvement and anybody who has had the pleasure of visiting Overbury knows that it has been done to a superb level.

One point that Jake made was that he felt it essential to have an independent agronomist who works with the farm looking at the pros and cons of everything that is done. It is having this truly independent advice that is so difficult in Agriculture and yet so important regardless of the system that you are in. Having agronomy and sales so closely linked has done the worldwide industry and soils unmentionable damage, but that is only my opinion. I find it a fact of incredible regret that most advice given on the farm from companies and organisations is fuelled by the chemical companies which is why I shout that I am a salesman every time I do any talks or presentations. If any farmer is looking for the takeaway advice from this, then that is read, listen to everything and then, make up your own mind.

When I asked if he thinks Regeneration Farming is here to stay Jake answered, ‘It has to be based on all we do from profitability, environmental issue and Biodiversity; you should see the wild birds on the farm’. Isn’t it a shame that farmers such as Jake and so many more are not being given the credit they deserve by the BBC and their environmental programmes that make farmers out to be the enemy of the world and wildlife?

Tim Parton Brewood Park Farm

Tim Parton
Farm Manager at Brewood Park Farm
See more about Tim Parton and Brewood Park Farm

At Brewood Farm North of Wolverhampton, Tim Parton has also seen a huge increase in birds around the farm following his involvement with local bird groups. This sort of thing takes time and effort, but Tim adores watching the birds and gets satisfaction from once again enjoying farming flowing his conversion to Regeneration Farming in 2009. Tim who has just won yet another award, this time ‘Innovation Farmer of the Year’ from the Farmers Weekly, is certainly one of the biggest advocates of regen farming there is, and his knowledge base of the system is quite frankly stunning.

‘I had to change because the farm soils were simply collapsing and needed regeneration,’ says Tim, ‘and we did this for the sake of the soil and not for saving money although that came later.’ Tim followed what is now thought of as a great way in to regen farming which is to dump the plough and go to a strip till system along with putting 50% of the farm to spring crops. Tim agrees with me that there is no need to see a dip in yield if you follow a step-by-step approach.

‘It took around 3 years to see a huge difference in the soil when massive numbers of worms started to appear and now roots grow down rather than out.’ Biology is a huge part of what Tim does and he has replaced his Nitrogen addiction that all farmers had with a brewing addiction. ‘We have to replace some of the microbes that we destroyed before the soil can truly be classed as balanced,’ Tim suggests. Microbes are applied with a liquid applicator which is very similar to Jakes at drilling and regularly over the crop to keep them happy so that fungicides are not needed. Whether applying microbes or feeding up the ones that are there it is vital to make sure that the carbon levels in the soil are kept elevated as the carbon is the lifeblood of everything that lives.

‘We have to replace some of the microbes that we destroyed before the soil can truly be classed as balanced,’ Tim suggests. Microbes are applied with a liquid applicator which is very similar to Jakes at drilling and regularly over the crop to keep them happy so that fungicides are not needed. Whether applying microbes or feeding up the ones that are there it is vital to make sure that the carbon levels in the soil are kept elevated as the carbon is the lifeblood of everything that lives.

An important note here is not to rush things. A farmer saw what Tim was doing and thought … I want a bit of that but was not willing to do the work so just went for broke and bought a 750a direct drill. Of course, the soil wasn’t in the proper shape to accept direct drilling so everything failed and then of course it was the drills fault which is a shame for the drill and the farmer.

Alistair McGregor Weston Hall Farm

Alistair McGregor Owner of Weston Hall Farm

Just outside Leamington Spa Alistair McGregor is just starting the regeneration journey as it is called although cover crops and reduced tillage has been on the farm for quite some time. Alistair sees Regen farming as a way of further improving his soils and getting a more sustainable system. As a farmer with a young family having a system that leaves the farm in better condition than he found it is as important as looking at profitability. When asked if he can find the information Alistair says, ‘There are lots of experts out there, but they often don’t agree with each other which works to stimulate debate’.

As always it is a case of finding what works for your farm and the most economic price. Alistair does like to have a local farm group in which to discuss things and can see the importance of wider groups such as BASE where like-minded people can share views or have a damn good argument, after all they are farmers.

As ELMS continues in discussion it is obvious that this is the way forward and Alistair can really see the value of Carbon Credits that will soon be a major source of income into the farm.

Although I totally believe in regen farming and having an environmental part to what we do I think we have to be careful. I have spent a lot of time in units in Africa where giant farms are growing food for this country where many cannot afford enough food to survive. To then return to this country and see that farmers are being paid to turn the countryside into a park does stick in the craw a bit. I would love a few politicians and the BBC to go to Africa and explain to those starving people why we are taking their food. That could just be me though.

So, there we have it. More and more farmers are looking at moving to a regen system and it is just for me to say that the information that you need is there ready for you to read and disseminate. Not everything works for everyone, but it never has plus we are still at the mercy of the weather. Try a field and move forward and things will soon start to improve and with the environment becoming the most important policy there is the time is right.

My last point is that there are some farmers who are simply nowhere near ready for this system yet, and if you are one of them there is no shame in that, but please try to think it through. I went to see an old friend some time ago and his last remark was, ‘This is interesting, but can you tell my Agronomist as he makes the decisions here’ – Good Grief.