The agroforestry story

Modern agriculture, based mainly on massive monoculture of a handful of crop species worldwide (wheat, rice, maize, sugar cane and a few other grass species, together with soya beans, cotton, potatoes) is in trouble. The scale of these monocultures, covering previously natural landscapes, has displaced increasingly large amounts of the natural biodiversity which is central to the sustainability of life on the planet.

Natural biodiversity, from minute soil-borne organisms to the largest predators, forms complex webs of interaction which are all involved in the delivery of ‘ecosystem services’. These can be categorised into four types (which, inevitably, overlap greatly):

  • Provisioning – wild foods and medicines from land and water, water itself, energy
  • Regulating – carbon sequestration, climate regulation, nutrient cycling through decomposition, purification of water and air, pest and disease regulation
  • Supporting – nutrient dispersal and cycling, seed dispersal
  • Cultural – cultural, intellectual and spiritual inspiration – taken together, they form the ‘Gaia effect’ – the extraordinary system of biological regulation of the environment of planet Earth.

In addition to the biodiversity displacement, the crop monocultures are only able to function effectively because of the application to them of very large amounts of synthetic ‘inputs’ (fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, molluscicides, growth regulators) which are based on fossil oils as a raw material and provider of energy for processing. Large amounts of fossil oil are also used to cultivate the land and process the food that is harvested from it.

Partly because of these processes, we are also faced with the global problems of climate change and destabilisation (don’t believe the so-called ‘climate change deniers’ – as scientists, all the climate change analysts are deniers themselves, constantly questioning all of the data generated and its interpretation).

And, of course, the price of oil continues to rise as it becomes more and more expensive to extract the declining reserve.

How did all of this happen?

From the time of the agricultural revolution (say, 1700 to 1900 in this country), there was a gradual move towards intensification and simplification, helped by the discovery of cheap fossil energy – and boosted by the 1947 Agriculture Act which, post-World War 2, opened the way for a massive increase in production and commodification of agricultural crops.

The whole change was characterised by a gradual separation of agriculture and the natural world – to the extent that we now find people talking about ‘parks and prairies’. This is the notion that, to deal with human population growth, agriculture should be concentrated in ‘prairie’ areas with even greater intensification of production. At the same time, the natural world will be restricted to ‘parks’ or reserves where we can all go for walks or fishing or watching the few remaining birds (which were probably released from some artificial breeding centre).

The missing link

The big idea that was missed in agriculture – though it had profound effects in the rest of society – was Darwin’s Origin of Species. The two quotes above say it all. The natural world functions though the interactions among all of the many organisms in soil, water and air. This had been recognised by farmers over thousands of years. Their understanding was superficial (we still don’t know how all of it works – it is unbelievably complex), but it was in the right direction. In recent years, ecologists have shown how immensely productive natural systems can be even though there are no inputs other than sun, air, soil and water.

Of course, natural systems are more difficult to deal with in terms of harvesting, for example. So, what we need to do is to find a compromise between appropriate agricultural systems and the natural world approach – to integrate ‘parks’ and ‘prairies’. This is ‘agroforestry’. If we maximise the natural, ecological part of the approach, by maximising diversity (what we are now calling ‘eco-agroforestry’), we can have high overall productivity with minimal use of inputs (we only ‘import’ diesel for the tractors, together with seeds).

Across the sixty acres (23 hectares) of Wakelyns, we have six slightly different ‘alley-cropping’ systems which demonstrate some of the possibilities and potentials of eco-agroforestry. We hope you find them interesting!

20 comments on “The agroforestry story

  1. Michael O'Connell on said:

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    I am a twenty year old male coming from an agricultural background with experience in conventional horticulture/agriculture. I am very interested in the ongoing research at Wakelyns and was wondering if there would ever be an opportunity for voluntary work in exchange for board on the farm? I would be more than happy to forward a CV. Also, I was wondering if it would be possible to find out more about the economic viability of an alley cropping polyculture system?

    Thank you for your time,
    Yours sincerely,
    Michael O’Connell

  2. Nigel R Harrison on said:

    Good morning, talking to Kitt last evening about your project.
    I was very interested in your work. I have an interest in timbers used in boat building, not your thing I hear you say, I specialise in historic vessel restoration using English hardwoods. Perhaps you would get Kitt to contact me? I am up here for a few days @ my elderly folks in Fressingfield. I am based in Cowes Isle of Wight but come up here every couple of weeks.
    Kind regards
    Nigel 07966185433 or 01379 586626

  3. Claire Davies on said:

    Dear Sir/Madam

    Working in a college urban environment, I wondered at the potential for remidiating the post industrial landscape via the development of woodland that produces a ‘product’ – nuts, willow (for art/weaving)?
    Would you be able to suggest any trees/shrubs that could be planted and managed that would provide an attractive backdrop to the college buildings, is robust enough to take withstand the student population and will, if surviving, produce a yield.
    Looking forward to the potential of continued austerity, making use of the natural resources surrounding the built environment would seem to make sense for many reasons.
    With many thanks for your help, in anticipation.

    • Richard Ellis on said:

      Hello Claire,

      May I suggest a few tough native or traditional trees and shrubs that usually produce something edible: Raspberry (summer and autumn varieties), Gooseberry, Hazel/Cobnut, Apple (e.g. ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, ‘Katy’, ‘Lord Lambourne’ or ‘James Grieve’) and Elder. The latter has flowers that make a lovely cordial and berries edible in small quantities best used together with other fruits e.g. apple. Grey squirrels tend to destroy the hazel nuts before they ripen where I live in Norfolk though! Lime trees have leaves that are edible when young and then flowers that make a good herbal tea in July. For more experimental planting options check out Plants for a Future and the Agroforestry Research Trust
      Best wishes,

  4. Garry Jones on said:

    Hi there

    A small group of us attended a course at Schumacher College with Colin Tudge last month. We heard a lot about you and Wakelyns, several of us would like to come and visit to find out more… would this be possible?

  5. Michelle Asher on said:

    Dearest Martin,

    Hope you and Ann are both well.

    I am writing to let you know we have released the first episode of (IM)PERMANECE Film Project, in which you are featured!

    You can view it here:

    I would be happy to send you further episodes in the series. If you would like this, please send me your email address so I can include it on our mailing list.

    Thank You very much for your time and the inspiring, productive work you are doing in the world.

    With Love,
    Michelle, Richard and little Grace

  6. Patricia Nieto on said:

    Dear Sir
    I am Patricia Nieto, i am very interesting in your work . I am a spanish forest engineer, with TRAINING in INTEGRATED MANAGEMENT forestry , silvopastoralism and mycology, and I can run ArcGis. I would like to know if you need some help or you want someone to colaborate with you. I am Spanish, i have 30 years old and i am a very working. Now i am in Woking, near London, for some month , working like Au pair to improving my english, but i would like to meet some work oportunities about agroforestry or some around landscaping, gardening. Thank you very much, about your time, and if you have some information or you like to know something about my, my CV and experience, please feel free to contact me.
    i Take this opportunity to congratulate you on your work.
    Best regards.

  7. Mark Lord on said:

    Dear Martin,

    Thank you for directing several new interested and interesting people my way – it is very much appreciated. I am currently looking to secure funding (proving somewhat difficult at the moment, but I live in hope) to expand the nursery and create a 2 to 3 acre eco-forest garden in Suffolk with the view that I would be able to teach others about the techniques involved in and benefits of creating an eco-forest garden and hopefully inspire as many people as possible to take up the eco-forest garden/agroforestry banner. The eco-forest garden would also be open to the public for 6 months of the year where they would hopefully be inspired by what they see around them, be able to forage for food and experience some truly amazing crops such as elaeagnus and amelanchier species.
    I would be interested in hearing any feed back from you regarding such a project and also any suggestions for funding avenues.

    Kind regards,

    Mark Lord

  8. Craig Embleton on said:

    Hi Martin
    Great to catch up with what you have been doing since you kindly showed me and Morag around last summer. We have recently bought 4 sheep to incorporate into our mob grazing designs within our alley cropping system. We have already discovered that these sheep (Herdwicks) have a preference for fresh Ash leaves over any other tree leaves we have tried them with and indeed they’d rather browse Ash than graze grass.
    This indicates that they is massive scope to use Ash in Alley cropping systems for sheep farmers.
    Best wishes

  9. Trish Dent on said:

    Hi Martin
    I’m emailing on behalf on Halesworth in Transition. As part of our 30-mile food challenge this month, we are hoping to visit a local farm and we are wondering if we could come and look at Wakelyn’s. At present I’m not sure how many people it will be, but probably between 6 and 12 as we will also be asking members of the Sustainable Bungay group.
    At the moment, the most promising dates for us might be Friday 21st or 28th September, preferably in the afternoon.
    Would you have time to show us around, and also would you have produce for sale at the end? Roughly how long would a short tour take?
    Many thanks and best wishes

  10. Richard Ward on said:

    Hi Martin,

    Hope you are well. Long time no see or hear. But am regularly filled in by Mark and Paul as to how it is all going for you at Wakelyns. I have recently been introduced to Louise Henson, BBC Countryfiles’s Adam Henson’s sister. She is Organisational Managing Director of an Organisation called the Forestry Peoples Program.

    I was thinking that there may be some useful information that both your organisations could benefit from to various forestry populations of the world. So have left a message on FFB website to that effect. (Or rather, tried to leave a message on FFB website. – i keeps asking me to verify some letter to make sure I am a real person and not a computer generated message. When I do so, it asks me to do it again. So after the third attempt I gave up!)

    Anyway, you may well be aware of each other already. But if not, would be glad to have been an introduction.

    Kind regards
    Richard Ward

  11. Philippe Sahli on said:

    Dear Martin,

    We are a team of business professionals and students from HULT International Business School London and we are about to start a company. With our company, we help farmers in developing countries building a sustainable and effective farming business. Our goal is to increase food security by making farms sustainable and educating farmers.

    In order to become a better sense of an agriculture farm, we would like to get in touch with you and if possible, visit your farm.
    We look forward to working together with you and seeing you on your farm.

    Best regards,
    Philippe on behalf of the entire team

    • A visit would be possible, but I need to point out that ours is a highly practical, research-based, small farm concentrating on temperate arable crops and trees. Martin Wolfe

  12. claire kirby on said:

    Dear Mr Wolfe

    Happy New Year!

    My name is Claire Kirby and I come from a farming family in the Lincolnshire Fens. I am very interested in what you do at Walkelyns and agroforestry in particular.

    I am attempting to organise a sustainable farming evening for my family. It is a potential opportunity to access some people who are quite influential in conventional farming in the area. I am hopeful that either yourself or another member of your organisation would be interested in presenting something about who you are and what you do to the family. It will essentially be a private talk and I am hoping that it will take place in late February/early March in Lincolnshire (near Spalding). We will be able to provide reasonable expenses; food and overnight accommodation (B&B) should that prove necessary.

    For a bit of background my Grandfather was an arable farmer in the Lincolnshire silt fen near Spalding for many years and his Father before him. My Uncles now run the farm with a Manager and again have been doing so for many years. They are a very successful business too! They now own 1200 acres and grow wheat, potatoes, celeriac, chicory, onions, an early daffodil variety and I’m not sure what else!

    My Brother and I, whilst not directly involved in the farm, feel that we have an affinity and shared history with the land. We grew up in a house right next to the yard. We have also grown up as committed environmentalists and recently we’ve been talking about ‘doing something’ to encourage our Uncles to farm more sustainably. They appear keen on the evening; in part I’m sure to humour us but also because they know that what they are doing is not sustainable, they also feel backed into a corner by the supermarkets. I’m sure that if they could see another way of going forward that is possible, sustainable, viable and economic they would consider it.

    The Lincolnshire Fens and the farming thereof is unique and any one that we would get to speak would need to have an understanding of the soil, the climate and the agriculture that goes on there. Our family know that they have some fantastic land and soil and feel a responsibility maximize their yields in the light of potential crisis in the world food supply.

    We have spoken to our Uncles, Mum, Aunties and Cousins about a ‘sustainable farming’ evening for the family. They are all really quite interested, enthusiastic and prepared to give it a go, indeed, some of their friends are also showing an interest!

    If you are interested in getting involved please get in touch and we can have a chat about it all.

    I look forward to hearing from you

    Yours sincerely

    Claire Kirby

  13. María Luz on said:

    I am from Argentina and it was a pleasure to read about agroforestry and all the experimenting you are doing in wakelyns. I am a biotechnologist and I hold a PhD in Biological Sciences, but I have also recently taken the Permaculture Design Course (PDC) and I would love to do some research related to the subject. So far I didn’t have any success in finding a group of scientist and the financial support to do it. If there was any possibility to do this with you, I would really appreciate the chance.
    With my partner we have been looking for rational Permaculture projects here in Latin-America but we had no success so far. Thank you so much to you all.
    Best Regards,

    PhD María Luz Cardozo

  14. Frederick Thorneycroft on said:

    Hello, I was wondering if I would be able to make a visit too your farm? I am studying at UEA and intend on writing my dissertation on some form of sustainable agriculture. I will be travelling back from london on the 17th May which would be a convenient time for me to visit, if this date does not suit would there be any other time I would be able to visit?
    Thanks and regards

    • Martin on said:

      Dear Fred,
      Thanks for your interest. It should be possible to fit in a visit around mid-June if you could let me know some dates suitable for yourself around then.

      • Frederick Thorneycroft on said:

        I am a second year student at UEA and have been discussing the work that is being carried out at Wakelyns with a professor Mark Hassell, with the hope of carrying out some sort of research. I have begun a small amount of reading into the subject however have not managed to gain any focus. I also had a chat with Nicky Wade who carried out some reseach on biodiversity at Wakelyns but did not complete her project. She thought the best way to decide on a more specific aspect of agroforrestry was to pay yourselves a visit. I have been very interested and impressed with everything that I have heard and if you will allow it, I would like to carry out research for my dissertation on the farm and hopefully I can compliment your work being done. I understand that this is a valuable time for gathering data since the growing season has begun and am itching to get started and pay you a visit. I am currently in norwich so am available to visit anytime? Also please could I get some contact details?
        Thanks and Kind regards.
        Frederick Thorneycroft

  15. Frederick Thorneycroft on said:

    Hello, I have been emailing martin about my dissertation but have not received a response yet. Is there any alternative contact details I could use?
    hope all is well,

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