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!
ECO-AGROFORESTRY AT WAKELYNS
There are six alley cropping systems, each of about 2 ha, in which rows of trees ('production hedges'), orientated North-South, are separated by cropping alleys. The cropping alleys contain the organic rotation, which means that, for example, in Willow Pond, 2010 is potato year. This will be followed by clover ley (2011/12), then cereals (2013), clover ley (2014/15), then back to potatoes in 2016. Each of the other fields is at a different stage of the same rotation. This helps to maximise fertility and minimise carry-over and spread of weeds, pests and diseases.
Integration of trees helps the cropping process by increasing soil organic matter (tree roots and leaf litter), increasing nutrient cycling, improving soil and atmospheric water relations, providing shade and shelter for plants animals and man together with a large and varied habitat for wildlife, from microorganisms to birds and mammals. The trees are also productive in terms of timber for building and other purposes, energy (all of the water and space heating for the house comes from the farm's chipped willow and hazel) and fruit and nuts. The crops help the trees in reducing tree-to-tree competition, so that tree productivity is higher per tree than in more dense woodland or forest.
The wheat that we grow is based mainly on three populations in which every plant is different from every other plant. This is precisely the opposite from conventional monocultures in which every plant in a field is identical to every other. In this way, our populations are considerably more resilient to environmental variation and climate change. We are being funded over 12 years by Defra for this research project.
Our wheat yields are double the yields obtained generally in the 1940's and 50's, but significantly less than those produced by our conventional neighbour. However, that wheat needs 20 oil-based chemicals applied every year and the land produces nothing else. At Wakelyns, we use no inputs at all (except for tractor diesel) and the land also produces tree growth and a wide range of biodiversity; indeed, here, there is a considerable net gain in terms of carbon capture and storage. In our view, this is the way to permanent agriculture.
Wakelyns Agroforestry is an organic research farm certified by the Soil Association. It is also a part of the Organic Research Centre, a charitable trust based at Hamstead Marshall, near Newbury.
The integration of crops and trees can be organised in different ways on this farm, we use 'alley cropping'. The trees are grown in 'production hedges' which are narrow strips of trees, always orientated north-south. This minimises the shading of the crops growing in the 'alleys' between the 'production hedges'. Most importantly, the 'production hedges' are a form of 'woodland edge', recognised by ecologists as an ecosystem with maximal biological activity.
A. THE CROPS
Many of the cropping alleys are covered with a ley, which is at different stages in different parts of the farm. The ley is a mixture of different kinds of clovers with chicory. The clovers are leguminous species, which means they can 'fix' nitrogen as 'biological fertiliser'.
Nitrogen fixation is the key to organic farming systems. The clover roots provide a home and a ready supply of carbohydrate and other nutrients to bacteria known as Rhizobia. In return, the Rhizobia pick up nitrogen from the soil atmosphere and convert it to ammonia and then other compounds, nitrates, which are essential to the development of proteins in the plants and, eventually, in us. In conventional agriculture, the nitrate fertilisers are produced in factories by chemical synthesis, at great expense in terms of fossil oil and greenhouse gases.
The legume leys are grown for two years during which they produce large quantities of nitrate mostly in small pink nodules on the clover roots (the nodules are easy to find the pink colour is due to active haemoglobin, as in blood). We also make compost from the cut ley, and the clover flowers help to feed the local bees. Some leys will be ploughed in late summer and the alleys planted with cereals including wheat, barley, oats and some less common relatives.
Those cereals will be harvested in the following August/September and will be followed by the next two year clover ley. After ploughing in this ley, the next crop will be potatoes. Because there are six years between potato crops, any soil-borne diseases or pests of potato that develop in one crop should have disappeared by the time of the next potato crop. And the same argument goes for the other crops in the rotation.
Each of the small fields is at a different stage of its own rotation this means that in any one year you will be able to find clover ley, cereals and potatoes somewhere on the farm. This is much safer (in terms of diseases and pests and climate impacts) and more convenient than having all fields at the same stage in the rotation.
Monocultures and populations
This year (2010), the cereals are in Mid-Field mostly in the form of field trials, funded by Defra, comparing different varieties and populations. Cereal fields in organic and conventional agriculture normally contain monocultures in which all of the plants in the field are identical. This means that diseases and pests can spread readily and rapidly through the field. It also means that if, for example, a particular variety is adapted to growing well in relatively dry years and it happens to be a wet year then none of the plants will thrive.
In the populations that we have developed, every single plant in a crop is different from every other. This introduces a huge amount of environmental 'buffering' into the crop: it doesn't matter what kind of a year it is, or which pathogens and pests are around, some plants will always grow well and compensate for their weaker neighbours. But we need to know whether, for example, the quality of the mixed grain is acceptable for baking or other uses. This research is being funded by Defra over a period of 12 years.
The experiments will be continuing for several more years as part of an EU-funded project (SOLIBAM Strategies for Organic and Low-Input Breeding and Management) involving many European partners, together with partners in Ethiopia and Mali.
B. THE TREES
a) The coppice trees
Two of the tree systems are for coppicing, the hazel (Hazel Field) and the willow (Willow Field). In the case of the fast-growing willow, this means that we cut the trees down, almost to ground level, every two years, alternating between neighbouring production hedges. Hazel is much slower growing, so coppicing is limited to once every 7 to 10 years. After cutting, the stems of willow and hazel are piled into heaps and left to dry in the field until the following autumn/winter. They then go through a tractor-driven chipper and the chips are stored in a large hopper next to the old barn. Here, there is an automatic feed that carries the chips into an Austrian-made wood chip boiler that provides the central heating and hot water for the house. So, we have an (almost) closed cycle heating system we produce all of our own heating fuel on the farm. We probably need about 12 tonnes of dry wood a year (which underlines the high energy-density of heating oil).
Both of these tree crops produce other outputs. Hazel 'spars' are a crucial raw material for local thatchers. The general pliability and workability of hazel also makes it useful for many other purposes from clothes pegs, to besoms, to fencing. There are also the nuts with 65% delicious oil content. For willow, we have several regular customers who use significant quantities of our production for basketry and other crafts, including 'life size' Viking long boats for primary school children!
b) The hardwood trees
Water Field and Far Field both contain seven hardwood species, Ash, Hornbeam, Italian Alder, Oak, Small-leaved Lime, Sycamore and Wild Cherry (with delicious fruit), all easy to distinguish in the summer. Most are now 16 years old. All serve different purposes as timber trees and have different patterns, colours, strengths and graininess of wood. They could represent the farmer's pension fund much more reliable than current notional funds, particularly as the wood resource increases in value while other resources decline in availability.
Water Field contains an eighth species apple. The idea here was to separate the apple trees from each other and intersperse them among the other seven species. In an apple orchard, of course, the trees are crowded together, encouraging the spread of pests and diseases. In Water Field, the separation works well each summer, we can find the common pests and diseases, but they are not seriously troublesome.
The two other systems, in Home and North Fields, contain fruit and nut production hedges, including apple, pear, cherry, quince, sea buckthorn, apricot, peach, hazelnut, rowanberries and walnut. Because it is close to the house, Home Field is where we have the vegetable crop rotation, though this is on a much smaller scale than in previous years, and is a separate enterprise
To sum up, apart from tractor diesel and some seeds, the 'only' inputs into the organic agroforestry systems are solar energy, rain, soil and atmospheric gases. From each hectare, there is high productivity of trees, crops and living organisms, together with 'ecosystem services' (water filtration, air purification, carbon sequestration, soil organic matter and fertility, insect pollination, as examples) and beauty and serenity. Unfortunately, from this highly sustainable system, only part of this multifunctionality is recognised currently as being worthy of a financial return could this now change?
For Wakelyns on Farming Today click here
For Wakelyns in the news click here
For more about sustainable agroforestry see http://www.sustainable-agroforestry.org
For more about organic farming in the East of England see: http://organiceast.co.uk
- an example of eco-agroforestry in Suffolk
So in the general economy of any land, the more widely and perfectly the animals and plants are diversified for different habits of life, so will a greater number of individuals be capable of there supporting themselves.
Farmers find that they can raise most food by a rotation of plants belonging to the most different orders: nature follows what may be called a simultaneous rotation.
Charles Darwin, 1859: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection