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Future farming: Young farmer changes focus to soil not yield

Getting off the input roundabout and introducing pigs into the arable rotation, has had significant benefits for Somerset farmer Fred Price. Sara Gregson reports.

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With new leadership comes new ideas, and Fred Price is changing his focus on-farm to the soil. When Fred, 31, inherited the 102-hectare (250-acre) arable farm at Gothelney Hall, near Bridgwater, from his aunt 10 years ago, it was a conventional arable unit, chasing ever-higher yields to pay for the inputs needed to grow the crops.

 

“I was not trained in farming, so I started following the model that had been used for decades,” Fred says. “But after three or four years it was costing more and more to produce our target of 10t wheat/ha, and at the same time, we were degrading our soil. “I ran up an overdraft, where previously there had been none, and was very exposed to risk.

 

“Something had to change, or we would suffer the fate of other small family farms.”

 

Fred felt he had reached a point where the negative impacts of inputs, particularly nitrogen, were outweighing the benefits of applying them.

 

“In reducing input use, we had to positively manage something else to take up the slack in the system,” says Fred.

 

“We created new farming targets – soil carbon being one, and the other being plant diversity.

 

“If any proposed activity prevents us building soil fertility or growing a larger variety of plants, then it will not happen.”


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System

 

Pigs used to be farmed intensively by Fred’s grandfather. But now, 24 rare-breed Tamworth sows that live, farrow and rear their young outdoors, are driving regeneration of the soils across the farm. The sows rotationally graze diverse herbal leys from mid-March to mid-September. They start rooting in cover crops and perennial lucerne crops in autumn.

 

The sows are stocked at 8.5 sows to the hectare (3.5/acre) and kept in blocks bounded by electric fencing. Each area is grazed right down and then left to rest for several weeks to recover. Each sow has a farrowing ark, but some choose to build their own structures to give birth in, out of tall-growing vegetation. The piglets are wormed once, and the breeding stock is never wormed. The youngsters are weaned at eight weeks of age and stay outside until they are six months old. They are finished over a four-month period, in an open, airy roundhouse, which was put up last October. Each year, 360 finishers are sold, at 100kg deadweight for £2.50/kg for the whole carcase.

 

These go to top London restaurants, including the Smoking Goat and Kiln.

 

“Pigs have a gut capacity to eat 55 per cent of their diet as fibre,” Fred says. “So, half of their diet comes from lucerne, either fresh or as silage, which has an 18 – 20 per cent protein content. This is supplemented with 30 per cent home-grown rolled barley and 15 per cent home-grown beans. We do not buy in any soya.”

 

Fred has brought-in forage crop expertise from seeds specialist John Harris of Oliver Seeds, to work out what to grow as cover crops, herbal leys and lucerne.

 

“John used to work for an inputs company and looked after the agronomy of our oilseed rape,” Fred says. “He switched to selling seeds two years ago and this coincided with us taking a different approach.”

Crops

 

The cover crop, which costs £40/ha, is made up of a 25-35-way mixture, including warm season species such as buckwheat, quinoa, millet and phacelia (which is good for pollinators), some cereals such as spring oats and brassicas like kale, which are particularly good for improving soil structure. Fred says 30 per cent of the products of photosynthesis from these plants is pumped out as root sugars, which feed the biology of the soil and cycle the nutrients previously provided by artificial fertilisers.

 

The grazing leys are based on a mixture called Landmark Spectrum, containing cocksfoot, timothy, red, white and crimson clover, meadow fescue, birdsfoot trefoil and yarrow, to name but a few. Each season, John and Fred monitor how well the pigs graze the ley – which plants they like best, which they leave and which species cope best with the conditions. The leys will be down for three to four years before growing cereals for two years. From now on, chicory will be left out of the grazing mixture, as once it flowers the stems become woody and the pigs do not eat them. More soft-leaved Donata cocksfoot will be added to increase ground coverage and supply an additional mass of roots in the soil. The lucerne crop is 80 per cent of the variety Fado, with 10 per cent of a new festulolium called Fojtan and 10 per cent timothy added.

 

“Lucerne gives so much for so little,” Fred says. “For no input it supplies three to four cuts of silage for the fattening pigs, provides winter grazing for the sows, gets rid of persistent annual weeds like black-grass and being a legume, provides nitrogen naturally to the soil.”

 

In one field, where lucerne has been growing for four years, stubble turnips and forage rape were direct drilled into the stubble after third cut. This will add additional bite for the over-wintered pigs and the field will then be min-tilled and sown with a heritage spring cereal. None of the crops receive any fertiliser, fungicide, insecticide or growth regulator. Next year, no herbicides will be sprayed and glyphosate has not been used for the past two years. Digging holes across the farm, it is clear to Fred and John that the soil is changing. Where once there were hard, compacted blocks in the upper layers of the medium clay loam, now the soil is loose and free, with a lot of air and drainage channels with balls of aggregates clinging to the plant roots. “In the most recent soil tests our organic matter is just over 7 per cent.

 

“Five years ago, a similar test by the same laboratory came back at just 3 per cent,” says Fred.

 

“It is said that every 0.1 per cent increase in soil organic matter is equivalent to storing 8.9t/ha of carbon.

 

“If that is the case, we have made 36,000 tonnes of carbon in the fields on our farm.” The wheat varieties being grown have also changed dramatically. Fred is growing heritage varieties that are best suited to the soils and low/zero input system, in a way modern, short-strawed, genetically homogenous cereal varieties are not. Seed is sourced from gene-banks across the world, starting with 5-20g of seed.

 

“We have 60 varieties at various stages of multiplication/growth, from small plots up to field scale,” Fred says. “We have grown 40 hectares this year. Growing with zero input they will yield 3.7-4t/ha, which will sell for £385-£400/tonne.” All the wheat is now sold before it goes into the ground and is going to a ‘human face’ – five or six artisan bakers who are looking for something different, flavourful and with a story to tell. As with the customers who are buying the pork, the bakers visit the farm twice a year to see where it comes from and how it is grown.

 

“This model is really starting to work for us,” says Fred.

 

“We are now more sustainable economically, socially and environmentally and it feels like we are going in the right direction. “We know exactly how much everything costs, so we know exactly how much to charge our customers.

 

“We are aiming to make £450/ha profit before any subsidies. This means we can support the family and have some left to re-invest.

 

“We have moved from a commodity producer selling volume to one that is selling value to customers who we know.

 

"This is ‘small food’ – but it isn’t niche. This is still serious farming. There is still more to do. I want to increase the area of herbal leys significantly so that they are half the rotation. But if we expand the pigs to eat it all, we will need to buy in barley to finish them, which I don’t want to do.

 

“Perhaps I need to encourage a young farmer to come here and set up another grazing enterprise alongside the pigs and the cereals.”

Farm facts

  • 102-hectare (250 acre) mixed farm
  • Known in the Doomsday Book as Godelege or ‘Good Meadow’
  • Used to be all arable with wheat, barley and oilseed rape
  • Now pigs grazing herbal leys and cover crops plus heritage cereals
  • Supplying 10 customers direct with high value pork and cereal products
  • Converted holiday cottage and meeting room
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