Agroforestry on arable land should prove profitable
ONE Cambridgeshire tenant farmer takes a pioneering approach by mixing in apple trees with his arable crop. Tom Levitt finds out how Stephen Briggs believes agroforestry can help diversify UK farms.
Stephen Briggs appears neither rash nor conceited. But, if nothing else, he is certainly brave. After a long wait for his first farm tenancy, he has taken on the challenge of being both organic and pioneering the UK’s largest agroforestry enterprise.
After travelling the world with wife Lynn, a fellow Aberdeen University soil scientist graduate, and working for aid agencies and the RSPB in countries including Uganda and Nigeria, Stephen was ready to return to the UK.
However, finding a farm tenancy proved a long process until Cambridgeshire County Council took the plunge on the couple and gave them the reins of a 101-hectare (250-acre) arable farm on the outskirts of Peterborough.
Together with another 121ha (300-acre) contract farm nearby, they now produce cereals and vegetables in the form of cauliflower and broccoli.
The couple also own a smaller 8ha (20-acre) plot nearby in Rutland, bought in an attempt to prove their farming credentials to prospective landlords.
Stephen says: “It’s very difficult to get in. Ultimately you are bidding against the big farmer down the road and the land agent who is saying ‘just go with the safe option’ – the known quantity. There are not many landlords who are prepared to take the risk with a new entrant. So we decided to buy some land and show we could farm and I think it made the difference for us.”
The couple had already decided to be entirely organic before finally obtaining a tenancy, with Stephen running an organic consultancy business prior to getting the tenancy in 2007.
Just a year in though, they converted half of the 51 hectares (125 acres) of tenanted land over to agroforestry, a system of farming which incorporates trees with agriculture.
The term agroforestry in its simplest form means ‘growing trees on farms’. It dates back thousands of years, but has almost entirely disappeared in the UK with the consolidation of smaller plots into larger farms and the advent of monoculture farming.
Small woodlands may still be present on farms, but are generally seen as an obstacle to machinery, or a waste of potential cropland.
Stephen is among those who are adamant agroforestry can help increase the productivity of farms as well as bringing potentially valuable biodiversity benefits.
He says: “My first exposure to agroforestry was in Uganda, where soils are generally quite young and fragile and there is a lot of degradation.
“Agroforestry has become quite popular in tropical countries. One of my questions when we came here to Cambridgeshire and saw the problems of soil erosion was whether there was anyway I could apply what I had seen in the tropics to a UK context?”
Soil erosion was not Stephen’s only motivation for agroforestry. He also wanted to diversify the farm business away from cereals and find his own organic niche.
“There are quite a lot of potatoes grown around here but we don’t want to grow organic potatoes because the blight risk is too high. So we thought, what isn’t being grown in this area? Fruit. There has been quite a resurgence in demand for English fruit so it made sense. This way we can diversify our enterprise and produce something we can add value to.”
A final, crucial factor was fruit trees are also eligible for the single farm payment, along with nuts, vines and nursery crops.
“As it stands, [although there are moves to change the eligibility rules] if I had planted timber trees, my landlord could have taken up issue with me for degrading the value of the land.”
After seeking advice from foresters and nurseries on types of fruit crops, Stephen and Lynn decided on apples and ordered them in from a nursery in Worcestershire.
They planted 4,500 trees in total in three-metre strips between the cereal crops, with gaps between each strip big enough for spraying and harvesting machinery to move up and down. A density he believes, by luck as much as design, is perfect.
There were also other extra and necessary costs, such as new fencing. As the farm is close to a main road and urban areas, tree sapling theft is a possibility.
Overall, it was a ‘significant’ capital investment of about £65,000, funded in part by the organic entry level scheme. In the next year, all being well, the crop should be producing 80 tonnes of apples and returns of about £20,000 a year, says Stephen.
However, the first three years of the crop have proved to be a baptism of fire, says Stephen, with the coldest winter in 30 years followed by the driest spring on record and then flood conditions. Hardly ideal for starting up an apple crop.
Stephen also admits to a number of unexpected challenges. The impact of pigeons landing on the young trees and breaking branches could be a problem (they found adding support canes to the trees has helped protect them). The couple also need to overcome hares and other wildlife with the use of protective wire fencing around the trees, which is necessary during the vulnerable first five years.
Surprisingly, pests and diseases have not been a problem yet. Stephen puts this down to not being surrounded by other orchards in the area, as well as to the low-stocking density (in comparison with commercial orchards) and to the decision to plant a diversity of apple tree species.
Three years in, his apple trees are already producing fruit and he is thinking of the next steps – marketing, processing and even selling the produce, along with produce from neighbouring farms, in a farm shop.
Planning permission for a purpose built shop next door to the farm is expected this month, and although he has lost out on cropped land by planting the trees, Stephen expects to break even on his apple tree investment after seven years. The first commercial returns from the apples are due next year.
As well as the benefit of the organic entry level scheme, he is thankful for having such a supportive landlord in Cambridge County Council, who granted a 15-year tenancy.
Stephen says: “We argued that if you wanted to farm the land organically then a five-year tenancy was no good because we would just be up and running and it would be time to quit. So we said ‘give us a decent term and we’ll do it’. They wanted an organic farm in their portfolio so they could tick their box, so we had come along at the right time.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stephen’s eagerness to discover more about agroforestry won him a Nuffield Scholarship in 2011 and took him around the world once again to learn about how it was being implemented in other countries. Although it had a much higher profile among farmers and policymakers in China and the US, he is hopeful other farmers in the UK will give it a go.
“Typically, farmers are very conservative. They do what their neighbours do and what their parents did. They don’t do things in a different way.
“While there are plenty of people saying we need to produce more food, it is all reliant on more inputs.
“Agroforestry is one of the few systems which can be as productive as conventional farming, if not more so, but takes no more resources. It just utilises the natural resources of sunlight, air and water more effectively and actually helps reduce inputs.
As well as the benefits of an extra source of income and protection against soil degradation, Stephen expects wildlife and bird numbers on his farm to increase. He also believes the deeper tree roots could help absorb flood water on the farm, which is just three metres above sea level. There is also the bonus of an extended growing season.
He says: “With the way we have designed it on our farm [with an apple crop which harvests in late September/October], it means once we have finished the cereal harvest we will then move on to the apple harvest. It works well as there is a lot of labour used in vegetable production in this area, which when you get to October is surplus and easy for us to pick up on.
“You would probably find the same situation in the West of the country with labour from soft fruit production.”
That is not to say every part of the UK would be equally suitable for an agroforestry system of farming. “There is nowhere un-suitable, but clearly if you are down in Devon and you have five-acre fields, the benefits accrued from it are probably less than if you are in a very open landscape.”
Stephen himself is convinced his trees will make a ‘sensible’ long-term capital investment, helping to conserve his soils, improve the conservation value of his farm and diversify his farm business.
He says: “Live as if you are going to die tomorrow and farm as if you are going to farm forever.”
- The term quite literally means growing trees on farms
- Although coined as a term in the 1970s, it actually dates back thousands of years
- Began to decline in the Middle Ages when crop rotations were developed to maintain soil fertility rather than relying on nutrient transfer from woodlands to croplands
- The decline accelerated with the advent of chemical fertilisers and the separation of forestry and agricultural policies over the past 60 years
- A study in 2008 found just 33 per cent of European farmers could correctly define agroforestry