Balancing nature and nourishment

It is the trickiest of challenges posed to the farming community but it is one to which farmers in the NNCG are responding with determination. How do you produce high quality food while providing space and habitat for nature?

The Holkham Estate’s answer to the dilemma is its ‘Wonder’ Strategy. A working party from the estate, comprising people from farm, conservation, tourism and accommodation departments had an away day to explore how the entire estate could play its part in improving conservation and sustainability in all its operations.

For the farming team, this was always going to be a challenge. Holkham produces a large percentage of the UK’s salad potato crops. It grows sugar beet. Neither of these are crops that sit easily with sustainable farming. The salad potatoes, in particular, are a high risk crop which need careful care and attention. In conventional farming terms that means irrigation and the use of pesticides and fertilisers.

The answer is a compromise, but it is a compromise that sits easily with the Holkham farming team because they know that for all they are playing their part in conservation, they also have to make the farm pay. So the nutrient hungry potatoes and sugar beet are part of a six or seven year crop rotation. This means the soil has a number of years to regain its structure before the heavy machinery digs in once more.

Alongside the potatoes and sugar beet, the remainder of the farming operation is taken directly from the Gabe Brown Principles of Regenerative Farming. Cover crops, limited disturbance, soil armour and the use of livestock.

But farm manager James Beamish and his team are tweaking all the time. At present Beamish is questioning whether the use of sheep to graze cover crops is as profitable or as good for the soil structure as leaving the cover crops to be put back into the soil.

To be ‘cide’ free by 2030 is the target set by Holkham’s owner, Lord Leicester. Beamish says he sometimes wakes in the night with that target swimming around his head but he is on a mission to meet the target.

Holkham is part of a four-estate collaboration with Rayham, Salle and NE Salmon. A lot of the work carried out across the estates is driven by the data analysis provided by Dominic Swan.

This is a huge step forward for the four estates which, for many centuries, had been competitors. Now there is a spirit of openness and sharing which has led to some remarkable results. For James Beamish the availability of the data means he can farm ‘by the square metre’, using precision agriculture to respond to what the crop needs.

For Swan, the availability of a local data source is vital to push boundaries. ‘We might see a crop that is yielding in line with the national average but maybe we can do better than the national average if we look at things on a much more local basis.’

Among the many objectives of Swan’s work are: reduced inputs, low fixed costs, improved soil health, reduced traffic, and getting each process completed at the optimum time.

Following on from these presentations, Charlie Ennals gave a run down of the SFI 2024 actions, outlining the many areas that farmers can tap into government payments. The information is available here.

The presentation by James Beamish is available separately in NNCG members email in-box.