Beginning early on a cool and fresh summer’s morning, a group of over 40 agroecological changemakers working across the food and farming sector joined together on FarmED’s study tour of pioneering regenerative farms in Gloucestershire, leading into two inspiring days at the Groundswell festival.
This enthusiastic group of farmers, growers, advisers, land managers, young farmers and students, were welcomed by Ed Horton of Poulton Fields Farm, who demonstrated his hybrid regenerative farming system. Ed farms over 6,000 acres of the Gloucestershire countryside and hence must balance the need to produce nutrient dense food for the mass market whilst improving soil health, water quality and biodiversity net gain. Ed grows over 17 crops including wheat, rye, oats, barley, oil seed rape, and more.
Our first stop on the tour of Poulton Fields was at a crop of rye, where Ed demonstrated the results of practising a biological approach to disease control. Ed integrates livestock into many areas of his arable enterprises, and the rye is just one of those. Ed works with local grazier Howard Ford, who grazes his flock of sheep on the rye to prevent the incidence of fungal diseases. The crop is grazed twice a year, first in the early stages of growth, then rested and grazed again approximately three months later. Ed and Howard have found that this system provides mutual benefit; the sheep eat the diseased leaves of the crop, promoting regrowth of a healthier crop, whilst the sheep gain nutrition from the forage. Ultimately, disease has been controlled more effectively, minimising the financial cost and soil health implications of chemical disease control. In regard to this, Ed highlighted:
“Relationships need to be forged between graziers and farmers for the idea of integrating livestock in arable rotations to be rolled out as mainstream. [Both parties] must be organised in advance and communicate for the relationship to work successfully. I’m an arable farmer whose life revolves around sheep more than I ever thought imaginable!”
Ed Horton, demonstrating the effects of disease control by sheep grazing on his rye crop.
Ed is also a big advocate for providing habitats for beneficial insects. Poulton Fields Farm has a beautiful array of wildflower field margins and crops which provide an unassuming habitat for natural insect predators and pollinators such as bees, ladybirds, parasitic wasps and soldier beetles. By not using insecticides on his crops, Ed is creating a working ecosystem. Predatory insects have sufficient habitat to allow them to naturally control pests. Ed has found it better to provide areas of natural habitat for insects, even those we see as pests, because then they are more likely to inhabit these areas rather than inhabiting the crop and damaging it.
Study tour participants learning about wildflower margins and beneficial crops (such as the phacelia pictured) as habitats for predatory and pollinating insects.
After a delicious and nourishing local lunch, we headed to our next stop of Sam Phillips’s organic mobile dairy and herbal ley system at Macaroni Farm, near Cirencester. Sam and the team have a diverse mix of enterprises across their 1,700 acres, including 800 acres of cereal cropping, a beef suckler herd, a lamb flock, The Cotswolds Mobile Dairy Ltd. and areas set aside for conservation under the High Level Stewardship agri-environment scheme. Our first stop on the farm was at the current location of The Cotswolds Mobile Dairy Ltd. Here we were greeted by the 330-strong herd of Jersey x Fleckvieh x New Zealand Friesian crosses. Twice a day, the cows are milked and moved across a species-rich herbal ley for grazing. Herbal leys contain a plethora of grass, herb and legume species which build soil fertility whilst providing excellent nutrition for the cows. Not only that, species such as chicory and sainfoin in the ley mix act as natural dewormers, meaning that cows are naturally healthier and costs can be saved as no deworming medication is required. The mobile milking parlour is moved every few days along with the cows, meaning that the cows experience less disruption, improving their welfare.
The Cotswolds Mobile Dairy milking parlour
After an inspirational day, the study tour group headed to the Groundswell festival in Hertfordshire to settle in for two exciting days of agroecological learning and knowledge sharing. Half way through the festival, FamED hosted a social gathering, allowing study tour participants, Cotswold Seeds customers, members of the Emergent Generation network and friends of FarmED to meet and network over a few drinks and nibbles. During the meet up, we caught up with Emily, a rural surveyor and member of the Emergent Generation network, who highlighted the importance of everyone playing a part in improving the UK’s farming system: “It’s not about implementing massive schemes on every farm and changing the whole idea of agriculture, it’s about every farm implementing some sort of regenerative idea, whether that’s really small scale (1 acre) or if you’ve got the funds to do it on a larger scale. It’s making a difference, bit by bit.”
After an action-packed few days at Groundswell, this amazing group of agroecological changemakers left invigorated to continue the amazing work they are implementing on their farms or in their organisations to build a farmed environment for all. This was all made possible thanks to funding from The GREAT Project.
Written by Abi Gwynn and Jade Wingate