Biodiversity, ecosystem services and agroforestry
Chair: Ian Alexander (Natural England)
Martin Wolfe (ORC): Sustainable agriculture is in our nature
Martin is Principal Scientific Advisor to the Organic Research Centre, Elm Farm. After a career at the publicly-funded Plant Breeding Institute, Cambridge, starting in 1960, he held the Chair of Plant Pathology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (1988-97). He now farms Wakelyns Agroforestry in Suffolk, which is the main site for ORC arable farming research. The field trials are rotated within six organic agroforestry systems, developed over the past 16 years to optimise functional biodiversity. The diversity theme is also evident in the current projects on crop population breeding as an alternative to the pure line approach.
Presentation - Sustainable agriculture is in our nature
Ulrich Schmutz (Garden Organic): Technical efficiency of multi-output farming: biodiversity, yield and profit
Ulrich is with the Research department of the charity Garden Organic (Henry Doubleday Research Association) for 7 years. He also worked for ORC on the energy and emissions programme. Ulrich is an agricultural and horticultural economist, specialising in organic farming and small-scale energy production and has 15 years experience in both academic research and working within practical organic farms of any size and complexity. Academically he specialised in environmental and ecological economics, taking a broader view of this social science compared to traditional farm accountancy. Ulrich also worked as visiting professor at University of Bozen, Italy, lecturing organic farming in the School of Economics and Management.
Presentation - Technical efficiency of multi-output farming: biodiversity, yield and profit
Charlotte Hollins (Fordhall Farm): Biodiverse foggage farming for sustainable livestock production
Charlotte Hollins manages the Fordhall Community Land Initiative based at Fordhall Organic Farm, North Shropshire, England. After leaving University with a first class honours degree in Environmental Management with Mathematics, she led the high profile campaign that saved the farm from development in 2006: raising an amazing £800,000 in less than 6 months through the sale of £50 non-profit making shares to people across the world. Now England’s first community owned farm, Fordhall is a national asset and a pioneering example of what can be achieved when people care about the countryside and join together to act upon it.
Presentation - Biodiverse foggage farming for sustainable livestock production
Session Summary -
Polyculture systems mimic the natural environment and are an age-old way of farming. Organic farming, foggage farming and agroforestry are ecological farming systems that embody a move back towards these polycultures and are a way of mitigating the biodiversity loss associated with modern monoculture systems. Ecological farming systems benefit from feedbacks between different aspects of the system, and research has shown that there are positive correlations between (i) diversity and system stability, and (ii) biodiversity and productivity.
An example of the first link was seen at Fordhall Farm, where the system is reliably productive year after year. It can also be seen at Wakelyns Agroforestry where Martin Wolfe has also found more resilience in his wheat populations, which have a very high level of within-crop diversity.
The second link, that between biodiversity and productivity, was illustrated by Ulrich Schmutz’s findings that plant biodiversity was higher in organic farming ‘hotspots’. His study also found that, on average, biodiversity was 12% higher on organic farms than on conventional farms. Abundance of animal species also tended to be higher, though birds and hoverflies were the exception. Schmutz pointed out that these species are highly mobile and so harder to associate with any particular farm, and that numbers of predator birds were higher on organic farms and may therefore drive other bird species away. Martin Wolfe talked about the BIODEPTH project, which found that as the number of plant species in a grassland community increased, the aboveground biomass also increased. He also mentioned that long-term data from Kansas shows perennial grassland with no inputs gives higher nitrogen yields than annual wheat with inputs. The grassland also had higher insect biodiversity, higher belowground biodiversity, and better root biomass. The observation that nature, with no inputs, does it better than man, using inputs, was the basis for Arthur Hollins’ conversion from conventional farming to his own method, foggage farming, which is still used very successfully by his children today. Their livestock remain outside all year, inputs are minimal (Charlotte Hollins mentioned that they feed additional hay when needed and that vet bills come to a couple of hundred pounds a year excluding emergency procedures), and yet with careful management the farm is consistently productive and economically viable.
Both links were illustrated further by Ulrich Schmutz’s research findings that landscapes with higher concentrations of organic farming have a greater technical efficiency to produce higher yields and have higher levels of biodiversity. Agroforestry systems also benefit from both of these correlations as they mimic the natural succession to climax vegetation: diversity thereby increases over time, leading to an associated increase in stability and productivity. The minimal inputs required emerged as an important factor in Schmutz’s work: organic farms were found to have more technical inefficiency than conventional farms, but they ‘got away’ with lower yields because their total costs were so much lower (and organic prices higher).
The numerous ecosystem services provided by ecological farming methods, and the minimal inputs required, are further reasons for a reversal to polyculture systems. There was, however, no real discussion about how these ecosystem service benefits could be valued or remunerated – which, in itself, is a reflection of the difficulties inherent in valuing these services and the recently-emerged status of this field of research.
- Agroforestry is also very successful when livestock is included – the silvopoultry success at Sheepdrove Organic Farm was mentioned. Browse is very important for cattle and willow was mentioned as being a suitable browse species. Martin Wolfe said he thought that his system would be even better with livestock included. Need to protect trees from livestock.
- The question of payments for establishing agroforestry systems was raised. Martin Wolfe said that a change in policy / law is needed.
- The point was raised that agroforestry might sit awkwardly in some landscapes. Martin Wolfe pointed out that people have become accustomed to treeless landscapes but that in the past our landscape would have been more wooded and that perhaps a change in perception is needed.
- The issue of tree roots interfering with the crop alleys was raised. Martin Wolfe said he didn’t have all the answers but that the plough share going along the edge of the alleys was useful in that it pruned the roots.
- Martin was asked how he chose the tree species. He said that at the time there was a lot of concern about retaining species indigenous to the UK, but that this concern is lessening as climate change is causing species to move north, and he suggested having a go at everything! He highlighted the fact that willow is very productive – he thinks more so than when it’s grown in plantations (he coppices it every 2 years).
- Martin Wolfe suggested to Charlotte Hollins that it might be a good idea to introduce some trees to her farm. She said that they had just planted some fruit trees in the pig field.
- Ulrich Schmutz was asked why organic systems are, on average, under-performing. Ulrich said that even with low average yields, organic farms get away with it because of higher prices paid for organic products. He also said that the attention devoted to wheat production in organic systems is very low – some farmers don’t even weed – and that training is an issue. Organic farmers need to share knowledge more. He pointed out that some organic farms produce high yields and have high biodiversity.
- Ulrich Schmutz also pointed out that conventional farms commonly have agronomists, whereas organic farms don’t.
- Charlotte Hollins was asked whether anyone had taken on her father’s work on the culture seeder (a one-pass, no till system that retains a mulch system). The reply was the no-one has, but that she’s very keen for someone to continue his work.
- Charlotte Hollins was asked about breeds and said that they have Hereford and Angus cattle and a few Fresian crosses. They keep more traditional, hardy, British breeds as they stay outside all year and they weigh a bit less so are better for the ground in winter.
- When asked about vet bills, Charlotte Hollins said that they were very low – the only persistent problem is black-leg as their land is bordered by a river. The animals self-medicate as they have a very diverse forage.