The aim of the trip was to travel to learn about new sustainable farming techniques and see practical examples of sustainable farming practices in France and Belgium. The farmers on the study tour were able to see and discuss with farmers and researchers new ideas around soil management, biodiversity, Integrated Pest Management, and precision farming. Other visits explored opportunities in the supply chain covering market opportunities, specific sustainability developments, and innovations.

Chambre d’Agriculture l’Oise Catenoy

The Group of Yorkshire Farmers were able to visit the agricultural research farm on the outskirts of Catenoy, Northern France. This farmer controlled research center, has been developed as an independent platform to provide, new techniques and innovation to farm technical advisors and farmers in the Oise region. The research center is part government funded and part funded by the farmer members who pay 3 euros/ ha they farm. The farm is part of a larger network controlled by FARRE.

The key areas of activity revolve around using less agro-chemicals and artificial fertilizer whilst still maintaining yields and profitability. On the 55 Ha site much of the trial work is dedicated to finding alternative ways to control fungal diseases, rather than the use of chemical fungicides. The key to this work has been looking at the disease resistance of different wheat and barley varieties, and to identify those varieties that can still produce good yields, when little or no fungicide is used.

They have also been exploring the use of natural substances such as Thyme Oil, Fructose, or fungicides derived from algae to control plant diseases. These substances have been trialed on their own and in-conjunction with traditional fungicides, however although some benefits have been observed they have not found any statistically significant improvements, so further trial work is currently being carried out.
The Research Team, have also done trial work to see the effect of bio-stimulants applied to the soil with fertilizer to stimulate greater activity by the soil biota. This increased soil activity is hoped to improve nutrient availability and to create more resilient plants which are able to grow away from pests and diseases without yield penalties.

Other work on the site is to develop new crops to exploit new market opportunities, but also to improve crop rotations by the introduction of new “break crops”. By improving crop rotations, or the use of companion cropping and inter-row cropping, the intention is to reduce the reliance on chemical pest and disease control. On the 5 Ha trial plots there were a number of interesting crops, these included:

  • Cameline – part of the linseed family which can produce high value bio-oils as a lubricant for the aerospace industry and other industrial uses, but also for human consumption.
  • Buck wheat – for use in milling and producing flour to make Gallette pancakes.
  • Soya- grown for human consumption, animal feed and oil production to replace soya imported from USA and South America. They have been achieving yields of up to 5tons/ Ha, but problems with predation by pigeons and rodents reduce yields. They are looking at varieties that grow well in Northern Europe and mature early for earlier harvesting.

The Yorkshire farmers found the visit very interesting and were envious of the resource farmers in the Oise had at their disposal to develop more sustainable farming systems that enabled them to get more from less.

Farm Visit to Hubert Freville of Grand Fresnoy in Picardy

The group travelled to the North of France to a farm just outside Compiegne. The farmer Hubert Freville showed us around his farm explaining how he used different farming techniques and an integrated management approach to reduce inputs whilst still maintaining yield.

Hubert grew sugar beet, maize and wheat. Because of blackgrass problems, he cultivated immediately after harvest to stimulate the blackgrass seeds to germinate, killing them with glycol-phosphate or by cultivation. The wheat is then drilled after the 10th October. The prolonged high temperatures and lack of rain had left his crops with severe drought stress and he was very concerned for the yields he might achieve, and was praying hard for rain.

Also on the farm was a farmer Hubert Compere who was a member of the DEPHY Programme which was a network of 2000 farms across France who were working to reduce the use of all pesticides by 50%.
In terms of fungicides they were looking to achieve this by the use of more resistant varieties, a more targeted approach to spraying, and the use of pre-emptive low dose rates.

To reduce the use of insecticides they have carried out farm trials to preserve and grow the numbers of beneficial insects, such as wasps, spiders, beetles and hover flies that predate pest species such as aphids. Hubert high-lighted that the use of broad spectrum pesticides killed all insects, pest species and beneficial species alike. He also said that sadly the pest species were better able to recover from an insecticide than the beneficial species. This was because the pest species tended to breed several times year rather than just the once by many of the beneficial species.

By reducing the use of insecticides they have measured increased beneficial insect numbers and these have been shown to be effective in controlling pests. Of particular interest to the group were the encouragement of Carabid Beetles that eat slug eggs and sometimes smaller slugs.

In-conjunction with reduced pesticide use Hubert had moved to direct drilling to reduce machinery and energy costs but also to improve soil health. By improving organic matter using FYM and reducing soil disturbance he had built up a worm population in his soil of over 3000Kg / Ha, as well as significantly reducing soil erosion on his farm.

He outlined that he had been able to reduce his input costs by 200 euros a Ha with- out yield penalties. The DEPHY association had helped him achieve, by providing good technical support, based on large amounts of high quality data. The DEPHY association help farmers to develop a more integrated farming system, working with natural eco-systems rather than beating nature into submission.

ILVO Flanders – Agricultural Research Facility Flanders Belgium

The Group of Yorkshire Farmers following an evening in the very beautiful city of Gent travelled a short distance to the 200 Ha research facility. This large site with over 600 employees was working on a huge range of different research projects. The key emphasis was managing in a sympathetic way the relationship between, farming, the soil and the environment.

Our hosts Koen Willekens and Greet Ruysschaert outlined how years of intensive tillage in the Flanders region had reduced the levels of organic matter to very low levels, increased compaction and resulted in soil erosion and nutrient leaching into water courses. This coupled with large amounts of intensive livestock producing slurry which needed to be disposed of, had resulted in water pollution problems. As a response government has designated the Flanders region as an NVZ with only 90Kg of N allowed to be applied a year. Greet & Koen believe that improving the organic matter in the soil is key to better soil health and less nutrient leaching.

To maintain and improve organic matter in the soil they are looking at systems that reduce the amount of tillage to prevent the loss of organic matter by oxidation. In tandem with this they are using cover crops, compost and limited amounts of FYM to increase the organic matter content of soils.

To avoid oxidation of the organic matter they are researching the use of non-inversion tillage. They have found that improved levels of organic matter in the soil, help to stabilize the soil structure, improve water holding capacity and make it less vulnerable to nutrient leaching and soil erosion. Trial work on the farm using non –inversion tillage has shown a 44% increase in soil biota biomass, particularly the amount of beneficial fungi present in the soil was seen to increase significantly.

As the area is an NVZ, there is a limited amount of FYM farmers can use due to the high N content. Therefore at ILVO they are looking at applying compost from a range of sources which is high in organic matter but lower in N. By taking woody waste material and grass cuttings from public waste, vegetable producers, and forestry, they heat it to 65 degrees C and mix it 10 times with a small addition of water. By doing this they have produced a superb compost which they can apply to the soil on the farm.

The research center gave many of the farmers’ food for thought and for those farmers already using min or nil till supported their own ideas.