An Interview with Richard Bramley, one of our Sustainable Futures farming partners, who farms 500 acres at Kelfield, between Selby and York.
Can you tell us a little bit about your farming system?
Firstly, we are a business and we need to make a return, support our family and make sensible investments in the future. However people have been farming this land since Neolithic times and it is important that we recognise that and look after it properly for future generations, whilst contributing to produce enough food to feed the ever growing population.
Can you tell us about your cropping system?
We have 2 soil types on the farm, sandy loam and alluvial silt which is locally known as “Warp”. We grow crops to meet the soil type, with potatoes and sugar beet on the lighter land and winter wheat and OSR on the heavier soils. The key to our farming system is flexibility, and having the equipment to address the different challenges that different seasons bring.
In recent years you have become a great advocate of cover crops, can you give us a little more information as to why this technique became an important element of your farming plan?
About 9 years ago, I was interested in increasing the organic matter in my soil. I had been rotationally chopping straw but felt that I needed to do more. I started out with a few trial plots of single species cover crops (mostly radish and mustard) and started to see the benefit, in terms of soil structure. I now grow cover crops on over 25% of the farm in rotation each year, and I am now reaping a whole range of benefits.
Can you tell us about these benefits?
Clearly, increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil is a long process, however the growth of cover crops over the winter seems to have breathed new life back into our soil. There is an increasing amount of soil biota activity and significant improvements in worm activity. The soil seems to hold water better, and we get less soil erosion or run off into the river. I am hoping that in this dry spring we will also see benefits of this moisture retention making our crops more resilient to drought stress. The cover crops also soak up any residual nutrients in the soil, preventing them from being leached into the river, and making them available to the next crop.
Have you used any cover crops as biocides?
Not specifically but the species mix in the cover crops I grow contain radishes which produce root exudates which control PCN
numbers. Some of our fields have had radishes grown on them 3 times over the past 6 years and are now pretty clear of PCN and consequently producing consistently good yields.
Would be true to say that you are now seeing the longer term benefits of cover crops?
Absolutely. I believe that using cover crops are the single best method to improve the national arable environment, as they improve soil health, create habitats and food for birds and insects, and prevent leaching. I would certainly recommend that farmers give it go, and see the benefits for themselves.
Are there any downsides to the use of cover crops?
Well, there is an obvious cost of establishing the crop, but I believe that the investment is worthwhile, and I am now planting cover crops on land that I am renting on an annual basis. The other problem that you need to manage is a rise in slug numbers particularly in wet winters.
How have you controlled them?
We monitor slug numbers very closely and if we have a problem we target the affected areas usually with a dose of Metaldehyde, and then follow up with Ferric Phosphate which seems to be an effective method. Apart from a small amount of cosmetic damage to leaf cover, slugs have not really been a great issue.
What do you see as the greatest challenge to your business in the next 5 Years?
Clearly Brexit is an issue, and what the support for agriculture will look like in the longer term. However, I believe we should adapt to growing crops which are demanded domestically and supply local markets rather than growing for export. But for this to work food companies and retailers need to commit to sourcing more UK grown produce. Probably my greatest concern however is flooding from the River Ouse. Since 2000 the river has come over its banks 8 times, compared to only 5 recorded floods effecting the land locally in the last century.
How much of your land is susceptible to flooding?
We can lose up to a third of our land to flooding, and if this occurs between March and October, when we have invested hugely in our growing crops the cost to our business could be in excess of £200,000, which is very serious.
So, what do you think is the solution?
There are no quick fixes, and we need to collaborate along the whole river system, particularly to slow the speed of water off the hills. Government agencies, councils, water companies and farmers need to work together to reduce the risks to some of the most productive farmland, homes and businesses.