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Norfolk farmer hailed as a beacon of best practice in national report

Holkham Estate's director of farming Poul Hovesen, pictured in a field of malting barley grown for the Adnams brewery. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Holkham Estate's director of farming Poul Hovesen, pictured in a field of malting barley grown for the Adnams brewery. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© Archant Norfolk 2013

A Norfolk arable farmer’s seven-year crop rotation has been hailed as an exemplar for the rest of the country in a national report.

Poul Hovesen, estate and farm manager at Salle Farms. Picture: Matthew Usher.Poul Hovesen, estate and farm manager at Salle Farms. Picture: Matthew Usher.

A Norfolk arable farmer’s seven-year crop rotation has been hailed as an exemplar for the rest of the country in a national report.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is holding a conference in London today to discuss the importance of the farmed environment in shaping the British countryside, working in harmony with productive food businesses.

The event also sees the launch a new report which highlights the need for “a better data-based approach” to underpin both agricultural and environmental policy-making after Brexit.

Among the case studies in the report is Poul Hovesen, director of farming at the Holkham Estate and farm manager at Salle Farms near Reepham.

He says healthy soils are the “bedrock” of his seven-year rotation, which uses a reduced-tillage system to reduce problems like soil compaction and erosion, and cover crops to enhance drainage and retain nutrients in the soil over the winter.

He also outlines his five “key principles” for maintaining and enhancing a farm’s soil:

• Know your soil – its structure, its resilience, its type.

• Take a long-term approach and don’t be influenced by short-term market trends – short-term gain can lead to long-term pain.

• Use an integrated system – elements like crop rotation, cover crops and reduced tillage all have a role to play.

• Education – ensure your staff understand your soil and always have it at the front of their minds when making decisions.

• Work with scientists to understand the latest knowledge and thinking and how it can be applied to your business.

“Healthy soils produce a healthy crop and healthy food,” says Mr Hovesen in the report.

“You have to invest in your soil if you are going to have a sustainable business and this means putting back what the crop takes out in terms of nutrients and organic matter, and only operating when conditions are right to avoid compaction and soil erosion.

“Getting the correct rotation for the soil you have is the key to keeping it healthy. We use a seven-year crop rotation on this farm which has been in place for nearly 20 years. We have selected crops to suit our variable soil types.

“Having a longer rotation helps build up nutrients in the soil but it also helps stop root disease problems developing, which can be an issue if you plant the same crops over and over again in a shorter rotation. Our rotation allows us to minimise the risk of this and use controls, like cover crops, to help tackle any problems that do occur. Doing this protects and enhances the soil and improves the quality of the crops.”

Mr Hovesen also says it is crucial to regularly test soil nutrients and structure, adding: “Healthy soil is less likely to leach nutrients into the water, it will be more resilient, and cheaper and easier to work. The biggest indicator of soil health is resilience and, as a result, how much it costs to work.

“As the condition of our soil has improved we’ve been able to spread our sugar beet crop over a wider area. Some of the land that we were never able to grow sugar beet in we can now crop successfully, because we aren’t doing deep cultivations and the soil is far more resilient and healthier.”

RISING TO THE CHALLENGE

Speaking ahead of the conference, NFU president Minette Batters said farmers wanted to play their part in “rising to the government’s wider challenge” of environmental improvement.

“In order to do that, we need a balanced and honest appraisal of the current state of the farmed environment,” she said.

“Farmers take their environmental responsibilities very seriously and are passionate about the countryside – without it they would not have businesses.

“Our report highlights the need for better data to benchmark environmental performance in a meaningful way. Without accurate or comprehensive data we will be permanently reliant on anecdotal or cherry-picked evidence which does not show the full picture.

“In order to keep delivering for the environment, a future land management scheme should be voluntary, open to all farmers, simple to apply for and administer, and offer a fair reward. Immediately, current schemes must be more workable and attractive.

“The NFU, and farmers across the country, are also asking the government to rise to our challenge to make sure that a future agriculture policy enhances farmers’ ability to produce food for the nation. It is crucial that it gives us greater security in the supply of safe, traceable and affordable British food that the public trusts.

“The bottom line is that farm businesses need to be productive and profitable to be able to continue to deliver the environmental benefits we all want to see.”

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