How flexible farms can find a profitable balance between nature and food production
- Credit: Chris Hill
Flexibility has become the byword for a forward-thinking Norfolk farm which is keeping its options open to gain full value for both its conservation and its cropping.
Beach Farm at Hempstead, on the Norfolk coast between Happisburgh and Waxham, is bolstering its resilience to climate change and political uncertainty by incorporating rotational options within its Countryside Stewardship agreement.
The 85-hectare arable farm has had a Mid Tier deal since 2015, which has helped fund its efforts to improve wildlife habitats and food sources. But when the time came to renew the agreement, the decision was taken to start a new scheme from January 2021, rather than wait for Defra’s new environmental land management scheme (ELMS), still under development, which is due to replace EU subsidies being phased out after Brexit.
As well as buffer strips and floristic areas the new five-year agreement includes rotational options for 20ha of winter cover crops, 20ha of a two-year legume fallow, and 20ha of wild bird seed mix.
It means nearly three-quarters of the farm could get guaranteed income from stewardship funding even if a food crop is not viable – which has become an increasingly important contingency plan as more regular weather extremes reduce the window to establish arable crops on more marginal land. But if traditional arable crops are the best economic choice, the farm could choose not to plant any stewardship plots at all, as they are only paid for the options they use.
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David Pickering, of Milligen McLeod Contracting, based at East Ruston, is the contracting manager at Beach Farm. He said: “We are trying to keep all our options open. The only certainty we have got is uncertainty.
“We felt it was a better bet to take another five years of the current stewardship scheme because who knows what ELMS is going to include and, realistically, is it going to pay as well as the Mid Tier schemes? If ELMS does turn out to be better, they have said you can opt out of the stewardship scheme and opt in to ELMS so it is a win-win situation in that respect.
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“The whole point of using these options is they are rotational, so we can grow the whole 20ha of each one, or we can grow none of it. We just claim for what we have done.
“For example, there are three marshes here that lay wet in the winter. They are building up a bit of a grass weed problem with ryegrass and bromes which is becoming more expensive to control, which is making a crop less viable. They usually have wheat, but due to the delights of last autumn, they didn’t get drilled and went into spring barley last year, which actually did well. So depending on what happens they will either end up as spring barley next year or they will go into the stewardship scheme. Essentially it is like having another crop.”
Mr Pickering said that decision will be taken after Christmas, when he can choose whether the conditions are right for a barley crop, or whether to take advantage of the guaranteed income and later planting date of a stewardship option.
READ MORE: Farm swaps food crops for grassland and glamping to sustain its futureAbby Maynard, an environmental consultant in the Norwich office of Brown and Co who advises the farm, said stewardship options are increasingly being seen as a soil-enriching break crop which helps farms meet their environmental goals.
“With the two-year legume fallow, we can take land out of production for two years with a guaranteed income and the following crop benefits from the increase in organic matter and nitrogen locked in the soil by the legumes,” she said. “The way in which we utilise the schemes has come quite a long way since the beginning of stewardship, where it was more centred on awkward areas.
“They (Defra) are talking about Tier One of ELMS being the Sustainable Farming Incentive so it will be interesting to see whether break crops and increasing organic matter will actually come into that Tier One as sustainable farming rather than Tier Two which may be more about biodiversity improvement and similar to Countryside Stewardship as we know it.
“As well as delivering financially, it (the-two year legume fallow) can deliver so many ecosystem services – in terms of improved aesthetics, delivering pollen and nectar sources, soil and water protection and carbon capture potential.
“The way Countryside Stewardship is set up, there are also non-rotational options which are a five-year commitment – in this case we have the buffer strips which are next to the ditches, some aspects of hedgerow management and maintaining historic farm buildings in a traditional style, those are things we cannot back out of. But then you have the rotational options that you can change your mind on.
“Through the design of ELMS, Defra would be wise to further facilitate the use of widespread flexible rotational options in order to allow the farming community to adapt and respond to changes in climate and the global economy.”