Eco-friendly farm grows wheat and peas together in same field
- Credit: Denise Bradley
A Norfolk farmer says he is enhancing the environment and safeguarding his crops against weather and disease threats - by growing peas and wheat together in the same field.
Jonny Cubitt is a fourth-generation farmer at New Barn Farm near Blakeney, which specialises in growing sustainable produce for local outlets.
Last year, he introduced an "intercropping" system which involves growing peas and wheat plants together to boost his chances of achieving a sustainable crop of milling wheat.
It looks very different to a conventional, uniform arable field, with a tangle of pea vines intertwined between three different varieties of wheat.
But that diversity gives the combined crop greater resilience, with beneficial interactions between the plants reducing the need for artificial chemicals, improving soil fertility and boosting the local ecology.
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And the end result is a super-local food chain, giving consumers "a real connection with how their food is being produced and who is producing it".
Once separated from the peas, the wheat is milled into flour just three miles away at Letheringsett Watermill and then baked into sourdough bread and made into pasta by Siding in Melton Constable, seven miles from the farm.
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"It is such a cool thing to be part of," said Mr Cubitt. "We've got lovely footpaths going through here, so people can see the crop growing and in a couple of months they can buy a loaf of bread that came from there.
"You have got real diversity here, real possibilities. We are not on traditional wheat growing land, so by rights we shouldn't be growing wheat at all.
"But this system gave me encouragement to give it a go. Even in last year's miserable conditions, I managed to produce a 13.5pc protein wheat grain."
Mr Cubitt said the drought-hit first year yielded about 1.4 tonnes per acre, with very low numbers of peas. But after a much better season he is hoping for 2.5 tonnes per acre from this year's 24-acre crop.
If the peas are good enough for human consumption, they will go to pulse supplier Hodmedods near Beccles - otherwise, they will be used as animal feed on the farm.
The mixed crop is given no fungicides or insecticides and only needs a quarter of the fertiliser used by a conventional crop of milling wheat.
That is because the peas are legumes which fix nitrogen in the soil, providing a key nutrient for the wheat, as well as the following crop.
"Even if we get a tonne less than if we were to do a monocrop of wheat with full inputs we have saved a lot because we have not had to put so much on," said Mr Cubitt.
The mixed crop is also more resilient to disease and weather threats, he said.
"Each wheat variety has its own characteristics for disease resistance, so by bringing in three, if one gets hit by yellow rust or whatever, then hopefully the others won't be so badly hit and it won't go through the whole crop.
"Another massive benefit is that peas go flat in extreme weather and if they are on the deck they are really difficult to harvest. But wheat is really strong, so this will help them withstand the wind and rain.
"So they are supporting each other in terms of nutrients and wider benefits to the ecology, but also supporting each other physically and protecting from extreme weather and diseases."
All the crops are planted together and harvested together with a standard combine. Then there is a time-consuming process to separate the wheat from the peas and surplus plant material using a series of passes through sieves and a gravity table.
The wheat's final destination is the bakery in Melton Constable. Harry Farrow, from Siding, said his partner Polly was keen to find a local supply line when she set up the bakery.
He said: "She wanted this complete link from where the wheat was grown to how it ended up in the bread. It is trying to narrow down the supply chain as minimal as possible.
"Particularly in the last 10-15 years, more and more people are getting more interested in the story of where there food is coming from.
"Here, we know the quality is great and the flavour is incredible, so even if the customers don't know the story to start off with they really like the flavour, so that is a good way of getting them into it."