Stephen Briggs gives the lowdown on the UK’s largest agroforestry operation in Cambridgeshire, where he grows cereals and fruits, side by side in strips, across 52 hectares of rich fenland soil. Agri-TechE caught up with him to find out more.
“The reality is, climate change is with us” Stephen points out, “and it’s going to get worse and more challenging for farmers. We’ve got to look at the way we farm to safeguard our crops against the increasingly extreme weather we’re having.”
At the Agri-TechE online event “Seeing the Wood for the Trees,” on 8th October at 10am, Stephen will explain how apple trees have protected his crops and his soil, all whilst pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.
Can you justify taking high-quality land out of production for agroforestry?
“I’m not,” he replies, somewhat frustrated by the question, “I’m doubling down productivity across my farm, by effectively growing in three dimensions, throughout the year.”
Stephen’s journey in cultivating cereals and fruits side by side began ten years ago, at Whitehall Farm in Peterborough, where rows of apple trees have been planted 24 metres apart. This apparently allows plenty of space for cereal cropping in between using conventional farming equipment.
“Our trees grow 4m tall, which gives a 40m radius of protection from the fenland winds – which is what we’re seeking. By slowing down the wind, we protect the cereals and we stop water loss and wind erosion from the soil, which is otherwise a real issue here.”
“Below ground, too, we see a massive improvement in soil quality, health, beneficial fungi – the tree roots go down far lower than the cereals, bringing life to the soil.”
Your cereals and your trees are competing for resources – surely this will harm their growth?
“That might seem counter-intuitive,” he admits, “but if you think about a cereal – you sow wheat or barley in the autumn, and that’s photosynthesising through the winter and growing strongly in April to June. The trees are dormant over winter, and they don’t really wake up until April when they’ve got the leaves on, but then they carry on right through to October.”
“The way I see it, I’m just making maximum use of my soil because one of my two crops is always growing.”
What about the shadows?
“Shade isn’t really an issue,” says Stephen, who also works as an adviser for Abacus Agriculture Consultants. “You plant the trees in a North-South direction,” he explains, “so the sun shines onto cereals on the east side of the trees in the moring and on the west side of the trees in the afternoon at any time of year. And you don’t let the trees grow tall – the cropping alley is much wider than the height of the tree.”
In his role as an advisor, Stephen has helped farmers around the UK make practical alterations to improve and maintain soil health without impacting profit. “Profitability is vitally important,” he says, “a farm needs to be profitable just like any other business.”
This approach has at times been controversial…
…Does agroforestry always work, or is it limited to certain locations?
“It’s a matter of developing the right system in the right place – I’ve helped people develop livestock and shelter systems in the highlands of Scotland… I’ve helped horticultural units develop in the South-East… It’s about making sure the design and implementation of the system is appropriate and futureproofed for the farming environment in question.”
Why this and why now?
“Look, I’ve been farming for 15 years, and I’ve seen every record there is in terms of hottest day, wettest month, driest year – they’ve all been breaking year in year out… Everyone’s trying to farm in the same old way, but the climate’s changing, it’s got to be more climate-smart farming now.”
Integrating trees on his farm is seemingly helping Stephen protect his crops and his soil from environmental damage, but there are other benefits to boot. “We’re sequestering 4.5tonnes carbon per hectare just with our fruit trees,” he says.
Carbon capture is set to become an important source of income for farmers and land owners, as will be discussed further in October’s online event “Seeing the Wood for the Trees”, on 8th October at 10am. Stephen will be speaking alongside three others:
- Phillip Ayres, of Elsoms seeds, will be discussing how seed technologies in their pipeline could boost tree germination and early growth by 50-100%, which would dramatically reduce planting costs
- Greg Beeton, of Brown & co, will be advising on Woodland Carbon Units and alternative income streams to be earnt by planting trees alongside arable land
- Jim O’Neill, of the Forestry Commission, will be tying the conversation together and discussing how woodlands can be integrated seamlessly into farming practise