Sunday, March 30, 2014

The UK squeeze

Having left France without a visit to Paris on our honeymoon (oops!!), we flew to Edinburgh on Friday (the 21st -  3 long weeks ago) for a weekend of sightseeing. For those who haven't been before, Edinburgh is a beautiful city full of history and fantastic old buildings. It is split into the old town and the new town, built in the 1700's, with torture and hangings the most popular form of family entertainment in years of old. 

This is the view of George Heriots school (one of Scotland's most prestigious schools - and Zom is the IT director!!) from Greyfriars cemetery next door - both venues inspiration for JK Rowling and a series of books she wrote! 

View Of Edinburgh Castle

While we we there, we also caught up with two friends from uni days (University of New England), Zom (Adrian Semmler) with his wife Gillian and daughter Georgian, and Nudge (Grant Jones) and daughter Olivia for lunch at their local pub, reported to have had a licensed premises operating on the site since 900. Yes, that's 900, not 1900, making it the oldest pub in Scotland if not the UK. And to boot it has its own skittles (bowling) alley.

Zom, Tracey, Gillian, Olivia and Georgina (sorry Nudge, you didn't fit in) in Scotland's oldest pub.

Made our way on Sunday afternoon to stay at with Ross and Caroline Millar and there kids Finlay and Sophie on their farm just out of Dundee. Caroline is a 2013 Nuffield scholar too and runs The Hideaway Experience, three 5 star self catering apartments on the farm that are superb with a great view of the valley below. We were lucky enough to get a night in The Honeymooners, a treat that was thoroughly enjoyed, especially the hot tub and a starlight sky on Sunday night, only after I had helped Ross check the ewes that had just started lambing. Monday we had a look around the farm and did a drive down the coast road to St. Andrews (just another golf club, right?), before dinner at the local pub next to Glamis Castle. 

The Honeymooners cabin and The Hideaway Experience - we could have hidden there all week! 

Helping Ross check the ewes!

The future Mayoress of Dundee - although she might not have time to fit it in. 

The problem with the UK is that there are two many scholars for the size of the country, you literally can't drive more than a hour and not have passed someone, and that's just from my year of 2013. Unfortunately, we had to put our blinkers on and head south on Tuesday and got to visit Jake Freestone, near Tewkesbury, Hampshire, another 2013 scholar, as are the two other farmers we visited the next day - get to them soon. It rained most of the way to give us the sort of weather we expected to get but haven't had so far.

Jake is the farm manager for Overbury Estate, privately owned by the same family since the early 1700's. The farm consists of 2000ha (5000acres) of land, but did I mention the Estate also owns the village of Overbury and about 60% of the neighbouring village - now that's diversification. The Estate has a historic site on the top of the hill of the estate (946'/300m high) dating back over 2000 years where huge banks have been dug creating moats in front of them to protect the stone buildings and their inhabitants from invading neighbours. The sheer cliffs on the other two sides were the natural barriers to invasion. 

 Bank and moat fortifications built 2000 years ago

Jake is Mr Organised, managing the 6 staff with 1200 ewes and the cropping program in between his social media commitments of blogging, tweeting and facebooking. I don't know how he keeps up. Jake has taken a liking to no till (currently using a contractor with a Cross Slot) and cover cropping, where the cover crop is grazed and then sprayed out before a spring seeding. Cover crop mixtures used in the last couple of years, based mainly on forage turnips, fodder rape, forage rye, oats and phacelia. One of the problems he has in getting enough growth out of the turnips when seeded after harvest in August, so has used forage rye this year with more feed available. The cost advantage of the no till is about a third the cost of establishment of conventional seeding, so Jake is expecting to increase the area to no till. 

One of Jake's cover crops - wheat seeded into right half.

Jake in OSR/canola with unexpected cover crop - a result of Jake's absence last spring 
at the Nuffield conference in Canada.

We finally had a decent meal in Europe (only joking to everyone who has fed us) - roast lamb and vegetables with mint sauce - with a potato bake delivered by Michelle, the Estate Manager, on her horse - now that's service!! I got to do another night check on lambing ewes - lucky all was good. Once they get into the peak of lambing, a uni student will do the night shift to keep an eye on everything, a bit more attention than those who run paddock based systems would give. 

Our final day of visiting farms saw us visit the Andrew and Jenni Janaway, just out of Winchester, Hampshire (1 hour south west of London) and Tom and Sarah Sewell, just out Maidstone, Kent (1 hour south east of London).

Andrew, with his 2 brothers and parents, run what can only be described as a truly diversified farm, but its not all about farming. Their main enterprise is potatoes, all 800ha of them, spread across 2 properties with seed potatoes grown on a property in Scotland not farm from Ross and Caroline, where they also run beef cattle. Winter and spring crops are grown in rotation with the potatoes on a minimum tillage system. 

Andrew and his new venture - just something to keep the grey matter ticking.

As it seems to be common on some UK farms, if you have a spare shed and can't fully utilise it, it gets rented to some one who can and will pay rent. So Andrew has business' including an engineering works, fertiliser spreader contractor, skip hire company, joinery, chemical supplier renting sheds on the farm. The pick of the tenants is Riverford Organics who grow, pack and deliver fruit and vegetables (and some meat) to local consumers as part of a national ordering and distribution system. The arrangement has led to Andrew renting a 250 acre farm for organic potato production to supply Riverford, while establishing a 10 000 hen free range organic operation, with Riverford taking all egg sizes - a suppliers dream. 

Andrew's organic chicken sheds that towed between paddocks every 12 months - built on skids.

Tom and Sarah with Toms parents run a cropping and contracting business based on winter and spring seeded crops on land they own, rent and sharefarm. With land pushing £10 000/acre (urban demand and intensive agricultural production in tunnels (berries)) and land able to be rented for £125/acre, renting is a good option. Tom has been no till seeding for a couple of years with a tined drill, having being doing min till since 1991 and is just abut to take delivery of a Cross Slot seeder on 9"/22.5cm spacing, which is going against the norm for the majority European farmers on 6"/150mm spacing. 

Tracey, Sarah and Tom

Tom's rotation based on wheat, OSR/canola and faba beans is the same as mine, while he has just started using cover crops (oats, phacelia, fodder radish and mustard) between his winter canola and winter wheat and the winter wheat and spring beans. For the past 17 years all the straw has been chopped and spread at harvest, with no bagged P or K fertiliser haven't been applied in that time, but he uses liquid phosphite with lots of trace elements. The system is working because fertility levels are either holding or going up and the worm count is around 1200/sq. m.  Tom is dedicated to no till seeding, a rarity in that part of the world, so it will be interesting to see what the neighbours think looking over the fence. 

Tom's no till canola on a wet English day! 

Tom has built two grain sheds with in floor aeration (3500T capacity) while being a member
of a local grain marketing co op that allows direct delivery of grain or it is picked up ex farm, 
sometimes only hours after it has been harvested and loaded into the shed. 

Perhaps I need to get a bit more professional. 

We finished off the trip with two nights at the Farmers Club in London, just around the corner from Scotland Yard and a stones throw from the Thames. The club was formed in 1842 as a place for farmers to visit to share their experiences in new technologies and management practices of the day - farmers have always been prepared to help each other out, something that is quite unique to agriculture even though we are competitors in the market to each other. 

Arriving after dark on the first night, we had been well advised by Andrew Janaway to visit one of his many haunts, Gordon's wine bar, the oldest wine bar in London, with not a beer or cocktail in sight. 

We spent our last day wandering the streets of London, had lunch at great little deli, Ottolenghi (some of the tastiest salads we've ever had) but the last thing we got to do on our trip was to head to a meeting on regenerative agriculture ( It had a world class line up of speakers including Dwayne Beck (US), Ademir Calegari (Argentina), Frederic Thomas (France), Daniella Ibarra-Howell (US), Odette Menard (Canada) and our own No Till Bill, Bill Crabtree from Western Australia. I was on Bill's no till tour to the US and Canada in 2004 (where I met Dwayne Beck and got a taste for covers crops) and I think I was the last person Bill expected to see at the meeting- great to see him after all these years. 

I'm not big on taking photos of what I eat, but if you ever get to London, you've got to try Ottolenghi.

What an impressive line up!

Had dinner before the meeting with Tom Sewell and a couple of his mates involved with cover crops and no till, Guy Eckley and Andy Howard, and an Aussie working in soils and crop nutrition in Norfolk, Danny Sherlock (thanks for dinner Danny!)

One of the quotes I took away was from Daniella, "management of complexity yields results". This to me is what what going through a Nuffield Scholarship is all about - looking beyond the status quo and realising that the variables encountered every day in agriculture can be harnessed in ways not previously considered, but it takes planning and effort to see it through to the final result.

We flew home the next day via Abu Dhabi and as much its great to be travelling, its also good to get home. It was a whirlwind three weeks, given we drove nearly 4000km through 6 countries. A huge thanks to all those that had us visit and/or hosted us for a night or two - it was great that we only spent a week in hotels. We look forward to repaying the hospitality some time in the future. 

The next (and final) leg of my travels is to South America, Canada and the US in June and July. All that has to be done between now and them is get the crop In the ground and the house renovation kick started again. 

Until then, that's all for now! 

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