A Farm of the Future

Last year I met a farmer overwhelmed with the desire to transform his family’s land into a place that would nourish people and planet for centuries to come.

Yesterday I saw the first giant leap towards that dream being expertly taken.

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Trees planted on contour. Note the compost added to some, these are high nutrient demanding trees due to heavy cropping, compost will also support healthy growth. Guards prevent damage by sheep and inside each is a food producing tree.

I worked with Chris Morgan of Cwrt Henllys farm near Cwmbran, Wales to design an agroforestry project for his family farm. Chris knows how unsustainable modern farming practices are and he wanted help to make changes. I suggested an agroforestry project unlike any other I’m aware of in the UK. Now the trees are in the ground, stretching their roots into the soil and transforming food production in this corner of the world.

The design at Cwrt Henllys is based on sound ecology, economics, agriculture and is infused with magic and hope. A mix of nuts, fruit trees, natives and non natives have been planted in rows on contour. Agroforestry in this country has been a little behind the times and primarily a little shy and unimaginative. This planting is brave, productive, resilient and vibrant.

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A brave new start for this piece of land and its custodians.

The walnuts, sweet chestnut, apples, pears, quinces, cob nuts, elm, hazel and elder to name a few, will produce high quality food. Unlike annual monocultures the diversity of production in the design will provide the full range of macro and micronutrients people require. Its diversity is also advantageous in a time of climatic change. The extreme weather that has famously been destroying whole landscapes of annual crops will effect perennials less. Furthermore whilst some will crop poorly in say a very mild winter others will thrive. Diversity ensures a crop and well selected varieties ensure good and reliable cropping.

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An unusual specimen of hazel which had retained some of its leaves throughout winter, produced new leaves and flowers in January. Diversity is of special interest due to the increasing problems with tree disease.

Currently most of the UK’s nut consumption is being met by foreign producers but there is growing movement to change this. Nuts can produce well in the UK and new fruits are becoming viable as well. The farmers I work with take a step outside of their comfort zone to make sustainable farming possible and I try my hardest to eliminate as many risks as possible for them. One of the attractions of agroforestry is that you run two or more crops together. So you might think of an orchard where sheep are grazed beneath or the vast American walnut and arable systems. This allows a farmer to continue with a crop they know which is likely to provide annual income from year one.

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An established agroforestry system at New Forest Farm where annuals are grown between rows of nut and fruit trees.

Whilst the trees at Cwrt Henllys will be producing food rich in protein, carbohydrates, fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals they are also quietly revolutionising the world around them. The projects I work on are designed to create habitat for other creatures enrich the soil, prevent erosion, absorb CO2 and countless other things. This is not just a poly culture its polyfunctional and it pays.

The edible woodland model pays dividends in ecological restoration. We live in an age where most food production inherently impoverishes the soil, the environment and the atmosphere. This form of regenerative or restorative food production enriches it, growing food and repairing landscapes.

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One of the native edibles, elder, bursts into life in the protection of the guard. It will produce edible flowers and berries but also host native insects who are the food of birds and mammals who themselves are food to larger predators.

These projects don’t just pay ecologically, they pay economically. The edible woodland model is designed for commercial production. Not that forest gardens aren’t wonderful but I’m interested in large scale production that can stand on its own two feet economically.

So each design balances diversity with volumes sufficient for profitable production. Generally food costs shamefully and unsustainably little but there are opportunities to sell fruit and nuts at a fair price and many producers are doggedly finding ways to make sustainable farming pay.

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Alexander Hunt of Potash Farm making nut production pay through adding value.

I urge you to be part if the transition to regenerative agriculture by supporting small scale, organic, agroforestry, agroecological and perennial based forms of food production. We need inspirational farmers like Chris but we also need inspirational consumers like you.

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