Tag: regenerative agriculture

Lessons Learnt at Erth Barton

Wednesday 18th October 2023

Tim Williams has now completed three years of a contract farming agreement with Antony Estates, working to convert Erth Barton into a regenerative farming system, rebuilding soil fertility. This event was a chance to hear about some of the successes and challenges encountered during the transition. This event was made possible with thanks to the National Lottery Community Fund who fund the Farm Net Zero project.

Tim took on the 300-acre (121 hectare) farm in two halves, arriving with very little kit and limited funds for inputs. This has meant he has built a simple, zero-input system focusing on restoring and feeding the soil microbiology in order to provide fertility.

A very diverse cover crop/herbal ley was drilled to increase rooting depth and diversity and then grazed with beef cattle (averaging 0.8 Livestock Units per hectare) with the aim to eat a third, trample a third and leave a third. Tim has learnt that it is best to focus on managing grass to build up a reserve rather than eating into it. Frequent moves leave grass to regrow, meaning there is always grass ahead of the livestock throughout the rotation.

Another method Tim has trialled to improve soil microbiology has been applications of compost created using a system called “complete microbial composting” developed by the Land Gardeners. This involves mixing brown (cattle dung, soil, straw) and green (fresh cut plants) material from around the farm in long windrows and turning. Three methods of application were trialled – direct spreading, compost tea brewing and “biopriming” (mixing compost with the seed prior to drilling). Tim felt that the biopriming technique has the potential to be the most successful. However, soil microbial testing conducted by the University of Exeter showed no difference so far between areas with and without compost application.

Tim has also experimented with pasture cropping alongside WildFarmed, this involved using a Moore Unidrill to direct drill a heritage wheat blend into a hard-grazed herbal ley. The aim was for the existing ley to provide ground cover and nitrogen-fixation. Tim described the first attempt at pasture cropping as a “disaster”, with chicory swamping the wheat and making harvest impossible. A second attempt meant tweaking the herbal ley mix to make it less competitive, grazing tight, sub-soiling and spring tine harrowing for seed/soil contact and then direct drilling. This appeared to have good establishment up until May, at which point Tim noticed that about two-thirds of the crop was Westerwolds grass. Again, harvest was abandoned and the field grazed instead to utilise the crop and keep organic matter in the field. In future, Tim plans on removing grass from the mix and replacing with a species that has more winter-kill such as sunflowers/millet/sorghum.

As Tim’s time at Erth Barton draws to a close, we would like to thank him for his work on Farm Net Zero and wish him all the best for his future endeavours.

Key takeaways:

  • Bringing pasture and livestock back onto the farm has helped to improve soil quality.
  • Fertility extraction should be balanced with fertility building. This can be done as part of a rotation.
  • Even when experiments do not go the way we first thought, we can still learn valuable lessons from them.

A day in the life of… Sam Smith – General Manager

I’m the General Manager at the Farm Carbon Toolkit (FCT), a role that oversees our operations. This includes finances, human resources, and communications – and working to make sure we have good systems and processes in place so that people have what they need to succeed in their work. 

As much as I can, I also support the development of our strategy and new projects – managing some existing ones too, related to our Farm Carbon Calculator.

On the side, I am completing a Nuffield Farming Scholarship which I was so grateful to receive in 2020, the year Covid turned our lives upside down. That year, my wife and I also moved to Edinburgh and had a baby daughter, which has been the most joyful, life-changing experience. Although it hasn’t been particularly compatible with doing a travel scholarship, somehow, last week, I finished the Executive Summary (here if you are interested) and I’m now getting ready to present at the annual Nuffield conference in November. 

I’m feeling nervous about this presentation, especially as I’m not a farmer and my operations-heavy role in recent years has left me feeling a bit disconnected from the trends. Yet, I can only do my best. In August, I had some incredible travels in the USA and last Summer, across Europe – engaging with many brilliant farmers and food businesses. I’m very grateful for the support and flexibility from colleagues as I have undertaken this. 

I fell into this role slightly by accident. My past roles have mostly not been operational, but I developed some of these skills when managing Sutton Community Farm, a small community business on the edges of London. After this role, feeling curious about the bigger food system, I worked at Forum for the Future, engaging with various major food brands and retailers. FCT is a happy medium, a challenging role that combines various skills and experiences from the past, with a passion for sustainable farming, within an organisation that’s hands-on and practical in their approach. I love our purpose, values and approach. But most of all, I’m in awe of my colleagues’ knowledge and experience in sustainable farming. I learn so much from being around them and it’s my wish to be able to join them out in the field more. 

Photos from recent travels in the USA. Above: Hickory Nut Gap Farm in North Carolina. Top image: Sam volunteering at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York.

I relentlessly think about how we can improve our workplace so that people have what they need and don’t get bogged down in bad or frustrating systems. I’m keen that we also cultivate healthy working practices and live up to our shared values. This can be more challenging as a remote organisation, requiring extra effort to keep in touch and care for each other. 

It’s been quite an adventure these last few years. We’re growing steadily and working to expand our systems to fit this growth. Even though FCT is over 10 years old, it wasn’t until the end of 2020 when things started to really take off. When I started in August 2020, our only other staff member was Becky Willson on secondment from Duchy College, alongside much voluntary effort from Directors. Today, we have 14 staff with 3 more about to start. I’m so proud of this journey and feel very excited to see where things go from here. 

Read more about Sam and the rest of the team here.