Helix network expands to include the very first Agroecology Farm
Autumn 2021 saw the addition of Whitley Manor Farm in Newport, Shropshire to the Hutchinsons national Helix network.
However, this is a Helix farm with a difference – it is the first Helix farm that will focus solely on the principles and practices of Agroecology.
Agroecology or Regenerative Farming is a method or practice of farming that has come increasingly into the limelight as growers look for ways of working with nature on their farms – driven by the need to follow a more holistic, environmentally focussed path.
“As an industry, we are looking for answers as to how many of the practices associated with Agroecology such as reducing cultivations, using cover crops and reintroducing livestock can really make a sustainable and profitable difference to our farms,” explains Ed Brown, Hutchinsons head of Agroecology.
“Our Helix farms were set up to test new technologies and practices in real farm scenario’s and this is exactly what we are aiming to do with the Agroecology Helix Farm.
“Our objective is not to look at the minutest details and trials but to look to answer some of the bigger picture questions surrounding Agroecology practices.”
“For example, we want some clarity on questions such as when moving over to an Agroecological approach, how are yields affected? Do they drop of and then pick up again? What are the direct benefits to soil health, biodiversity and soil nutrient availability? Are they measurable and definable?
To answer these questions, we will take baseline measurements and evaluate the impact of Agroecological technologies or agronomic practices on factors such as soil health, diversity and carbon.
As an industry we understand agroecological farming is more resilient, enhances natural resources and is future proof. It also has the support of government strategy which may create opportunities to access new markets and income streams.
In response to this, Hutchinsons has recently launched its Agroecology service.
Led by Ed Brown, this bespoke service is purely focussed on helping growers take these ecological principles and apply them to their own individual farming businesses.
“We recognise the desire for change, but many growers are looking for advice and support to make these changes – whilst remaining profitable,” he says.
“We have already invested in training specialists across the business, and are committed to developing and trialling different agroecological approaches and technologies. The launch of the Helix Agroecology farm is just one facet of this, and we look forward to sharing our learnings from this in due course.”
To find out more about our Agroecology service, please contact us: email@example.com
For Harry Heath who took over the running of the family farm several years ago, being a Helix Farm provides a valuable opportunity to see how different Agroecological approaches and technologies can potentially not only improve yields but also reduce input costs.
“Our journey into Agroecology has been driven very much by looking at how we can ensure that we are farming in a positive way for the bottom line and environmentally. We had a legacy of heavy cultivations on the farm which cost money and were not doing very much for soil health – so we needed to look at how we could manage this differently going forward – and this was the real spring board into looking at how Agroecological practices could help us to do this.”
“This has taken a real mindset change, so we are taking each step at a time. It is not a rigid and defined approach but one that is about responding to the field or situation that we have in front of us – so we have learnt to be much more flexible.”
When Ed Brown took on the agronomy for the farm, we discussed the various options we had that allowed us to address these issues. Since then, we have moved to a no till approach, direct drilling, using cover crops where possible and also widening and having more flexibility in our rotations.
“However, every farm has its own set of challenges, and at the end of the day, it’s important to look at the big picture. For example, whilst we don’t have the issue with black-grass that many growers in the east do, rye-grass is proving to be a really niggly invasive and difficult to control weed.
“One field in particular has high rye-grass populations, so after much debate on the various options available to us to get on top of it, the answer was clear, we decided to plough it. Whilst this is not what fits into an Agroecological agenda – it is what the field needed to re-set and now we can move forward and focus on building soil health.