Wakelyns Agroforestry Farm
As promised in my most recent blog about agroforestry, I’m now going to introduce you to what I understand to be the finest example of alley cropping in Britain. The home of Prof. Martin Wolfe, Wakelyns Farm, sits close to the Norfolk / Suffolk border, tucked away down some little lanes. Martin moved there in 1994 and began the establishment of an experimental organic silvoarable (trees with arable crops) system. They chose a place well out of the way because they weren’t sure if it would work or not, but 23 years on that is no longer in doubt. The farm covers 22½ hectares (approx. 55 acres) and is divided into four different systems. Common to all of them are rows of trees running north-south, spaced around 12 metres apart – a distance initially set for the convenience of machinery, but later realised to also be just about optimum for the benefits to the crops at this latitude.
Two of the four systems utilise double rows of Hazel and Willow, both of which are coppiced on a cycle (the Willows every 2 years and the Hazels every 5 years). The double rows ensure that when one row is cut down to the base, it has an adjacent row that still provides shelter to the crops in the alleys. The Hazel and Willow are both used primarily as biomass crops to provide heat on the farm. The crops in the alleys are rotated, with Wheat and Oats the main grain crops currently. Squashes are also grown, followed by clover and a ley grass mixture. Careful measurements are made of yields. One interesting figure is something called the Land Equivalent Ratio (LER). The LER of Hazel with Wheat is 1.3. What that means is that if you grew the same yields of Wheat and Hazel separately as monocultures, you would need 30% more land.
The Hazel grows faster than in a traditional coppice woodland, because it always has plenty of light and the Wheat benefits from the shelter that the hedges provide, reducing wind and the associated evaporation of water from the soil and the crops. The hedges also pump water and minerals from deep underground and then release some of those nutrients in the form of leaves and root shedding each autumn. Each crop benefits the other and that’s really what permaculture is all about, constructing mutually beneficial relationships.
Martin also has a silvopoultry system, running two particularly well suited breeds of chickens (Light Sussex and Rhode Island Red) under the most established Hazel rows when the alleys are put down to grass ley. The birds, whose ancestors originated in the forests of Asia, love having the protection of the trees from aerial predators. They also love scratching about in the leaf litter, foraging for insects. The chickens in turn break the cycle of the Hazelnut weevil by eating the larvae in the soil.
Elsewhere on the site are the other two systems - the rows either made up of fruit and nuts trees or fruit trees with long term timber. Rows can include up to 8 species, planted in randomised pairs to study the different relationships. These trees are spaced quite widely to allow light in between them as they grow taller than the coppice systems. In between the rows are a number of different crops, some main crops and some experimental. Included in the species being trialled are Quinoa (20 varieties), Barley with Lentils, Buckwheat, and a black spring Barley. Martin has been growing other experimental crops in collaboration with Hodmadods, a local business dedicated to growing British beans and pulses to sell to British people. They’re a company I would urge you to support.
Martin’s research has also involved developing what are called Wheat ‘populations’. The Wheat that farmers normally grow these days is either optimised for best yield (Y) or best quality (Q) – these plants are effectively clones of each other. That’s a very specific and vulnerable approach – not only do these plants all prefer very particular conditions, disease could easily spread and wipe out most of these crops. At Wakelyns they have been growing these varieties together to create a diverse population of unique plants – called a YQ population. Each year they select for the most useful characteristics and sow them again. The idea is that within these populations will be plants that can adapt to wherever they are planted. It very much goes against the modern homogenisation of seed, and could be seen to threaten the status quo, so they had to get special permission to grow them.
So, as you may have noticed, Wakelyns produces a real diversity of products, from fruits and vegetables to cereals and nuts, biomass (mostly used on site) to timber and other craft materials. The landscape also supports hugely more wildlife diversity than the surrounding huge arable fields. Despite Martin’s pioneering research his work still remains relatively unknown. I hope this article goes some way to changing that and if you ever get the chance to visit this inspirational farm, I highly recommend it. You won’t regret it!