Here at Coombe Farm, we look after the land following an organic and sustainable model. In essence, that means we farm in a way that keeps the land productive but doesn’t compromise its ability to support future generations. Keeping this ticking over is a tricky balance of managing fertility, rotating stock and planting the right crops in the perfect place. So where do we start when we’re working out what to plant?
Obey the three-crop rule: the vast majority of farmers in the UK receive income from the EU via what’s called the ‘Basic Payment Scheme’. One of the scheme’s stipulations is that farms over a certain size must grow at least three different crops with the main crop not exceeding 75% of the land. This ensures cropping diversity and avoids vast monocultures. So when we plan for the future we have to keep this rule in mind.
Rotate, rotate, rotate: simply put, there are two types of crops: ‘exhaustive’ crops like cereals that suck the goodness out of the soil, and ‘restorative’ crops like peas or clover that put goodness back in. Rotation is one of the keys to keeping the land flourishing.
Know your crop's needs: different crops thrive under different circumstances so understanding what each demands is vital. Variables to be considered include soil type, temperature, drilling (planting) dates and mineral requirements.
Know your land: even within one farm, the land can vary dramatically in soil type, drainage, aspect and climate. Choosing the right crops helps make the most of your land. So we consider things like avoiding planting maize on a sandy hillside with a high run-off risk that could result in soil erosion.
Work with wildlife: the wild animals, insects and mammals that live on our farm aren’t just pretty faces: they work hard to keep our landscape healthy so we try our best to encourage their contribution. We want to see insects that pollinate and predate on pests; small mammals that provide a food source for birds; earthworms that keep the soil healthy and aerated. So we plant cover crops that provide habitats and leave buffer strips around fields where wildflowers can thrive.
Calculate the yield: working out predicted crop yields is vital so we know that we have enough food to feed the number of animals we have on the farm. While it’s possible to buy in feed, it’s less economical. And, as we’re organic, it’s important that we’re assured of quality and standards.
Manage your livestock: having enough grass (to be grazed fresh or preserved as hay or silage) is vital for a livestock farm. That means we have to balance our headcount with the acreage we have available. We also have to make sure the manure produced by our animals is both enough but not too much to fertilize our fields.