By Stephen and Lynn Briggs
Whitehall Farm, Cambridgeshire
Stephen and Lynn Briggs are tenant farmers who have integrated trees into their wheat, barley, clover and vegetable-producing business, establishing the largest agroforestry system in the UK. The trees enhance biodiversity, diversify the cropping and create a mix of perennial and annual crops better able to meet the challenges of climate change.
Alleys of 24m were left in between the tree rows for cereal production. It’s efficient, multifunctional use of land – nature doesn’t do monoculture. If you do nothing with your land for 40 years it will revert to trees and bushes – this should guide you that it’s what nature wants to do. It’s getting more for the same area – through threedimensional farming – while helping manage the risk of climate change by having a mix of perennials and annuals.
We chose to plant apples as we recognised there was an undersupply of UK grown organic apples, so planted 13 different varieties. Tree rows are orientated north to south to minimise shading and tree canopies are managed by annual pruning. We established a diverse range of pollen and nectar species in the 3m wide understorey strip beneath the trees to benefit pollinating insects and farmland birds.
It has delivered everything we wanted. It’s making us more income and delivering soil protection and biodiversity benefits. There is a lot of talk about cover crops at the moment. Trees are the ultimate cover crop because you do not have to plant them each year.
Our 52 hectare silvoarable agroforestry scheme cost an initial £65,000 to establish in 2009. In total, 8% of the land is planted with trees and the remaining 92% is cropped under the existing cereal rotation. It took five years for the trees to mature into full production. The fruit yield per ha is now similar to the surrounding arable crop, with gross margins typically c.£1000/ha. The young fruit trees will continue to grow and increase to peak yield in year 15.
Central to profitability is the ability to add value to farm outputs. Adding value to commodities like cereals is difficult, whereas there is greater potential to increase the value of the fruit through processing into juice or direct sales. We have built and opened a farm shop to benefit from the direct retail.
Because of the agroforestry, we’ve been able to employ someone full-time on the farm as there is an even amount of labour throughout the year – plenty of pruning and management of the trees to do over winter. For the apple harvest I employ six staff on a casual basis.
As we were the first to implement an agroforestry stand like this in the UK, we made mistakes along the way. I hadn’t anticipated that by planting 4,500 trees I’d created 4,500 extra spaces for pigeons to roost. They damaged 25% of the crop in the first years, but I’ve now put up 10ft bamboo frames around each tree, so they roost on that instead and don’t cause any damage to the trees anymore. I also planted three different pollen and nectar understory mixes – two did well but the other didn’t, so I probably should have experimented with that before applying to all the rows. The 1m square mipex matting I put down underneath the trees to manage weeds also gets stuck in the mower – wood chip would have been better.
My advice to anyone wanting to get started with agroforestry is to go and look at other sites – there are a few now in the UK. Get involved with the European Agroforestry Federation (EURAF), The Farm Woodland Forum in the UK and look at the Woodland Trust resources – all are really helpful. A new book written by multiple partner organisations – The Agroforestry Handbook – comes out soon too, and there’s plenty of advice in there.