Professor Martin Wolfe, owner and creator of Wakelyns Agroforestry Farm, has developed a wheat population which is highly resilient, producing a good yield despite diseases,pests, weeds and climatic variation. He needs no chemicals to keep it safe. Only trouble is, in this world controlled by the large corporates, it’s currently illegal to sell the seed to other farmers!
Martin Wolfe is a ‘retired’ Professor of Plant Pathology who worked for 28 years at the Cambridge Plant Breeding Institute, followed by nine years in Switzerland. He bought the 60 acre Wakelyns Farm in Suffolk to enable a retirement focused on exploring his passionate belief in diversity as the route to secure and sustainable food production. His first move was to establish an organic silvoarable system. This was in 1994, and means the farm is organised into multiple arrays of ‘alley cropping’ whereby arable crops are planted in strips separated by belts of mixed trees. In fact the farm has four agroforestry silvoarable systems; hazel coppice, willow coppice, a fruit and nut tree system and a mixed hardwood and fruit tree system. The trees are planted in rows or as production hedges running north/south with organic crops grown in rotation within the 12m wide alleys.
Martin argues persuasively, with data-based evidence, that the different crops can protect and nurture each other. The complication is that you can’t just look at yield of one crop. If you have cereals growing alongside walnuts – as he does for example– then you must add up the total yield of both crops and their separate contributions to the environment. Sounds simple, but in this world of mindsets locked into large scale monoculture this, it seems, can be a tricky concept to take on board!!
Along with demonstrating the benefits of farming macro or inter-crop diversity, Martin has also developed his wheat so that it is naturally resistant to pests. He has done this by breeding a wheat based on twenty parents and which has now become a highly complex mixture of varieties or lines. His work shows how, in different ways, this complexity renders the whole population resilient; whatever the problem, there seems always to be some components of the population able to deal with it. It is just as if the strong protect the weak to give real intra-crop benefits. In order to do this though he has needed a special licence to carry out the trials which has allowed him to work with mixed, unknown varieties or lines of wheat. In the world outside of Wakelyns, the commercial usage of such populations is not allowed ….a regulation which will be difficult to change despite his demonstration of tangible environmental benefits. Barmy or what! I guess it depends whether you are a big agricultural corporate with intellectual property rights to single strain varieties….and a powerful lobbyer!!!!
Martin’s approach to farming is fundamentally a systems approach, believing that there is no single solution or magic bullet. It’s against this background that you will find him toying with all sorts of crops at Wakelyns. Colourful quinoa, for example, a host of shapes and forms all brought in from South America, and other experiments with his intra- and inter- variety ideas, such as squash densely underplanted with clover to provide nitrogen for the hungry squashes. The latest introduction when I was there was of free range chickens, all having a great time in the tree alleys and of course spreading fertiliser as they went! The list of his trials is enormous. It took Martin over three hours to show me around his estate, time which I am truly indebted to him for. Another building block in my real education.
Wakelyns Agroforestry is certified by the Soil Association and works with the Organic Research Centre, a charitable trust based at Hamstead Marshall, near Newbury. It’s a fabulously mind opening operation, demonstrating just what can be achieved if only you approach things with a scepticism for the status quo and respecting and building up the natural way of things.
For more on Martin’s ‘diversity benefits’ thinking, see his article for New Agriculturalist, by clicking here
Click here to buy the book Unlikely Heroes – the documentary photobook about the current agrarian renaissance in England and Wales, and featuring Martin Wolfe and Wakelyns Agroforestry Farm.
[Double clicking on any of the images below will open up that image up in a slideshow format. You can then run the slide show using ‘left’ and ‘right’ buttons. Personally I prefer to go also to full screen having opened the slide show – F11 on my PC, don’t forget to get out of full screen is the same button , not ESC!]