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Gaddesden Estate Parish News September 2023

Harvest is now over, and with it comes the start of the new farming year.  It is easy to think that the combine rolling into the field is the end of the process, and whilst of course it is the culmination of a year’s work, it also marks the beginning of the busy period of preparing ground and planting seeds ready for next year.   

When I last wrote we had not harvested any of our conventional wheat or our beans, and I’m pleased to say these are now all safely in shed.  The wheats came first, and were something of a mixed bag.  Where they followed linseed, the crop did well, yielding on a par with our long term average.  Where they followed oats they did a bit less well, and where they followed spring barley they were substantially poorer.  These results have highlighted the value of a wide crop rotation and allowing the soil to break the cycles of disease, weeds and nutrition requirements.  Diversity is always championed by nature, and it is no different here.  Planning crop rotations is though something of a dynamic jigsaw puzzle, and it just so happened that we did not have as much wheat after a true break crop as would have been ideal.   
Last to be combined were the beans.  It was, on the whole, not a good bean growing year anywhere in the county, and here was no different.  Yields were lower than expected, but quality was pleasingly high, and ours have made the grade for human consumption.  The main quality criteria are the number of holes bored into the beans by an insect called the Bruchid Beetle, and the extent of staining of the beans, which is caused by water damage to the pods towards the end of the plant’s life cycle.   We suffered very little bruchid damage despite not spraying any insecticide, and whist there was some staining, it was just below the threshold level.  As human consumption beans they will be loaded onto a boat within the next month, bound for North Africa, where they will be turned into falafel. 

Speaking of movement, some of the crops have already started to be loaded onto lorries and head off to the mills.  Our first loads of Organic wheat have now moved, which was an exciting moment, and we have just sold the remainder to one of the leading organic brands.
Whilst the combine was still rolling, we were busy planting crops for next year.  First to go in was a linseed- based cover crop into our Wildfarmed Fields.  These fields will be planted with spring barley next year for malting for beer, and in the meantime the linseed will condition the soil over winter, and all being well should produce some late flowers to keep the pollinators happy. 

Next to go in was some conventional oilseed rape.  This is a nervous moment as the plants are very vulnerable when small to being eaten by pretty much everything.  Whilst we have endured some losses, I’m hopeful that of the 60 hectares that we planted, the majority will make a crop, although it is still early days.

At the same time we were planting a fertility building grass ley on the fields around Hawbush Farm, south of Gaddesden Row.   We have decided to add these into our organic rotation, and this is the first stage of their conversion.  They will stay as grass and clover for two years, before being planted with wheat.  The mix of plants is designed to build fertility, smother weeds, and provide diverse and nutritious grazing.  

Many readers will I’m sure have noticed how well the summer cover crop has grown opposite the Red Lion and beside Ledgemore lane. The mix of colours with the yellow sunflowers, the blue linseed, the purple phacelia and the white buckwheat was fantastic.  It was alive with bees and insects and provided a wonderful food source for them.  This in turn has provided food right though the system, and it can be no co-incidence that the swallows and house martins have had a very successful breeding season.  We have seen groups of upwards of 100 perching together, and one pair of swallows at marsh farm has successfully reared three broods, with twelve chicks fledging.  I have also twice seen a pair of hobbies, the fastest and nimblest of the small falcons and the only bird capable of catching a swallow on the wing, so clearly there has been food in abundance all through the ecosystem.

As with all things there is an element of compromise however, and we have now had to remove the cover crop to get ready for planting wheat in the next few weeks.  We left the cover growing for as long as possible, right through the hot weeks at the beginning of September, but to leave any later risks substantial seed return, which we do not want, and also compromises our ability to sow the wheat.  One of the risks is that the abundance of rotting biomass will be a haven for slugs.  Where we have started to flail off the cover crop it is clear that it has done an excellent job at conditioning the soil, with the range of plant families and root architecture producing lovely friable conditions with lots of worms. 

Back at the yard we have started cleaning wheat seed ready for planting.  We have the seeds tested for germination, vigour and a range of diseases, and on all fronts the quality looks good.  Our ancient seed cleaner rescued from a demolished shed has been doing an excellent job, and we have taken it one further by cleaning the seed into mobile bins which I picked up from the sale of a dog food factory in Kettering, as one does.  Each re-usable bin holds one and a half tonnes of seed, and will be used to fill the seed drill (planter), thus eliminating the use of large woven plastic bags, which have been the standard method for many years.  One step further to reducing waste we hope, with the added bonus that they are also rodent proof!