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Gaddesden Estate Parish News January 2024

The winter months are typically quiet on the arable side.  This year is no different, although the incessant rain has made looking at crops and making decisions about spring work a rather depressing exercise at times.

As I mentioned in the last article, those crops which were growing well before the rains came look reasonable, and this remains the case today.  The later drilled crops, however, have in some cases suffered badly.  I have just taken the decision that 40 hectares (100 acres) of wheat and beans planted for Wildfarmed will not make a viable crop. 

Once planted, this crop is theoretically cheap to grow, as it is allowed no synthetic inputs aside from a little bit of fertiliser (about 30% of what we would normally apply to a breadmaking wheat crop).  That said, there are costs associated with weeding it mechanically and harvesting it of course.  I have just been out calculating average plant counts, and the better of the two fields has, on average, 107 plants per square metre.  This is less than half what one would need for an ordinary wheat crop, and probably less than 35% of ideal for a crop of heritage varieties such as this.   The reason that the heritage crops need more plants is that they do not “tiller” nearly so much as modern varieties, meaning that every plant will produce fewer heads of grain compared to a modern plant.  When this is combined with the opportunity cost of not growing a good spring crop, the viability becomes even more compromised.  At the moment we are weighing up whether to grow a spring planted wheat instead, which always yields less, or a spring planted barley grown for beer making, which if the stars align can be reasonably profitable but for which the market this year may be over supplied.

Back in the yard we have acquired a couple of pieces of second hand grain cleaning equipment, which will hopefully allow greater flexibility in what we grow and in particular will help clean our organic seed to a higher specification.  One is a sieved cleaner, rather like our recently recommissioned seed dresser from the 1960s, though with about five times the capacity in terms of throughput.  The principles are exactly the same, with a combination of sieves and fans to remove weed seeds and chaff.

The other items is knowns as a gravity separator.  This operates on a different principle to a sieved cleaner, and allows the separation of particles that are the same size, but different density.  It has a bed of very fine mesh which vibrates rapidly.  Air is sucked though this mesh which is within a pressure controlled cabinet, as the crop is poured on it.  This air, together with the vibration, “fluidises” the crop, which then behaves like a liquid.  The vibrating bed is adjustably tilted on two planes, and the result is that denser particles move in one direction and are taken off on one side, and lighter particles the other.   It's all very clever (and looks a bit like a space ship (see picture)….) and I have not got it rigged up yet, but the plan is that it will allow us to remove weed seeds from organic crops that are the same size as the crop seeds and cannot be removed by sieving.

In other news we have just sold some organic straw to an organic mushroom grower in the midlands.  The use of the organic straw obviously removes the risk of contamination from any chemical residues that may otherwise be present, and we will shortly be loading it onto lorries. 

Each bale weights in the region of 500 kgs, which is a far cry from the small bales which used to be man-handled on the farm in years gone by.

On the wider estate we continue with the usual winter work, which includes the of cleaning fallen trees.  One of these landed square on a newly installed gate in some deer fencing that surrounded new tree planting in New Gorse.  In a piece of fairly spectacular “sods law”, it was the only mature tree of any size nearby, and it fell perfectly through the middle of the gate, completely smashing it to pieces.  The only upside is that at least we’ll get a good bit of firewood out of it!