Farmer Focus – John Cherry

This season has been a bit of a revelation for me on the farm, as we haven’t applied any fungicides on any crops at all (at the time of writing, at the end of May). We’ve got a couple of fields of Zyatt wheat which will get a spray soon, as there is a bit of Rust showing, but the rest of the crops look fantastic. Thanks go to Tim Parton, who’ll be familiar to readers of the magazine, for showing us how it can be done.  

Of course, 2021 started off as a ‘low disease’ year; for crops that is, it’s been a bit different for humans. But I think we do need to ask ourselves why we are growing crops that need a four fungicide programme just to get through to harvest. Also, what is the collateral damage?

Some years ago a chance conversation with Clive Bailye and his agronomist Richard Hammond gave me the nudge to stop using insecticides on the farm. The results exceeded all my expectations, in that we didn’t miss them in the slightest and we found we could stop using molluscicides ( slug pellets) as well, probably because we now have a thriving population of ground beetles which keep the slugs in check. We have the odd yellow patch caused by BYDV, but no more than that… again I suspect that we have enough insect predators to keep the aphids that carry the virus at a sensible level.

We’ve still tried growing OSR, relatively successfully in terms of avoiding flea beetle attacks, but ultimately the crops weren’t worth the effort. Companion planting with berseem clover, buckwheat and vetch enabled the rape to get away without too much bother and helped confuse the pigeons over-winter, but there would always be enough beetles, gnawing away inside the plants, to ensure a disappointing yield. The vetch seed which we combined with the rape, made the operation worthwhile. Any temptation to spray insecticides was offset by the fact that all the sprays available were useless at controlling the pest, whilst clobbering the beneficial insect populations.

So, having got away with making two classes of biocides redundant on our farm, we were ready for the great fungicide challenge. The more I find out about the fungus kingdom, the less I want to use fungicides. In much the same way as with insects, where it is estimated that there are 1700 beneficial species (from the farmers point of view) to every damaging species, plants rely on many different sorts of fungi to stay healthy, whilst only a small number of species are pathogenic. We don’t know the half of it, so we apply the precautionary principle…don’t spray unless you have to.  

It’s always worth remembering that these pathogenic fungi aren’t ‘evil’, they are nature’s way of tidying the place up, constantly checking to see which plants are healthy enough to thrive. Our job as farmers should be to give our crops the best chances in life, so they don’t attract the attention of the clean-up squad.

To this end, we have been spraying on some biological brews, which are supposed to help the plants fight off fungal attack, by promoting plant friendly fungi as well as feeding nutrients. So far, I’ve been very impressed; the combine yieldmeter will give us an interesting picture of any differences in output between our various trial plots (misses…) Our soils are improving all the time, but we don’t feel quite ready to drop nitrogen fertilisers yet, although we’ve got a few trials going on with different rates. The permanent pastures and herbal leys are doing very nicely without N, but where we’ve cut it out altogether on the arable, the wheat does look a bit yellow. Again, time will tell.

I’m sure we can find a way of farming without N, in fact I think we need to. Nitrogen fertilisers require a lot of energy to make (via the Haber-Bosch industrial process) and consequently have an enormous carbon footprint. They also have a damaging effect on soils by upsetting the C:N ratio and as a result encourage soil creatures to chomp through the soil organic matter. Whilst we’re busy dissing artificial N, we should mention that they have an appalling take-up by crops, 40% of what we apply is used, if we are lucky, the rest evaporates, upsets the soil ecosystem or washes away. They are not cheap either, so all in all there is some work to be done here. We’ve cut rates here to a max of 150 kg/ha on wheats and will continue to nudge them down. 

We haven’t applied any base P or K on the farm here for 15 years or so, and indices are holding up or increasing. For some reason, a lot of farmers find this very annoying and insist that we are mining our soils of nutrients. Which we are, but there is so much ‘unavailable’ P & K tied up in our clay which becomes available when the fungi are left alone to do their stuff. All these soil creatures are ultimately benefiting other animals higher up the food chain, we’ve got various birders who come counting birds through the year. They are increasingly excited by the numbers of species and individuals they are seeing: hundreds of yellowhammers, sky larks and corn buntings for instance and swarms of linnets and charms of goldfinches. It all helps to make farming a really pleasurable occupation.

Reading this article through, I can see that it sounds like a smug git going on about how clever he is, but I’m just reporting how it is…we’ve had plenty of cock-ups and we sit at the bottom of the Groundswell bench-marking group league table, which is put together by Gary Markham of Land Family Business. But we’re still profitable and increasingly financially resilient; all the others in the bench-marking group are even better off. It is a very happy story.

There will be many more like it at Groundswell this year. We won’t have many, if any, speakers from abroad so there will be a great focus on exciting developments in the UK. I hope we’ll see you there.