The barley is turning gold and the combines will shortly be busy in the fields. The magical months of May and June are over. July is a relatively slack time of year when farmers visit the shows.
In 2022 I visited two: Cereals 2022 near Duxford in Cambridgeshire and Groundswell near Baldock in Hertfordshire. Both are full of machinery and plot demonstrations and trade stands and feature the latest ideas in arable farming. Both are on the chalk downland that dives below the London clay in Essex and the Thames Estuary resurfacing as The Downs in Kent and Sussex. Productive lands combined with vulnerable habitats, especially chalk streams and meadows.
Cereals is the show for main- stream farmers. They were admiring the latest tractors, cultivators, drills, sprayers and combines which were put through their paces. Merchants, dealers and banks were entertaining their key customers. Seed merchants and research establishments had been preparing since the previous autumn to sow their demonstration plots of wheat, barley, oats, and rape. It was mainly business as usual excepting the absence of several large dealers. Although the price of fertiliser, especially nitrogen and phosphate, has shot through theroof, so has the price of wheat. Ammonium nitrate has increased 160% since May 2021. Feed wheat has risen from £170/t on 1st July 2021 to a high of £350/t (+105%) in mid-May dropping to £282 today (+65%). Such fluctuations make it very difficult for farmers to plan ahead and not many will be making major capital investments this year.
Groundswell is the alternative show focused mainly on ‘regenerative’ farming. It had record crowds keen to learn how to adapt to the change currently spreading through UK farming. Some were large scale main-stream farmers, but many were new to farming or had acquired smaller plots and were anxious to do the right thing for the environment and the climate whilst still making a profit by selling wholesome food.
Regenerative farming (‘re-gen’) is about the farmer’s most precious asset, the soil. By reducing inputs and increasing organic matter (carbon),worms and soil micro -organisms can get to work improving structure, drain- age, rooting depth and nutrients. Soil disturbance by ploughing is minimised (‘min-till’), crops with fungi and bacteria that draw down nitrogen from the air are included in the rotation (clovers, vetches, pulses, beans etc.) and cover crops with deep roots protect the bare surface in winter to stop ‘run-off’ when soil and nutrients end up polluting streams instead of recharging aquifers.
One of those cover crops may be a grass ‘ley’ combining grass species with clovers etc. In this part of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire the aquifer is the chalk. Where there is grass, there must be animals to eat it and incidentally add manure to the soil. So regenerative farming includes grazing livestock.