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Farming with trees

 My grandfather came to Home Farm, Screveton, in 1933. It was a 90-acre mixed farm with lots of livestock and four men working together; 90% of the local community worked on farms.

Back in those days, farmers’ income came from produce sales alone, with no secondary income. I came on the farm in 1980 when we had 200 acres. In 1995 we started Farmeco, a joint farming group with four different farm members. We took on more land and focused on arable farming. By the year 2000 we were farming 3,000 acres. Farmers were relying on Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies to produce a margin, and many looked at secondary income through barn conversions. Trees and hedgerows were cut down or ripped out for larger fields and machinery.

Over the last decade farm support has begun to focus more on the environment. Our farm business retracted to our own 500 acres of mixed farming. We amicably disbanded the large arable group and started a new joint venture with a neighbouring farm. We run a small sheep enterprise of 200 ewes and have entered a Higher Level Stewardship scheme (HLS).

A major part of our business involves public engagement and through our social enterprise we run a programme of educational visits – we would like to do more of these, but HLS funding is limited. Over the past decade we’ve also hosted LEAF’s Open Farm Sunday every year, attracting large numbers to enjoy and learn about the environmental aspects of our farm.

Branching out

As part of our plans for long-term environmental management and public engagement, and with support from the Woodland Trust, we have planted 11,000 trees over the last six years. We are currently planting 16 acres of a new agroforestry edible woodland project and we hope to prove, with the help of the local community, that edible woodland works within mainstream farming.

We’ve created a silvoarable scheme comprising rows of apple trees within our arable rotation. We’re integrating trees into our farming system in a bid to nourish and protect the soil, improve crop yield, attract pollinators, encourage local wildlife and create an additional source of produce. They are also providing cost-effective shelter and shade to our livestock which helps to boost performance and animal welfare. Our trees provide income through fruit and nut sales, nature trails, forest schools, recreation and environmental funding.

Facing the future

The biggest issue facing our industry at the moment is uncertainty. Managing without subsidies is possible as long as we have a level playing field. If we are to continue to get public money spent on the countryside, we need to attract people to engage with it. Providing food with high animal welfare and crops with high environmental and healthy credentials doesn’t come without costs, dedication and transparency. Smaller or medium sized farms must be encouraged to be sustainable businesses. Agroforestry provides an opportunity to produce food in a way that maximizes the potential of every acre whilst delivering environmental benefits, and if support promotes higher environmental standards, more farmers will be willing to try out new and innovative ways to integrate trees into their farms.

We need a simplified, non-bureaucratic, single support system that incentivises economic, environmental and social activity – one which the whole industry can get behind and which allows customers to see a real benefit to financial support.