Tributes paid to ‘inspirational’ agricultural innovator who created test farm in Suffolk
PUBLISHED: 11:44 22 March 2019 | UPDATED: 12:15 22 March 2019
A celebrated academic and agricultural pioneer with a deep-rooted belief in the need to embrace sustainable methods has died at the age of 81 in Suffolk, the county he adopted.
Tributes to Professor Martin Wolfe have poured in, including from the world of organic farming research and industry.
After a stellar career, including in Cambridge and Switzerland, the professor of plant pathology moved to Fressingfield, near Eye, in the 1990s, where he and his late wife, Ann, ran Wakelyns Agroforestry, putting his theories on agroforestry into practice on his 23ha test farm.
His aim was to grow food which not only avoided the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers, but was also good for the environment and human health. He mixed trees into his growing system to provide crops while at the same time creating rich eco-systems to help soil fertility and health, and guard against disease and pests.
Before that, he worked for 28 years at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, after gaining a PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1963, then for nine years in Zurich, where he held the Chair of Plant Pathology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. From 1998, on his ‘retirement’, he worked for the Organic Research Centre (ORC) as principal scientific adviser, and latterly Coventry University.
He also worked on projects with Halesworth-based home-grown pulses and beans firm Hodmedod, collaborating with the team on trial plots of organic lentils.
“His work was always very important to him,” said his son, Toby, as he recalled how it was sometimes a struggle to get him out of his study and away from work.
“He was so devoted to it,” he said. “He was a thinker, and I think his success at Wakelyns in particular was he got a lot of other people involved - he collaborated very well.”
But he was also a very kind man, and very devoted to his family, he said, including his five grandchildren. “They were a great source of joy to him in the last years,” he said.
In accordance with his wishes, he will be buried next to his wife on the farm from which he trialled his highly innovative integrated agroforestry methods.
The many messages the family had received since his death, which followed a short illness, highlighted his many qualities, said Toby.
“While he was committed to his work, he was always kind and humane in his approach,” he said. “He had a great sense of humour.”
His father loved hill walking and mountaineering as a younger man, and his move to Suffolk rekindled a love of amateur dramatics, where he became involved in the Roughcast Theatre Company. “He had quite a resonant voice, and it clearly worked on the stage,” said Toby.
Dr Bruce Pearce, acting chief executive and director of research and innovation at the Organic Research Centre at Newbury, said the organisation had been sad to learn of his death.
“Martin was an integral part of the team at ORC for over 25 years where he pioneered the development and organic systems through scientific research as well as practical example of farming at Wakelyns Agroforestry,” he said. “Martin was a pioneer in working in multi-disciplinary context and an agro-ecological framework, with first-hand experience of both crop and livestock research as well as farm management and the environment. This came together, and can be seen in his legacy, in his passion for an equitable and sustainable food system and on the ground at Wakelyns.”
He was the ‘father’ of the ORC Wakelyns Population, a very diverse population of wheat suited to organic and low-input farming systems and the first population of landraces (locally adapted species) to be marketed in the European Union.
“Thanks to Martin’s outstanding capabilities in inspiring students and collaborators to think independently and out of the box, the population and cross breeding work has by now also created a scientifically and practically rooted ‘Composite Cross Community’ throughout Europe dedicated to agroecology based on diversity at all levels from the microorganisms up to humans and landscapes,” he said.
Hodmedods director Josiah Meldrum described him as “our great friend, inspiration and mentor”. “We’ll miss him terribly, but take heart in knowing that he was exactly where he wanted to be, at Wakelyns,” he said as he recalled how he ‘bubbled with ideas and energy”.
“We wouldn’t be about to drill lentils this spring had Martin not offered to ‘slip in’ a trial plot as part of a wider ORC experiment.
“Wakelyns played host to some of our early naked barley trials, and we’ve taken great pleasure in helping bring the ORC Wakelyns Population wheat (or YQ) to a wider audience.
“Martin was always incredibly generous with his time and we hosted occasional joint open days on the farm where he would explain the often complex ideas behind his research to non-expert audiences in an inspiring and inclusive way.”
The late Professor Martin Wolfe, husband to Ann, who died three years ago, leaves two sons and a daughter, Toby, David and Lynn, and five grandchildren. For details of his funeral, contact Toby at firstname.lastname@example.org.