OPINION: Nine lessons learned from a farming year like no other

Official launch of AHDB Strategic Farm at Westhorpe. Pictured is farmer Brian Barker. Picture: GREGG

Brian Barker at the AHDB Strategic Cereal Farm at Westhorpe near Stowmarket

2020 has been a uniquely difficult year but there are still plenty of lessons that can be learned writes Brian Barker, whose family farm near Stowmarket is the Agricultural Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) "Strategic Cereal Farm" for the East of England.

We have reached the end of 2020 - a year that most will want to forget for so many reasons. But that does not mean that all of it needs to be forgotten. Here are my nine farming lessons from 2020.

1. An opportunity not an excuse. Covid-19 has focused my mind onto what is truly important to me. It has given me time to reflect on my approach, my business, my work/life balance and I will not look back at the worldwide pandemic with regret and will not be using it as an excuse for any failings.

2. The weather will always win. The wet autumn of 2019 was followed by a dry spring, a sunny summer and then another wet autumn. 2020 has reaffirmed to me that we must have a farming system that is low-risk and quick to change - flexibility is key. My crop rotation and fertiliser calculations have changed numerous times, my skill at judging when to invest and when to hold back has improved no end. The 2020 harvest was below our five-year average, but it was one of the most cost effective our farm has ever produced. Stay flexible - do not just crash on regardless.

A harvest scene from Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket

A harvest scene from Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket - Credit: Brian Barker

3. Do not dress all your winter seed up in one go. Cleaning seed and applying seed treatments can benefit you and means bold vigorous seeds protected from soil-borne diseases. However, if winter weather prevents you from planting all of it and you end up carrying expensive seed over to the next year it is far from ideal.

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4. Less is more. Soil health is a hot topic in farming right now but one thing I can categorically say is that when it comes to cultivations less definitely does more. After two wet winters we have seen our soils do not like over-working. Soil needs to be treated kindly, only disturb it if you really need to, get roots growing in it at every opportunity and invest in it. Doing less to our soils will benefit our farms in the long term.

5. Cover crops are a no-brainer for water quality, biodiversity, and nutrient capture. Without doubt they are fantastic for our environment and will become an easy "public good". It still stuns me that a cover crop will absorb and capture 90pc of the nitrates that would be leached over winter from a traditional ploughed field. Just staggering - we need more people to do it to really help clean up the water leaving our farms.

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6. Cover crops do not make you any more money. They may be fantastic for the environment but they add costs to the farmer's pocket and add risk to the following crop. We need to learn quickly when to use them and what to do with them. Our AHDB trial this year showed a two-tonne negative yield penalisation for growing a cover crop over winter in front of it. 

7. Carbon could be our most important commodity. Carbon, net zero, footprint calculators are something we all need to get up to speed with and start taking seriously. We are starting a carbon audit on our farm to create a carbon plan. Next year every field on my farm will have two GPS-located soil samples taken to score active carbon, organic matter and and carbon/nitrogen ratio. This will be a baseline for all fields that we can repeat to see our improvements. They could be the most lucrative tests we do in a few years, who knows?

8. Insects over insecticides. My eyes have been opened to a world of tiny creatures that are by far more efficient, more cost effective and far safer than any insecticide. Yes, you guessed it, other insects! Why fight nature when it has all the answers? Ground beetles that hunt all the pests we try and control 24/7 seven days a week; midges, hoverflies, parasitic wasps that feed on aphids or cabbage stem flea beetles - we need them more than ever and now I must think of them as my farm’s livestock. If they are not at their best, then it’s my fault and I need to understand what they need.

9. Have fun and experiment. The work I have been doing with the AHDB has given me the confidence to try all sorts of different techniques, ideas, and approaches. Do not keep plodding along doing the same old things. The most dangerous saying in our language is: "That’s the way we have always done it”. Every time I see myself falling into that trap, I try something different. So, do not get stuck in a rut or bury your head in the sand.

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