AHDB Strategic Farmer Brian Barker on why earthworms are farmers’ best friends

Worms on Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe. Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Worms on Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe. Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Archant

On November 1, 2017, Brian Barker’s farm at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, became the Agricultural Horticultural Development Board’s (AHDB) first Strategic Farm for Cereals and Oilseeds in the UK. Here he looks at the dark world of earthworms.

Worms on Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe. Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Worms on Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe. Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Archant

I farm and soil is my primary asset. Abuse it at your peril and treat it as a unique ecosystem of the dark underground world. In this dark, damp world where chemistry, physics and biology interact in mysterious science the magnificent earthworm is the king!

So why do farmers need them? Well, they work 24/7 all year round free of charge, all we should try and do is keep them fed with organic matter which they feed on and break down and incorporate through the topsoil. As they fed and this matter decomposes bacteria and fungi join the party separating individual nutrients making them available to the plants growing in that soil. The plants then feed on these available nutrients and give back sugar created by photosynthesis through their roots to keep all the soil community buzzing fed on liquid sunshine!

So, worms are farmers’ friends we need them but how do you count them?

Well, you need a spade, one litre of water one large tablespoon of English mustard powder, plastic sheet and a small pot!

Worms on Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe. Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Worms on Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe. Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Archant


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• Dig a 20cm by 20cm by 20cm cube of soil out of your field and place on plastic sheet.

• Mix mustard powder and water together with a good shake and pour into the hole created.

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• Set a time limit, I would suggest 10minutes and start work finding worms. Break the soil onto the sheet up and every worm you find place it in the small pot. Methodically keep breaking down soil into ever smaller pieces and keep your eyes peeled for worms making a dash for it.

• While sorting keep an eye on your hole, hopefully your solution should have disappeared down any wormholes or soil cracks and this will act as an irritant to any worms down there (It’s not lethal, basically like getting soap in your eye) and worms will rush to the surface to get away from it. If any come up add them to your pot.

Worms on Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe. Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Worms on Brian Barker's farm at Westhorpe. Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Archant

• Once 10 minutes is up. Count and try to ID your worms by size or colour.

• Return worms to soil and repeat the process and have loads of fun. A great activity to do with your children or grandchildren.

I’ve done this as part of our #Strategicfarm baselining with a worm expert Jacqueline Stroud @wormscience from Rothamsted Research Centre. When we sampled them she estimated my fields range from 1.5 to 3.6million worms per hectare or an average of 14 per hole! How do your fields compare?

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

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

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