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Conservation Agriculture at Castle Fruit Farm

Castle Fruit Farm Manager planting new Conference pears
Castle Fruit Farm Manager Clive planting new Conference pears

Bentleys Fruit FarmDefinition of Conservation Agriculture

 

Conservation Agriculture (CA) is a set of soil management practices that minimize the disruption of the soil’s structure, composition and natural biodiversity. CA has proven potential to improve crop yields, while improving the long-term environmental and financial sustainability of farming.

The FAO believes that there are three major benefits from CA:

  • Within fields that are controlled by CA the producer will see an increase in organic matter.
  • Increase in water conservation due to the layer of organic matter and ground cover to help eliminate transportation and access runoff.
  • Improvement of soil structure and rooting zone

Castle Fruit Farm and Conservation Agriculture.

Michael Bentley has long been involved in Farmers Overseas Action Group which is a charity involved in agricultural development amongst other projects, in Uganda. This interest was sparked by 2 years in India as a young graduate volunteer with Quakers. Trained as a soil and water engineer his particular passion has been sustainable farming practices in the tropics which increase yields by paying careful attention to water management and soil structure amongst other things. This is one of the fundamentals of what is now known as Conservation Agriculture or Climate Smart Agriculture. It is clear that nature is committed to recycling everything, the circular economy par excellence, whereas man uses natural resources and then discards them. The tenets of Conservation Agriculture are just as relevant here in the UK so I asked Michael some questions about his                      practice at Castle Fruit Farm !

 

“How do you look after your soil here at Castle Fruit Farm ?”

Maintaining soil health is crucial – globally and here. One way we look after our soil is by minimising the use of heavy machinery particularly when it is wet. This is one negative of organic growers in that mechanical weeding rather than spraying is their means of weed control which involves very regular traffic up and down the rows. We subsoil occasionally if the soil has become compacted to repair the soil structure.

In what ways are biodiversity important and how do you support biodiversity in the orchards?

Soil biodiversity is linked closely to soil structure and soil composition which is vital for good rooting of trees, good nutrition and therefore yields. Yield (and price) determine our economic viability and underpins a commercial fruit farm like Castle Fruit Farm. When planting a new orchard we endeavour to rest and restore it before planting. We are currently replacing  Baldwyn’s Oak orchard. Having grubbed the trees, here Cox apples which yield poorly and are now little in demand  – sorry those who love them- we sowed a grass mix containing leguminous and flowering plants. This is then grazed (and manured ) by the sheep for one season. In order not to destroy the soil structure by ploughing as in the past, we simply spray a strip with a herbicide and then plant the new trees into an opened furrow. In this orchard it will be Braeburn – a new clone with good colour specifically for our northern clime and desire for coloured fruit not pale and interesting !

Another soil issue is erosion. We know in the tropics of the huge losses of soli after deluges as has happened recently in South America. We are fortunate in our climate . However we are seeing increasingly torrential rain.  Here on Castle Fruit Farm we watch with dismay if gulleys appear on our steep sandy slopes and endeavour in different ways to prevent soil loss – planting across the contours where possible, avoiding using tractors when wet and  mulching with bark chippings or green waste compost. Preventing soil loss is crucial everywhere in the world including here.

What about your management of water ?

The best water is rain water over which we have no control. We drip feed water through irrigation systems to our orchards when essential – gone are the days of very wasteful sprinklers. We disrupt the soil minimally and try to minimise evaporation and conserve soil moisture by using green compost from near Dymock.Bentleys Fruit Farm

So in conclusion, what are the values of these practices ?

Hopefully we are not only conserving soil health but improving it so that farming on this farm is sustainable for future generations and the great planet.

Who will Harvest our 2017 Crops

Who is going to harvest our fruit this year ?

Apple-picking
Apple-picking by Pat Strauss

Buds are breaking on the Valor plum trees and hurrah,the blackthorn  is in full blossom so the pollinators can get to work. These are our free workers so we try to make sure pollen is available early on by planting goat willow and keeping some of the hedges uncut for their early blossom.  More on the importance of biodiversity later as what is more pressing is organising our harvest workers. Like all farmers we rely on seasonal labour to harvest our crops. In our case this means a group of Bulgarians who come every year for 3-5 months. Who works here has recently become a topic of heated discussion as Brexit and immigration  hit the headlines. There are those who oppose this “immigration” and those who believe we should employ our local unemployed. The situation is not so simple and these are some of the issues as I see them.

Winter work in the orchards

Winter Work : ” surely there is nothing to do now it’s winter ” How that makes Clive laugh !

One of the foremost things on our minds is :Tree planting. Orchards are being continually renewed, driven by age, unprofitability and the never ending desire of consumers for the new. It  is a necessary and  huge commitment in every way not just financial. The other tasks at this time of the year are pruning , machinery maintenance , coppicing, logging, ditching , hedge cutting and planning labour for next season, and on wet days catching up on research findings and never ending paperwork – deserves a blog on its own !

Bird Life at Castle Fruit Farm 2016/17

 Image may contain: one or more people, bird, grass, sky, outdoor and natureWe are very keen to increase the biodiversity here at Castle Fruit Farm for all sorts of reasons. Firstly , orchards are a wonderful habitat and have a unique part to play in maintaining the richness of our natural world which is being challenged in so many ways – by farming practices, by the insatiable demand for houses and over enthusiastic tidiness ! We are not owners of this land but custodians and have a responsibility to tend and nurture it for future generations as well as make our living. There is happily a symbiotic relationship between good husbandry and promoting biodiversity . We need a good population of insects for pollination. We need to provide all year round sources of pollen and nectar by promoting healthy populations of wildflowers and varied hedges.

Who are our winter visitors?

flown in from Scandinavia , mainly to eat grubs but also to feast on all our apples which we don’t harvest as imperfect in lots of ways – too small, too pale , ripe too late. All great for these feeding flocks of visitors who will entirely clear the fruit by spring. 

Mervyn is an accredited ringer and is monitoring migrant populations of Redwings, Field Fares and Thrushes. All his data goes to the British Ornithological Society . He sets his nets in which he drops a device which plays the call of a male Lithuanian Redwing and it certainly attracts the crowds. A quick weigh and examination follows and the birds fly off unharmed but ringed . Sometimes he catches ringed birds but more often not. More details will follow !

The Autumn Malvern Show 24th-25th September 2016!

Visit The Harvest Pavilion to see fabulous arrays of the best English produce. Bentleys Castle Fruit Farm will be there!

We have entered several classes with our apples and pears and Apple Juices and hope to win prizes as we usually do!

Look out for our very posh Bentleys Delicious Plum Sauces. These are for the adventurous cook and make a great gift in our Presentation Box for 3 bottles.

Bentley will be there too – special appearance! come and visit to find out who Bentley is!

More Info at http://www.threecounties.co.uk/malvernautumn/

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