Earlier this month I went on a farm visit to Wakelyns Farm in Suffolk, a pioneer in agroforestry and one deeply embedded in research in to alternative agricultural systems. I had been wanting to go here for many years, and suddenly the opportunity came up – so despite being a very long way form Scilly, I didn’t hesitate to book on. 

Owned and run by Prof Martin Wolfe, Wakelyns has really been the agroforestry farm people associate with in the UK. It spans about 57 acres of what looks like very fertile soil that Suffolk is pretty well known for. However what is somewhat lacking in much of the Suffolk farmed landscape is diversity. This is a photo of the farm right next door to Wakelyns:

Suffolk arable landscape

Pretty good at producing cereals, but biodiversity, soil management, trees, diversity – leaves a lot to be desired. Contrast this with the agroforestry approach, now well bedded in a good 20 to 25 years after establishment:

The layout of the hazel alley crops

Here we have a wheat crop, from seed bred and saved by Martin Wolfe, but grown between double rows of hazel 8m apart. The total crop of this area therefore is not just what, but also a substantial crop of hazel (one row is coppiced every 5 years) that can be used for stakes, woodchip, mushroom substrate, etc. It also goes without saying that the biodiversity is much higher in the agroforestry system and soil organic matter levels also higher. All the fertility comes from green manures, which makes up one part of the rotation.

What was particularly interesting was that the height of the wheat (and the yield) was even right across the field. I would have expected to see a shallow curve from edge to edge, as the hazel coppice was competing for water and nutrients. This clearly appeared to be not the case! Martin explained that he thinks by ploughing within 1m of the edge of the hazel forced it to root deeper, therefore not really interfering with the crop.

Wheat between hazel

The farm runs three main types of alley crops – hazel on 8m spacings (between rows), mixed species on 15m spacings, and willow on 12m spacings. Each system has quite distinct characteristics and purposes.

The mixed species system was quite attractive and offered the greatest flexibility for other farms. The one pictured below is a mixture of broadleaf trees (oak, ash, hornbeam, Italian alder, willow) and fruit trees (mostly apple and cherry). The broadleaf trees were mostly pollarded and the regrowth looked incredible. 

The ground immediately under to the trees (for about a three metre width) was unmanaged and a good mix of wildflowers as well as good invertebrate habitat.

Mixed alley crops

The choice of trees for alley crops has much flexibility and is dependent on needs of the system, soil, climate, etc.

I have been thinking about trying to do more agroforestry here at Scilly Organics, but this visit gave me more thought on what could be achieved with some creative thinking. We do effectively have some agroforestry with our small fields with high hedges. Pittosporum and Eunoymous in particular do have other uses as animal feed, firewood and woodchips. 

But is there more we could be doing by integrating perennial crops with annual crops? Undoubtedly, yes, and using the existing windbreaks we have could be a big advantage in helping to establish less salt and wind tolerant species. This could be successfully integrated with fruit, vegetables and think even flowers.

The irony of the entire day pouring with rain after the extended drought that East Anglia have experienced!

Probably the biggest eye opener was the effect on the micro-climate of the farm. Martin explained that in the real heat of July, Wakelyns remained quite green in the midst of a parched landscape. Yields of wheat this year remained at least as good as average, where surrounding farms have suffered substantial yield penalties. The farm actually felt different – calmer, damper, more fertile. Strange one to actually convey but it was quite profound.

It was a shame not to see more vegetable crops on the farm, which up to five years ago was central to the rotation. For various reasons that has changed, but it was still very impressive to see such a great setup that has been studied so much.

Woodchips are a major product of the system

The biggest message was that diversity over time and space brings stability, synergies and total productivity. This may not be new to those familiar with permaculture, but putting it in to practice in a commercial way is a different challenge. Wakelyns gives a model of various routes to achieving that goal.

Agroforestry will undoubtedly only become more important in British farming policy going forward.

Jonathan Smith

I started Scilly Organics in 2003, and it was the first certified organic farm on the Islands. We continue to supply the highest quality fruit and vegetables, available fresh on our stall and at certain eateries on Scilly.