UK - For the next 18 months Andrew Howard, a farmer from Kent, will study examples of farms across the world which use companion cropping, both arable and non-arable.
His is an appropriate topic; 2015 is the UN International Year of Soils, which aims to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions
Companion cropping is the practice of growing two or more plant species in the same field at the same time, and includes intercropping, undersowing, relay cropping and pasture cropping. This includes cases where only one of the plant species is harvested.
Andrew farms 345ha in a family partnership near Ashford, Kent, growing winter and spring wheat, winter and spring oilseed rape, spring oats, spring barley, winter barley, and field beans. His soils range from heavy weald clay to light sand.
He said: “I chose this topic because we’re already doing a lot of work on our farm to try and improve our soils, from no-till to cover cropping. We’ve got mixed species in our cover crops, and I want to see whether this will work in our cash crops.
“We’re also facing increased input costs and there is evidence that companion cropping could reduce fertiliser and herbicide usage.”
Andrew has run small-scale trials of companion cropping for the last three years, after hearing French farmer Frédéric Thomas from Conservation Agriculture in Brittany speak in 2012.
“The trials worked quite well,” he added.
“I’ve grown small areas of oilseed rape with vetches or a vetch and buckwheat mix, primarily on medium soils, and found the rape was better established, had better rooting and we were able to reduce our herbicide usage compared with our normal cropping.
“When I tried growing Peola (spring oilseed rape and spring peas together), it gave us a better gross margin than the spring rape by itself. I’ve also tried undersowing spring cereals with clover, which hasn’t been successful yet.”
“I want to keep improving the soils on my own farm and help other UK farmers to do likewise. Around the world during the last 60 years soils have been degraded, and I’d like to think that in the next 60 years I can help us to improve them again.”
Follow Andrew's progress via his Twitter account.
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