Farmer reaps green rewards by growing wheat in an apple orchard

Stephen Briggs of Whitehall Farm is growing wheat within an apple orchard to establish the UK'’s largest agroforestry operation in Cambridgeshire. Picture: JustFarmers

Stephen Briggs of Whitehall Farm is growing wheat within an apple orchard to establish the UK'’s largest agroforestry operation in Cambridgeshire. Picture: JustFarmers

JustFarmers

Growing wheat in an apple orchard can reduce soil erosion and increase carbon capture, according to a Fenland farmer who has created the UK’s largest “agroforestry” operation.

Stephen Briggs of Whitehall Farm is growing wheat within an apple orchard to establish the UK’'s largest agroforestry operation in Cambridgeshire. Picture: Tim ScrivenerStephen Briggs of Whitehall Farm is growing wheat within an apple orchard to establish the UK’'s largest agroforestry operation in Cambridgeshire. Picture: Tim Scrivener

Stephen Briggs of Whitehall Farm, near Peterborough, grows cereals and fruit in strips across 52 hectares of rich fen soil and has found the wheat yields to be similar to arable fields – with one notable exception.

During high winds in 2019, he said 20pc of the grain in the arable fields was lost due to self-threshing of the ears, while in the agroforestry field the losses were less than 10pc as the trees slowed down the wind – saving the farm £215 per hectare.

“The reality is, climate change is with us,” said Mr Briggs. “We’ve got to look at the way we farm to safeguard our crops against the increasingly extreme weather we’re having.”

Mr Briggs’ “intercropping” journey began ten years ago by planting rows of apple trees 24 metres apart across the field, allowing space for harvesting using conventional farming equipment.

Stephen Briggs of Whitehall Farm is growing wheat within an apple orchard to establish the UK’'s largest agroforestry operation in Cambridgeshire.  Picture Tim ScrivenerStephen Briggs of Whitehall Farm is growing wheat within an apple orchard to establish the UK’'s largest agroforestry operation in Cambridgeshire. Picture Tim Scrivener

The strips beneath the trees are planted with legumes and flowers to attract beneficial insects and pollinators – so no insecticide has been needed in 13 years of organic farming. Meanwhile, the orchard opens greater opportunities for adding value to the farm’s output.

“Cereal output has a ceiling in terms of being able to add value,” said Mr Brigs. “The fruit trees have a similar gross output per hectare but I can treble the value by selling fresh fruit or processing – so there is more potential for added value.

“I’m doubling productivity across my farm, by effectively growing in three dimensions, throughout the year.

“The way I see it, I’m just making maximum use of my soil because one of my two crops is always growing. Sowing wheat or barley in the autumn means that is photosynthesising through the winter and growing strongly in April to June. The trees are dormant over winter, and they don’t really wake up until April when they’ve got the leaves on, but then they carry on right through to October.”

Stephen Briggs of Whitehall Farm is growing wheat within an apple orchard to establish the UK'’s largest agroforestry operation in Cambridgeshire. Picture: Friends of the EarthStephen Briggs of Whitehall Farm is growing wheat within an apple orchard to establish the UK'’s largest agroforestry operation in Cambridgeshire. Picture: Friends of the Earth

“Our trees grow 4m tall, which gives a 40m radius of protection from the fenland winds. By slowing down the wind, we protect the cereals and stop water loss and wind erosion from the soil. That is a real issue here.

“We have seen a massive improvement in soil quality, health, beneficial fungi – the tree roots go down far lower than the cereals, bringing life to the soil.”

Mr Briggs, who also works as an adviser for Abacus Agriculture Consultants, is one of the speakers at an online event being held by Agri-TechE on October 8 called “Seeing the Wood for the Trees,” which will explore the potential for intercropping on farms.

His farm sequesters an estimated 4.5 tonnes of carbon per hectare from its fruit trees. And innovative approaches like this will become increasingly valuable during the agricultural industry’s drive towards “net zero” emissions targets, said Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE.

“Cultivation methods that use no-till and cover crops are attractive as they can increase the carbon content of the soil,” she said. “In this event, we are looking at how agroforestry can generate new income streams and a range of public goods – this promises to create a lively discussion.”

Other speakers at the webinar will include:

• Phillip Ayres, of Elsoms seeds, who will discuss how new seed technologies could boost tree germination and early growth by 50-100pc.

• Greg Beeton, of Brown & Co, who will explain Woodland Carbon Units and the alternative income streams that can be created by planting trees alongside arable land.

• Jim O’Neill, of the Forestry Commission, who will discuss how woodlands can be integrated into farming practice.

For more information on the event see the Agri-TechE website.


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