Posted by: Mahdi Ebrahimi | February 2, 2008

Simpler organic system makes more time for on-farm education

Helping children and teachers from inner-city schools to visit working farms is the key role of the Country Trust, enabling the children to have fun learning about how their food is produced and a little about rural life. Neil Ryder meets the trust’s new assistant director, David Thompson.

David Thompson is a passionate man. His enthusiasm for farming has in turn paved the way towards creating his second passion – a charitable trust organising farm visits for inner city school children.

To some extent, his passion for farming was a foregone conclusion as his family have been tenants at Broxfield Farm near Alnwick, Northumberland since 1820.

After leaving school, he studied agriculture and marketing at Newcastle University before joining the family business, now farming in partnership with his father, James, and mother, Adelaide. The farm is part of the Northumberland Estate.

It was his father-in-law, Oxley Patterson, who introduced him to the Country Trust. That was just over eight years ago and led to David becoming a voluntary regional manager for the trust and last year, his appointment as its assistant director.

Now he combines farming with his Country Trust work, co-ordinating farm visits for schools by bringing together host farms, trust guides, teachers, schools and, of course, the children themselves.

He also feels that it is time for the Suffolk-based trust to take on a higher profile and to become more active in recruiting host farmers and guides.

During 2007 alone, the trust organised visits involving some 17,000 children and 2,500 teachers. The Thompson’s family farm is no stranger to being under the spotlight, playing host to many school visits, including children from the Byker area of Newcastle-upon-Tyne made famous in the children’s television series, Byker Grove.

David’s own family is made up of wife, Kathryn, 19-year-old Harry who is at Kingston-upon-Thames University studying fashion design; Robert, 18, who is studying rural enterprise and land management at Harper Adams University College; and 14-year-old Katie, a student at Duchess High School, Alnwick.

The farming operation is made up of Broxfield Farm itself, which covers about 500 acres, and Heckley Fence Farm – the two separated by the A1 trunk road. Heckley Fence Farm, also owned by the Northumberland Estate, is rented under a Farm Business Tenancy.

The land is relatively heavy, being loam over clay, but is well-drained by a system of tile drains. Up until 2004, the farm was run as an intensive arable and beef unit taking in both bought-in cattle for finishing and running a Limousin cross suckler herd.

With de-coupling of farm support systems on the way, it was decided to review the farming system and a number of factors came together.

The family saw strong growth in organic beef production and reasoned that this would mean increasing demand for organic cereals to feed them.

without artificial fertilisers, which in turn meant a rotation involving livestock, especially cattle.

The net result was that the farms completed organic conversion in 2006. The arable enterprise takes up some 280 acres of spring crops, including Amaretto wheat and Synchro field beans.

Westminster spring barley has proved highly successful, and Attego spring oats have also worked well. Cereals are dried and stored at a local co-operative, Coastal Grains at Belford.

“Spring crops give us better weed control than would be the case with winter crops. This is important in an organic system,” explains David.

“Organic cereal yields are more variable than with conventional crops and average out at about half of those expected under conventional systems.

“These crops are usually undersown with clover-rich leys. The land will then stay under these for two or three years to build up fertility before going back to arable cropping.

Undersowing also means that the 1,000 or so organic Scotch Blackface lambs that are over wintered and finished on the farm have good grazing from the moment they arrive. These lambs are owned by another farmer and provide ‘small but useful’ additional income at Broxfield.

Apart from around 70 acres of permanent pasture, the grassland is down to clover rich leys. Undersowing tends to use a mix with red clover and Italian and other early ryegrasses designed to give good yields and high quality for silaging.

Leys sown for grazing include white clover and wider mix of early, intermediate and late ryegrasses plus possibly some cocksfoot. It is a more adaptable mix, being suited to both grazing and silaging, and is finding an increasing role in the system. In all, about 100 acres of new leys are established each year.

Beef production is based on about 130 Aberdeen-Angus cross suckler cows put to Aberdeen-Angus bulls. The senior stock bull is Flodden Evoso which, says David, is throwing some exceptional calves.

The herd calves from April to June and calving takes place outside whenever possible to minimise disease problems.

The calves are weaned in the New Year and are finished at about 18-20 months off grass and forage. They are sold deadweight through Dovecote on a Waitrose contract, weighing around 290-300kg on the hook.

“The calves and finishing cattle receive the best quality silage we have and our growth rates this last year have been incredible for an organic system with a high proportion ready to go at around 18 months,” he says.

A key role for the cattle is to produce large quantities of farm manure for the organic arable enterprise. The nutrient value of the muck is analysed and a contractor using a large spreader giving an even distribution called in for the actual spreading.

“Our policy here is to keep everything as simple as possible but to manage it well.

“So far, at least, it is working very well for us.

One thing I do like about organic cereals is there is no spraying.

“When we were on an intensive conventional system, I always seemed to be spraying.

“Often, if there was a calm spell after tea time, I would be going out with a big sprayer, which did not go down well with the rest of the family!” said David.

Keeping everything simple has allowed David to develop his other interests, especially the Country Trust.

The trust was founded in 1978 to enable school children, mostly primary, from inner city areas to visit working farms. In many instances, these schools are in areas of social deprivation.

“The trust does everything it can to organise and host visits. We have a network of farmers and estates happy to act as hosts, then visit the farms to check and advise on risk assessment and health and safety issues. The trust also has a team of trained guides taking in people from many backgrounds, including retired teachers and farmers.

“Apart from the host farmer, one or more of our guides is there for every farm visit. We work closely with the schools to make sure that the programme fits in with the school curriculum and the age group on the visit.

“Here at Broxfield Farm we have converted an old blacksmith’s forge into a centre for school visits including a classroom and toilets.”

The project was given the full support of Northumberland Estate and financial backing including grants from

Natural England and the Northumberland Coast ANOB.

“Wherever possible the children like to have a picnic outside and we have large waterproof sheets for this purpose.It is very satisfying for everyone concerned. Some of these children have never been near a farm. We hope these visits will help them better understand the farming and rural way of life as well as how their food is produced. It also helps us understand a little of their world, which is very different from life on a farm.

“We need more host farmers and guides to become involved and, of course, any fundraising is more than welcome.

“I am also involved with FACE – Farming and Countryside Education – and in organising events for the Year of Food and Farming – both of which I feel are complementary to the work of Country Trust.”



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