Written evidence on Food Security to the environment and rural affairs committee.

Authors. PJ Griffith BSc. MS, member of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants and TSW Jones BA. PGCE, director Sector39 partnership and CwmHarry. Both authors have an extensive knowledge of UK agriculture.


UK arable production is predominantly a monoculture based on cereals and specifically winter wheat. The lack of diversity in arable production places the UK farming sector at high risk to the impact of climate change. The intense weather conditions in 2012 turned the UK from a net exporter to net importer of wheat for the first time in over a decade. The HSBC Agriculture Forward Planning 2013 reveals that few farms would be profitable without the single farm payment. The current CAP reform gives the opportunity to directly fund agroecology systems. The World Bank and the UNCTAD report that agroecology systems are one of the best ways of developing resilience to food production in an increasingly unpredictable climate. Adoption of these practices within the UK with the emphasis on soil biota health and increased biodiversity should be an integral part of the National Adaptation Plan for Agriculture to climate change and food security.

  1. How secure is Britain’s food supply.

1.1.    UK land usage shows only 20% of the land area is attributed to crop production. Half the country is under some form of grass be that pasture or moorland. The percentage of land under urban use is almost the same as under woodland both being around 12% of the total UK land area. Only 1% of the UK is classified as fresh water.

1.2.    Half of the cropped area of the UK is under cereal production and of this wheat represents 60%. Therefore, a third of the UK cropped acreage is in one crop, wheat of which 44% is destined for animal feed.

1.3.    Over the last three years (2011 – 2013) 81% of the arable area of the UK has been in either cereals (66%) or oilseed rape (16%). Horticultural production of fruit and vegetables represents only 2% of arable land and of this 98% is grown outside.

1.4.    The fact that such a high proportion of the arable area of the UK is in either wheat or oilseed rape is a high risk strategy when it comes to food security.  A large proportion of the arable area is at risk from a breakdown in disease or pest control, either from weather conditions preventing timely applications of pesticides or of resistance developing to available products. Herbicide resistance is becoming a major factor in cereal production in areas where black-grass is endemic. Cereal disease resistance to the fungicides is well documented with the strobilurons no longer effective against Septoria tritici, a major fungal disease of winter wheat and triazoles also showing reduce activity. In the autumn of 2012 the wet conditions were perfect for the build up of slugs in winter crops which became almost impossible to control with existing moluscicides.

1.5.    The weather conditions in 2012 exemplified the vulnerability of UK agriculture with the current dependence on winter crop production. The harvest of 2012 after a dull, wet and cool growing season saw average yields drop from 7.8 tonnes/ hectare to 6.7 t/ha, a drop of 14 percent on the five year average . Yield losses were also attributable to an outbreak of Fusarium ear blight in the UK wheat crop. A report by Fera showed that nationally the non-toxin producing Microdochium species (M. nivale and M. majus) were responsible for the majority of symptoms; with 93% of crops and 35% of ears within a crop infected by these pathogens. High levels of contamination by Microdochium species will cause reductions in grain quality and yield and affect seed germination. Control from fungicides applied was almost non-existent as timely applications were almost impossible to achieve, due to the wet conditions at the time of ear emergence of these crops.

1.6.    The poor harvest was followed by a disastrous autumn sowing campaign. The Farming Online autumn sowing survey showed that across the UK only two thirds of the planned area of wheat was sown. The staggered sowing and unfavourable growing conditions also meant that only half of that sown actually established.  Figures from the NFU showed some 11.6m tonnes of wheat were harvested in 2013, down 10pc on 2012, for although the yields per hectare improved dramatically in 2013 this was not  enough to cover the shortfall in planted area.

1.7.    The net result of this change in climate was that the UK became a net importer of wheat in 2013 for the first time in a decade.

  1. The implications of volatility in global food supply and demand for UK food security;

2.1.    The UK is 80% self-sufficient in indigenous food (Defra Food stats).  But this figure hides the fact that although we have been self-sufficient in cereals and milk and over 80% self-sufficient in poultry we are below 60% self-sufficient in fresh vegetables and 20% of fresh fruit (Defra Food Matters). Fruit and vegetables account for much of the UK’s food trade deficit. In 2007 24 countries supplied the UK with 90% of its fresh fruit and vegetables – the UK supplied 19%.  The majority (36%) of imported vegetables were supplied by countries within the EU.  However, the figures for fresh fruit show we imported from 25 countries with 65% coming from outside the EU.  A recent report by PWC on the implications of Climate Change highlighted the dependence by the UK for imported food. A report by the World Bank also shows that new results on the impact of climate change published since 2007 suggest a rapidly rising risk of crop yield reductions as the world warms. Large negative effects have been observed at high and extreme temperatures in several regions including India, Africa, the United States, and Australia. For example, significant nonlinear effects have been observed in the United States for local daily temperatures increasing to 29°C for corn and 30°C for soybeans. These new results and observations indicate a significant risk of high-temperature thresholds being crossed that could substantially undermine food security globally.

2.2.    The implications of climate change on the production of food sources outside the UK could have an impact on our supply of those food products we import. This is particularly the case for fruit and vegetables sourced from outside the EU.  The countries we currently import from are considered at high risk of disruption to crop production. The risks are from high temperatures and droughts leading to lower yields and poorer quality. This will also result in diminished export opportunities from the countries concerned. The UK animal feed industry’s reliance on imported soya and maize from the South America and the US could see rising prices as shortages of these commodities results due to droughts in these regions.

2.3.    Dr Jason Lowe, Chief Scientist at the met-office speaking at last month’s event on UK climate change policy warned that in the longer term there’s a trend towards warmer wetter winters and hotter drier summers, summer droughts and more extreme weather events.

2.4.    The past three years weather has given us a taster of how climate change can impact on UK agriculture. The increasing unpredictability of the climate and more frequent intense weather events will test the resilience of any farming practice in play.

2.5.    The main factor that will influence any farms ability to adapt to climate change will be the condition of the soils on that farm. The soils will need to have high organic matter content to prevent erosion and compaction, increase water holding capacity and supply nutrients.  Any adaptation plan to climate change must include soil structural improvement.  A recent study on the soil biota and soil health across Europe identified that many of the soils in UK were at risk, the paper concludes that the high score (i.e., high potential threats) of several areas of United Kingdom and central Europe is determined by the combined effect of a high intensity agriculture, with a relatively high number of invasive species and an increased risk for the soils present there to lose organic carbon (2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Global Change Biology, 19, 1538–1548). The reintroduction of livestock onto arable farms and the use of organic manures are seen as key ways in improving soil health.  One system currently being promoted by two Nuffield scholars is the practice of “mob-grazing”.  Mob grazing is a school of ‘natural farming’ that seeks to mimic the movements of grazing plains animals on a farm scale. The approach is receiving attention around the world, thanks to pioneers who have put remarkable achievements down to mob grazing, and their claims that it can be used to replenish soils exhausted by monocropping or boost the health of pastureland. The Royal Agricultural Society of England is currently organising a series of workshops on this subject.

2.6.    The plan needs to look at water storage through rain water catchment systems and more on farm reservoirs. Flood defences are also paramount and although this is part of the Environment Agency’s National Adaptation Plan, flooding of agricultural land has not received enough attention. The influence of climate change on British agriculture will impact on food security for the UK. The UK Agriculture’s National Adaptation plan needs also to look at the current dependence upon a limited cropping or animal husbandry system which will increase the risk of failure in a climate prone to extreme weather events.

2.7.    The HSBC Forward planning in Agriculture 2014 highlights the importance of the SFP in maintaining farm profitability. The budgets compiled by the HSBC for a series of farm enterprises, arable, livestock and mixed farms identifies that without the current level of support many farms would be unviable.  The current CAP reform offers the perfect opportunity to link support payments to better resilience of farming systems by encouraging more diversity on farms and better soil management.

  1. Agro-ecology – building resilience into farming systems and mitigating against climate change.

3.1.    Agroecology has been defined as the application of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.

3.2.    An evolution to agro ecological would provide many advantages, delivering food security and an increased resilience to climate change. Such strategies also offer greatly increased ecosystems services whilst providing a mechanism to sequestrate large amounts of both carbon and water back into the landscape

3.3.    Key Points:

  • Current agricultural practices are not sustainable as they depend heavily on fossil fuel inputs and erode the natural landscape. Top soil loss, depletion of soil carbon and loss of microbial diversity are all significant symptoms of this erosion of the biosphere.
  • A further limitation of agriculture is that it interferes with the hydrological cycle. Deforestation affects evapo-transpiration and therefore dehumidification of the atmosphere whilst ploughing, bare soils and soil compaction greatly affects infiltration of precipitation to recharge groundwater reserves. This is a significant long term impact.
  • Agro ecology and permaculture mimic natural systems, require decreasing inputs and offer a diversity of yields which also include a restored natural ecology
  • These benefits would enhance local social, food and monetary economies and could transform and energise economic activity.
  1. How Farming Can Reverse Global Warming

4.1.    The Green revolution has transformed farming from what it was 60 years ago. Increased field scale, intensification of cultivation, agrichemicals, machinery, seed technology and more has combined to create the present day system. However, there are some fundamental flaws in this approach and recent evidence is showing that a further transformation of farming will be required.

4.2.    Climate change challenges farming models on several levels. Not least the monoculture approaches are extremely vulnerable to variable climatic conditions and potential pest invasions. Agro-chemical inputs are also of course all derived from fossil fuels: fertilizer, pesticides, diesel for water pumping, farm machines and long supply lines are all extremely vulnerable to a rise in price for oil and of course their use also intensifies climate change.

4.3.    Land management patterns, based on the simplification of the natural diversity has also had significant impacts on wildlife and biodiversity which in terms can make crops more susceptible to pest invasion, without the natural self-regulation afforded by a healthy and diverse natural world surrounding our cultivated lands.

4.4.    The key factor to resilience in a natural system is biodiversity. ‘There is no redundancy in natural ecosystems’ In other words loss of any species in a system erodes the resilience of the whole system. Agroecology needs to, therefore , value the contribution of every species and not to concentrate simply the target species for production but to think far widely about cultivated an ecosystem.

4.5.    Agriculture of the type typified by the intensification of land use increases productivity but only in inverse relation to the inputs required to drive the system. At worst agriculture pits us directly against natural principles and creates an ever increasing dependency of external inputs to maintain a productive system and at the expense of ecosystem function. Agriculture is typically a net consumer of energy when all the inputs are factored in.

4.6.    The UNCTAD report, (supported by a great many others) points to the possibilities of agro-ecology, an evolution of our current systems to embrace much of our increased understanding of the function of the natural world. Small scale farms with wildlife zones and interconnected wildlife corridors provide an intensely rich patchwork of ecology, much more akin to the natural world. Water retention habitat creation, humidification, natural pest regulation and a multitude of other ecosystem functions can be integrated in to functional and highly productive landscapes. One of the report’s conclusions was that climate change will drastically impact agriculture, primarily in those developing countries with the highest future population growth, i.e. in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Against this background, the fundamental transformation of agriculture may well turn out to be one of the biggest challenges, including for international security, of the 21st century.

4.7.    Perhaps a key perspective in this discussion is whether agriculture and our whole approach to land management can be evolved to a) sequestrate far more carbon into the ground and, therefore, slowdown the onset of climate change b) to insulate and mitigate the possible impact caused by more extreme and variable weather patterns and c) to guarantee a rich diverse landscape consummate with long term conservation, ecological and ecosystems services considerations.

4.8.    Observations of natural world show that in many ways agriculture pits us directly against the ecology of the system. Nature builds diversity, builds soil and traps more water into a landscape, via increased soil carbon, wet lands and general rising biomass. Agriculture tends to simplify biodiversity, accelerate the passage of water through a landscape and dry out soils and allow more soil carbon to be oxidised and therefore return to the atmosphere.

  1. Potential benefits of Agro-ecology, permaculture and polycropping systems.
  • Decreasing inputs of fossil fuel derived chemicals and energy
  • Increased biodiversity of crops and wildlife, and therefore resilience to external climatic or pest induced stresses
  • Longer harvesting season due to reduced intensification and increased diversity of yields
  • Re stimulation of the rural economy
  • Create opportunities for more urban farming and gardening
  • Public heath benefits from greater social interactions and more exposure and involvement to local food production and recycling
  • Increased food autonomy and food security
  • Use of cover crops and compost to cover bare soils builds soil organic matter with multiple benefits
  • Sequestration of atmospheric carbon
  1. Embracing agro ecology and integrated ecological farming strategies would unleash a new economic wave of opportunity. It would serve to create relocalisation of a significant part of the food supply which would regenerate local trade and related services whilst providing a far greater degree of actual food security of the economically vulnerable sectors of the community.
  2. Perhaps because of the degree of capitalisation of agriculture, with its huge increases in investment in technology, machines and in working at an increasing scale policy makers are tending to look in the wrong places for possible solutions, strategies and ways forward from current challenges. When we evaluate agribusiness through a prism of energy return on investment what is revealed is that it is a net consumer of energy and not a producer at all and at a significant cost of erosion into the biosphere and the ecosystems services of water storage, purification, transpiration and so much more performed by natural wild systems.
  3. In the light of climate change and energy depletion it is likely that agriculture needs to evolve to take on board hard won ecological lessons. It should embrace far more diversity in terms of crops, varieties and wildlife whilst being much more closely integrated into human living recycling and energy systems. The application of a far greater understanding of the role of wildlife and biodiversity in regulating the natural world would serve to greatly reduce agricultural inputs and to enhance resilience and to ameliorate the worst excess of climate change.
  4. Restructuring subsides and incentives to reforest much of our uplands would act as a short term immediate response to the urgency of carbon sequestration, with better understanding it is likely that land management practices might have to prioritise this as the full impacts of climate crises unfolds.
  5. New economic initiatives might be developed that then build productive systems into these reforested area, such as honey production, fruits, poles for timber, biochar, construction, deer and other game. Just a few examples of the potential for going forward.







An estimate of potential threats levels to soil biodiversity in EU: Global Change Biology (2013) 19, 1538–1548, doi: 10.1111/gcb.12159

International Threats and Opportunities of Climate Change to the UK- PWC

UK Food Security Assessment: Detailed Analysis. Defra January 2010


Food Matters Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century The Strategy Unit July 2008


Farming statistics provisional crop areas, yields and livestock populations at June 2013, United Kingdom – Defra


UNCTAD – Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate September 2013


“Nothing less than a paradigm shift in agriculture is required” UN report

Developing and developed countries alike need a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a “green revolution” to a “truly ecological intensification” approach.

This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.

We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation)
UNCTAD’s Trade and Environment Review 2013 (TER13) contends

(My emphasis) This is a global call up for permaculture and it is about time too. All over the World there is a huge groundswell of interest (and lack of funds for alternatives) in organic, diverse systems. Working with nature means copying its patterns, its chaos, its diversity. These kinds of practices tend to regenerate not just soils but the whole ecology surrounding and supporting productivity. Permaculture, holistic, bio-mimicry practices, often called agro-ecology also sequestrates carbon and builds stable and sustainable revenues from the land. Large corporate and global markets also need to be kept out of especially developing world subsistence food market. The economics had be right as well as the farming practices.

It is a very powerful report, I urge anyone with an understanding in food security to at least read the key abstracts and summaries. 

Cuba leads the way in sustainable agriculture


Click to hear the interview with Roberto Rerez

Here is Cuban permaculturalist and agro ecologist Roberto Perez talking about sustainable agriculture in Cuba.

Roberto was a main voice on the successful and powerful documentary ‘The Power of Community’

Sustainable agriculture.. a visit to the Wakelyns

Every facet of the modern industrial economy is predicated upon cheap energy. Not only that but an expanding supply of cheap energy, to enable economic growth. A key facet of the economic growth paradigm is that we free the workforce from the chore of food production by creating vast surpluses via industrial mono-cultural food production systems. Agri business. There is of course a fundamental flaw in this system.. or several in fact.. that the energy supply can endlessly grow is an obvious weak point in the plan, and the thought that by replacing the complexity of biology with the simplicity of monoculture that we could actually build something sustainable using these methods. Agribusiness burns 10 times more energy in the form of fossil fuel than what it produces in food and it does it at the expense of diversity which turns out to be the key mechanism by which nature and evolution flourishes.

The Wakelyns, is no ordinary farm, it is one where they have been exploring the alternatives to monoculture, and more importantly they have been producing the data to back up most of the key premises in permaculture design. That diversity gives resilience, that feedback and natural selection allow plant populations to evolve and respond to a changing environment. So it was tremendously exciting to be invited there to speak on  the subject of Permaculture, agriculture and energy to help set the context for the vital research and experimentation they are doing there.

Wakelyns is no ordinary farm, as you can see in the picture below the narrow strips of horticultural land is protected by strips of agroforestry, in this case 2 rows of hazel trees each side, forming a living barrier to wind and pests, also providing habitat for beneficial birds and insects and contributing significantly to building an ecosystem rather than a constantly degrading agricultural system.

Wakelyns field trip.. 20 years of agroforestry research underlines the importance of biodiversity for long term sustainable farming methods

Wakelyns field trip.. 20 years of agroforestry research underlines the importance of biodiversity for long term sustainable farming methods

The fields are all trials of different aspects of working with biodiversity.. exploring the relationship between crop yields, nature and wildlife, soil stability resistance to disease and much more. Apart from anything else their work challenges the idea of ‘produce’ – we only usually measure the yield of a farm in terms of how many KG per acre.. rather than in terms of what we have produce sustainably, or what is the yield in terms of how much wildlife have we also supported, or top soil accumulated, which in the longer term are of course much more telling measures.


I am particularly fascinated by the work being done by the Elm Farm Research trust at Wakelyns as they are generating the data, the statistics ad research work that provides the evidence to support the core of the permaculture design theory. Sharing a platform with Dr Wolfe speaking a few weeks ago was very interesting as our talks almost cross referenced each other.. i provided all the bigger picture examples that he had the data and research to support. It is this academic rigor that in many ways has been the missing ingredient in permaculture.. we havent had the time or resources to do the hard research.. not least because first you have to build the farm or project before you can collect the data. This is very fruitful ground to be exploring, and of course the other dynamic is that permaculture is catching up as finally the academic work is being done as the subject matures and reaches ever wider appeal and involvement.

Emma Maxwell, lead horticulture tutor at Get-Growing visiting the Wakelyns organic rwsearch farm

Emma Maxwell, lead horticulture tutor at Get-Growing visiting the Wakelyns organic rwsearch farm

Emma Maxwell, above is an experienced RHS grower who is currently doing her MsC in Organic Horticulture at Schumacher college. SHe is moving moving between a world of research and scientific papers whilst bringing a huge body of practical and observed first hand experiences to the academic world. The edge between bological and horticultural research and small holding and community growing and as well as urban and guerrilla permaculture is a very interesting and potentially fruitful one.

Martin Woolfe, outstanding in his field.

Martin Wolfe, outstanding in his field.

Potato intercrop at the Wakelyns

Potato intercrop at the Wakelyns

Combatting climate change with Carbon Farming

Has anyone noticed the unseasonable weather? We had three feet of snow in Llanrhaeadr in late March this year and nearly 2 weeks later it sill lies thick on the ground. You don’t need me to tell you how much of a disaster this has been for farmers and growers, these random weather patterns and wet/ dry warm/ cold extremes are creating havoc and making planning almost impossible. Needless to say this is exactly what has been predicted we can expect as a result of our changing climate.. caused by releasing billions of tonnes of stored carbon from the ground back into the air each year. This extra trapped warmth is causing a more energised weather system, which is the root cause of these weather events. As the temperature differential between the equator and poles changes, due to this warming effect this in turn is affecting the jet stream and other high thermal currents of air, which in turn is shifting weather patterns.

So what can be done, how can we as gardeners protect ourselves form these extremes and what responses can we be encouraging to at least begin to challenge the problem at source? Well of course the key response is that we simply have to stop pumping so much carbon into the air, we need a rapid shift in energy use and a major disinvestment in the oil coal and gas industries. this being the major focus of 350.org’s divest in oil campaign.

The key to solving this, aside from a rapid shift to low carbon and renewable energy is going to be to learn how to take CO2 from the atmosphere and get it back into the soil. where it belongs. Something that is not so well understood is just how much of the climate damaging carbon in the atmosphere has come from soil carbon, oxidised as a result of soils being ploughed up and the original vegetation being removed. It is this soil carbon that is going to be a key component to addressing the problem.

carbon effect

There seems to be a huge scope from encouraging a change in the pattern of land use to make carbon sequestration the key objective in conjunction to yields of food. There is a massive potential to put carbon back into the soil in a stable long term form that in turn will have many other benefits.

Soils with a high carbon content – this can be in the form of humus  compost/ biochar etc are less prone to erosion and have much improved soil structure. This means there are more air spaces which allows water to be absorbed much more effectively which in turn mean there is a much more soil life in the form of microbes and fungi which makes it much more fertile. It is the soil biodiversity of micro flora and fauna that holds nutrients in place, prevents them from leaching out and keeps them available for plants. Healthy soils of course mean healthy plants, which means happy farmers – so it is a win win situation. It seems that much more thought needs to go into realising the massive potential of storing very much more carbon in soils and to use plants to put it there.. further studies also are showing that correct use of livestock for grazing and the application of their manure to the soil is also an effective way to build up a carbon bank in the soil. These are the kind of strategies which we can expect to be our front line of defence in combating climate change.. healthy soils will produce healthy plants which will be better prepared to resist the stresses put upon them by our unsettled weather, but more importantly we will be building strategies and process which will return carbon the soil in a long term stable form in an on going process that will allow us to reduce the amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Changes in farm incentives, land use, much more community gardening and many other strategies will be required to make the changes required.. but it will start with having a clear plan and strategy in mind which is what makes this kind of understanding essential in  finding a viable way forward.

Seeds of Freedom

The story of seed has become one of loss, control, dependence and debt. It’s been written by those who want to make vast profit from our food system, no matter what the true cost. It’s time to change the story.

Seeds of Freedom seeks to challenge the mantra that large-scale, industrial agriculture is the only means by which we can feed the world, promoted by the pro-GM lobby. In reality traditional farmaers feed 70% of the world’s people on less land and with fewer inputs that agribusiness. “The food supply must be re-localised” Dr Vandana Shiva.. this video contains compelling evidence in support of that statement.

Biochar experiment results are in

This spring we linked up with the Big Biochar experiment, where we planted up some test beds to make some comparisons with different soil treatments.

Anyone who doesn’t know about Biochar needs to look into it and find out some more. A good place to start is with this remarkable Horizon documentary which gives an historical and cultural context as to where the idea originates from, deep in the Amazon more than a 1000 years ago.

Evidence suggests there actually were vast civilizations living in the Amazon, pre 1531 which is when the Spanish first arrived. It is a remarkable chapter in history, almost completely frogotten and the only tangible evidence of this once great civilization is the quality topsoil they left behind, in an area notorious for its poor soils for farming.

Alternatively read Albert Bates’ excellent book, the Biochar Solution.. either way it so turns out that this could be the single most important discovery for centuries! It offers a clean source of energy as well as a potential response to combating climate change, soil depletion and food security. Maybe this is the way to sequestrate carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the soil in a useful way. So if it is so potentially great as a growing medium then it certainly needs to be tested.

Oca plants harvested from our biochar trial beds

We set up 4 1.2m square test beds and in them grew salad, beetroot and oca. The four beds were treated in the following way:
Bed 1, 1KG of biochar was added as well as a wheel barrow of compost.
Bed 2, We added nothing but there had been compost added the previous year.
Bed 3, We added one wheel barrow of compost.
Bed 4, Had a mineral dust based soil improver added and one wheel barrow of compost.

the rock dust mineral soil improver used on Bed 4

The compost was Cwm Harry soil improver and is homogenised and pasteurised high nitrogen food waste compost produced from local sources.

Due to us having to move gardens and other distractions we didn’t measure the salad and beetroot yield, although visibly there seemed to be a clear improvement in beds 1 and 4.

The main crop we chose was Oca (Oca Oxalis Tuberosa) which we thought would make an ideal plant for comparison, in that it produces a tuber and is late to develop, giving it a long time to develop and is something easy to quantify and weigh. It also originates in latin America, so that also seemed appropriate for a biochar experiment. (Oca is Andean, not Amazonian, but its the right continent!)

The Results:
Bed 1: 1.84 KG of tubers… healthy plants but small tubers than bed 4.
Bed 2: 1.34 KG of tubers… these were the smallest tubers in size but there were lots of them.
Bed 3: 1.54 KG tubers… actually very similar to bed 2, plentiful but quite small tubers.
Bed 4: 1.52 KG of tubers… These were the best looking and largest individual tubers, but the total yield was less than bed 1.

So in terms of overall crop the Biochar bed won.. but it was interesting to note that the rock dust treatment bed, Bed 4 had produced bigger and better looking tubers.

Conclusion; I can’t wait to build long term beds using the compost, the rock dust AND the biochar. The results could be frightening!

Get-Growing volunteers setting up the trial beds back in March

Autumn at Get-Growing Newtown

Its that special time of year when the leaves are turning and suddenly every bit of daylight seems precious as we prepare for winter. Our next activity will be making a start on the Treowen community garden space in Newtown and we will be there on Monday if anyone is interested in coming along to help make a start

autumn colour

Autumn colour in the garden

The picture below is of the woods on the banks of the Severn (Hafren) above Llanidloes, where went this week to dig up fruit bushes which had been kindly donated to the garden by project member Emma and her partner Dave

Forest landscape, Llanidloes, above the Severn (Hafren)

We went up to their plot with our work experience team to make use of the offer and to have a final look at their garden there.. which they were having to move on from after 10 years of growing there.

Garden work, extracting fruit bushes with our work experience team for the Get-Growing garden

This plot had been the main garden for Emma and co for the last 10 years

I was fascinated to see this old potato harvester which they had been using…. it must have originally been built to be pulled by a horse, an old Lister farm tool, made from cast iron, that after some loving restoration still worked well at the job it had been made for probably a 100 years ago…. small versatile farm tools like this are very useful for small holders and small scale growers and it really interesting to see things turn full cirlce and see these kind of appliances being valued again.

Antique potato harvester brought back to life

The straw bale chicken house and other ingenious ideas for small scale producers

Here is an ingenious design that creates a very effective, low maintenance chicken house that manages to meet many of the needs of the chicken. Well insulated, easy to clean and renew, it also harvest waster from drinking, keeping that fresh as well as providing shelter and dust bath space as well. i love the fact that excess nutrients can drain off into a part of the garden where they are going to be useful.

I think for many growing projects such as our in Newtown keeping small livestock could be a vital element to develop a really productive system. It is the synergy between different living systems that can accelerate and drive nutrient cycles and of course Chooks are excellent at breaking pest cycles and managing insect numbers.. plus all their scratching energy, if prerly managed can be regarded as a very useful input into the garden, managing and cleaning soils.

Here is Geoff Lawton talking about ponds, algae and fish and another possibility for working with livestock in the garden.. to produce food, soil and ohter essential functions for a diverse and productive garden.

If you want to take the garden to another level then aquaponics systems allow the opportunity to greatly intensify growing with a stacked integrated system which uses the outputs of the fish tank to feed plants and the plant system to clean the water for the fish. There are many people playing around with aquaponic systems on a small back yard scale at the moment and there is still a lot of research to be done into teh possibilities of these systmes.. the best way to d o this research is to try setting up your own system.. This video from Backyard aquaponics gives you a good idea of what is possible.

Aquaponics UK Here is a link to a UK aquaponics group with a community focus

Community Garden Design

Google Earth image of the new garden site in Newtown

The bungalow at the centre of the garden, which will become the offices and volunteer hub of the planned development

Starting a new community garden from scratch… its a complex challenge with many different considerations. In order to tackle this and get a genuinely insightful result we decided to run the process as  a course and to consult with as many different people as possible to get as many different perspectives as possible.

Representing the Plants themselves we looked at the work of Michael Pollan, where he has considered the world from the perspective of the plant. He introduces the idea that in the same way that bees are manipulated by plants to do their bidding, so are we, we change landscapes, propagate new varieties and introduce seed around the world to fulfill particular plants evolutionary strategies. Those plants which have most effectively built a partnership with humans, in a dance of domestication have benefited greatly in having their   genome spread around the globe.

sue stickland

Sue Stickland presenting ideas on how to garden for wildlife

From the perspective of Wild life and gardening for biodiversity we invited author and well known organic gardener Sue Stickland to present her ideas on how to best meet the needs of wildlife in the garden, whilst maintaining productivity. She informed us that with an organic integrated pest management strategy we can meet the needs of wildlife whilst building a healthy diverse ecosystem which will also keep predator/ pest relationships at a level that will prevent infestations.

Building a relationship with our neighbours at Coleg Powys, the regional 6th Form college will be key to the project’s success, so it seems imperative that we can understand their aspirations for the development, so we were pleased to have representatives from both the site/ infrastructure and educational departments to help inform our design. We also consulted with Cwm Harry food company, who are keen to develop a local food economy and develop a market for local growers to take surplus produce to.

Local grower Richard Edwards’ field near Newtown, source of much of the produce distributed by the Cwm Harry Food Company

Local Producers: We also had the opportunity to visit a local growing site… to give us a good idea of what we might be able to achieve on the new site. We are planning to use raised beds and minimum tillage methods as we understand that digging and ploughing has a very damaging effect on soils and soil life and needs to be kept to an absolute minimum.

We are also very interested in experimental methods of growing. In fact we feel if we are not pushing with new ideas and strategies we are not fully doing our job.

Garlic air-drying for better storage

Essentially with so many changes on the horizon it seems wise to be anticipating and planning to do things differently. So it was great to be seeing techniques and different perspectives and the whole process has challenged us to think more seriously about what we might be able to do with our community garden project.

Resilience is going to from embracing a variety of approaches, be they Heuglculture beds, biochar experiments, different inter-plantings and poly cropping.

Community Users: We also had the chance to talk with potential user groups from the community who might also be interested in the development and we wanted to make sure we have understood and incorporated their requirements. U3A was represented as were Young Offenders, as well as student and college groups.

It is a 2 1/2 acre site, already lush and green, but has not been used in a while and is looking rather overgrown and unkempt. Plenty of wildlife seems to be present, which we will of course want to protect and enhance as we develop the productivity of the garden itself.

Below: Views of the main three growing areas of the new site.

This top field is planned to be the main market, food production area. It will house the two polytunnels, tool shed and be the focus for growing for sale. Potential for a joint community/ college/ cwm harry food co  enterprise.


This is the other field borgering the road adn the college. There are plans to build a farm shop here, plants and produce centre linked to enterprise dvelopment within the college. This is the edge between community growing and mainstream education.


This lower field, facing down to the railway will the focus of the community area. The left side is where the micro allotments woll go, with a wild zone 5 area right at the bottom, linking the wildlife corridor of the railway line


The front Garden of the bungalow, is going to be a zone1 play garden, with a focus on children friendly space, sensory with herbs and arromatic plants.

As for the final designs, we are still working on producing versions suitable for the screen and public viewing, but we have come up with a coherent design for the whole site with all the main features in place. Not an easy task with so many considerations to think about. First stage using the Planning for Real model, we came up with a bubble diagram of the key features and let a fully ranging discussion run around each key placement decision. We prioritised main structures firstly, then pathways before laying in other details.

Location of key features of the new garden, in our ‘bubble’ map diagram

The final design

Presenting the design plan at the end of the 5 day course