We think we are a pretty special farm. Our family-run mixed farming system is an increasing rarity in a land where factory farming and “economies of scale” are the norm. Mixed farming is running a system of livestock and arable enterprises from the same farm. Traditionally, a very broad range of crops and livestock were reared on every farm to spread the risk of any one crop or product failing. However, each part of the system also supported the others. For example, by-products from livestock, such as manure, was used to maintain and improve soil fertility, and feed crops could be grown as part of an arable rotation, breaking pest and disease cycles naturally.
Over the last 50 years, increasing labour costs, production subsidies and a global marketplace have all contributed to farms becoming more and more specialised. The widespread availability of cheap agro-chemicals meant that traditonal forms of farming could be dropped in favour of more intensive farming, resulting in higher yields and cheaper food. Whilst Church Farm did not stay completely rooted in pre-WW2 farming methods, many of the worst modern farming habits seem to have passed us by! For example, our 150ha farm sustains two families in full time occupation and employs one full time member of staff and several part-timers in the dairy too, as well as supporting neighbouring farms through our beef calves and equipment sharing. Equally, we still retain our two distinct but completely mutually dependent enterprises in the dairy herd and the arable crops.
One of the real advantages of mixed farming is in environmental sustainability. We are privileged to be able to share our farm with some of the best wildlife this country has to offer, from grey partridge and lapwing to red deer and foxes. Scientific studies have shown that farmland wildlife needs a variety of habitats to support varying needs throughout the year, from nesting habitats in the Spring to feeding resources in the winter. Mixed farming systems are best placed to meet these year round needs, because mixed farms have a wider variety of habitats than pure arable or pure livestock farms. Some part of our farm will always be grass and some arable, some fallow and some cropped: a perfect mix for wildlife. Plus we retained our hedges for their natural stockproofing abilities at a time when most other arable farms were pulling them out.
To supplement our natural advantages, we are members of DEFRA’s Entry Level environmental protection and enhancement scheme, which allows us to reclaim some of the cost of maintaining the 10km of hedgerows on the farm and leaving margins and fields corners to rough grass.
Mixed farming also benefits the environment through reduced reliance on agri-chemicals. Each grass ley we sow is left for 3-5 years, during which time the land can rest and be replenished from nutrient-hungry arable crops, and the rotation system prevents the build up of pests and weeds naturally by breaking their life cycles. At the end of its life, the grass ley is ploughed back into the soil, as each year are by-products from crops such as sugar beet. And rather than being wasted, slurry (cow poo) and muck (straw and cow poo) are returned to the land, acting as natural fertilisers and soil conditioners, improving water retention, soil biodiversity and fertility. It may be smelly, but recycling organic manure is a lot friendlier to the environment than using artificial fertilisers alone.
Purely arable farms tend to rely solely on artificial inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and herbicides) to maintain the continuous cycle of growing and harvesting crops, and purely livestock farms tend to have big problems disposing of all their slurry on a limited area of land without damaging the environment, as well as having to buy in a large proportion of their animal feed from all over the world. We believe that the carrying capacity of the land should be respected. A mixed farming system best allows us to control the flow of nutrients within our farming system and minimise our impact on the environment in the process.