Biofarm 19 – farming for a sustainable future…

Article courtesy of Clive Bright at the Organic Trust

Biofarm 19 – A conference with Momentum

Clive Bright, both an award winning beef farmer and a member of the team at the Organic Trust, reports on the success of the second Biofarm Conference. It was organised by the National Organic Training Skillnet and was held in November 19. In this article Clive gives a run down on the content of the day.

The best thing about Biofarm 19 was that there were hugely positive and engaging discussions about biological farming techniques, improving farm biodiversity and making healthy profits from farming.

Keynote speaker, Dr Christine Jones, laid the foundations and other speakers referenced her talk throughout the event. Her fascinating presentation was on soil health and diversity.  The core narrative was that diverse systems self-organise, with plants being “the gatekeepers of the microbial world”. Those microbes collaborate with the plants and each other and that “fungi are the brains of the soil”. Diversity was the common thread that ran through the whole event. Dr Jones used the work at the Jena experiment in Germany as an example.

All the speakers that followed hinged their talks around the theme of creating rich and varied habitat and you can watch each speaker in full on the National Organic Training Skillnet YouTube channel.

Steve Gabriel (Silvopasture), explained that the very nature of silvopasture is to promote diversity. By introducing trees into a pasture, for soil and water function, animal welfare and the possibility of another crop from the trees.

Russ Carrington (Pasture for Life) started his talk explaining that the term pasture-fed represents a diversity of plant types in a sward. In contrast, grass-fed is just grass!

Andy Howard (Companion Cropping), set the stage for discussion around the vast benefits of diversity in arable operations.

Wil Armitage (Grass-based Organic Dairy) talked about how diverse herbal leys are the backbone of his enterprise.

Helen Sheridan (Smart Sward Project) presented her work with UCD, where they are measuring the benefits of diverse pasture mixes and reporting very positive results.

Rob Havard (Mob Grazing), spoke about how his management practices are increasing diversity in his natural swards. He described how bale-grazing with hay from wildflower meadows has vastly improved the fields which were dominated by perennial ryegrass. Rob is also an ecologist which adds to his depth of understanding about his pastures and the habitat they provide.

Perennial ryegrass was heavily targeted as an almost non-desirable species at the conference. Having short roots, being Nitrogen hungry and the staple grass variety of high production “green desert mono-cultures”. Perennial-ryegrass was antagonistic to the core diversity theme of the conference. Christine Jones suggested when establishing a herbal ley to leave out the grass seeds altogether and to focus on the other types of plants. Her thinking is that there are plenty of grasses and indeed legumes in the soil’s seed bank and by sowing grass will increase the risk of them dominating.

Klaus Laitenberger (Horticulture) spoke about his Nuffield Scholarship – The potential of growing Lost Crops of the Incas. Klaus says “Yacon and Jerusalem-artichokes showed the greatest potential in Ireland due to their high yield and disease resistance.  It remains a mystery why only the potato made it to world fame and all the other crops that were developed by the Incas in the 15th Century are still relatively unknown. There is no expectation that these crops will replace our staple crops but that they can play an important part in a more diverse future food system.”

Jim Cronin (Horticulture) spoke about his on-going work exploring biological and no-dig approaches to field-scale vegetable production. Mulching with rolled out bales of silage was one idea that piqued interest.

In the afternoon, Thomas Fouhy, (Arable Specialist Crops) took everyone out of their mid-day slump with a thrilling and inspirational presentation. Tom encouraged people to broaden their cropping horizons; he demonstrated that growing high-value organic niche crops in Ireland was an untapped and available market. “Try a combi-crop, and if that goes well, then maybe try introducing a legume crop into your rotation and then when your confidence builds, maybe try a speciality crop, such as linseed”. His upbeat raconteuring painted a picture for how farming could be profitable, resilient; working hand in hand with wildlife and natural cycles by carefully using a diverse range of crops and cover crops to keep the soil in balance and the habitat varied for the ecology.

Biofarm 19 grew in size and quality from last year’s Biological Soil Conference; the positive feedback in the press alone has been tremendous. This event is set for continued growth, and I have no doubt, that before long, it will be recognised worldwide for the trailblazing conference that it is. I understand the plans for Biofarm 2020 are already underway.

With thanks to Clive Bright at the Organic Trust.

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