Healthy soils the key to resilience of crops

BY the time you are reading this an East Yorkshire farmer will have found out whether he has won a top industry award in recognition of his innovative approach to soil management.

Richard Boldan: I got to the point where I thought it was now or never... I knew there was a shortage of agronomists.

Richard Boldan of Asselby, near Howden was a finalist in the Arable Innovator of the Year category at the 2016 British Farming Awards and the winners were due to be announced as Country Week went to press.

Whatever the outcome was on the night, Richard has enjoyed great success in the fields with his forward-thinking approach to managing the land.

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Keen to improve the health of his soil, Richard has introduced cover cropping, compost and manure spreading, and direct drilling on his 180-acre where he grows wheat for seed production, barley for malting, vining peas for Birds Eye, oilseed rape, and hemp for the production of mattresses.

Having boosted his knowledge by working towards a string of industry qualifications, Richard now does his own agronomy and helps other local farmers with theirs, as well as running a contracting business.

Asked what prompted him to rethink his approach to soil management, Richard explained: “Direct drilling was last in fashion in the 1970s but the technology wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now. I think a lot of people didn’t understand how to make it work, plus slugs and grass weeds were major issues, so many people gave up.

“My father always liked the idea of putting organic matter back into the soil and not robbing it of nutrients. These ideas rubbed off on me when I took over.

“It has always been part of my core thinking to try to incorporate more organic matter into the soil, offering local livestock farmers straw bales for bedding in exchange for manure and trying to chop and plough as much straw back in as possible.

“In recent years it has become a hot topic. I started taking more interest in the organic matter side of things, reading about it in the farming press, attending meetings and using Twitter to see what other people were doing. This all led me to the conclusion that direct drilling was the way forward. A key driver was the Birds Eye contract, which requires you to measure the organic matter in the soil and take measures to improve it.”

Up until ten years ago, Richard was still ploughing every field, regardless of what crop was grown in it.

“I have gradually switched to non-invasive cultivation. My primary focus is to make a living but also to protect it for the future. I’m thinking as much about the health of my soil as the crop going into it. Crops are more resilient in years when we have extreme wet or dry conditions if the soil is healthy.”

There are real environmental benefits to Richard’s approach.

“The ultimate ambition is to get the soil in a really healthy condition so that you can cut back on fertilisers, herbicides and other inputs. It requires a change of mind-set; it’s a different approach to farming using methods aimed at improving the health of the soil. Although we think of it as a new approach, it’s actually more in keeping with traditional methods.”

Up until the mid-2000s, Richard grew potatoes and sugar beet. However, the closure of the York sugar beet factory left him with more time on his hands so he provided management support to another local farmer for eight years before realising that he preferred being his own boss.

“I got to the point where I thought it was now or never if I wanted to strike out on my own. I knew there was a shortage of agronomists so I took the plunge.”

As well as gaining the qualifications he needed to apply the herbicide Avadex, Richard has completed the Fertiliser Advisers Certification and Training Scheme and BASIS qualification.

He also joined the Association of Independent Crop Consultants which has enabled him to share his knowledge and skills by developing the contracting and agronomy elements of his business.

It all means he now provides agronomy advice to four other local farmers and contracting services to around 20 customers.

Juggling the different areas of his work is no mean feat.

“I spend roughly 50 per cent of my time farming, and then 25 per cent each on contracting and agronomy. The amount of paperwork means that there is a high workload as you’re out in the fields in daylight and evenings are spent catching up in the office.”