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Interview with Ella Sparks – Walnut trees and Agroforestry

19 September 2019

Ella Sparks works at Schumacher College as Agroforestry Nursery coordinator, running a tree nursery and developing the perennial areas in the grounds. She has recently planted her first independent agroforestry crop of walnut trees as a tenant on a private Estate south of Exeter, Devon. At the DR Company, two of the principal sectors we support are Forestry and Farming, often working with businesses who are exploring new ways of making their land profitable. An area that may be of interest to many of our clients is the emerging sector agroforestry. For many landowners, farmers and even foresters, agroforestry is an option they may not have considered. We spoke with Ella to find out more about why she believes agroforestry to be a good option, and to explore the challenges, benefits and realities she has experienced.

What is agroforestry and why do you believe it offers an opportunity for how land is used in the UK and Devon?

Agroforestry is a broad term for farming systems that incorporate trees alongside another agricultural activity. Agroforestry is generally divided into silvopastural (trees and livestock) or silvoarable (trees and agricultural/horticultural crops). There is huge diversity in the systems that can be considered agroforestry ranging from; large scale arable operations that incorporate tree alleys, grazing livestock in orchards or wooded areas, to very complex perennial polyculture systems (forest gardens). In recent years, agroforestry has been gaining increasing attention as more people recognise the potential environmental, welfare and productivity benefits it can offer. There is growing research demonstrating the need to increase tree cover for climate, watershed and ecosystem resilience. Agroforestry offers a solution to increasing national tree cover without losing agricultural land, instead working alongside and improving sustainability of existing farming practices. Agroforestry is not a new concept and in Devon the practice of grazing cider orchards was once commonplace. The benefits were well known; the trees provided shelter for stock improving weight gain and the animals could make the use of undesired windfalls, helping break tree fruit pest and disease cycles in the process. With farming modernisation and intensification these systems fell out of favour.

Currently there is significant research into developing and monitoring new forms of agroforestry systems, better suited to working with ‘modern-day’ practices. The role of individual farmers and growers experimenting on their own land and projects is also really important. I hope that as the evidence base demonstrating the benefits of agroforestry increases, there will be more support from government (including financial support) to encourage farmers. It would be great to put trees back into the landscape from the arable deserts in the East and the grass deserts of the South-West.

How did you become interested in agroforestry?

While working on livestock farms as part of my degree course studying veterinary medicine I became disillusioned by some of the mainstream farming practices I witnessed. I found it challenging to witness how some animals were treated and found the reliance on imported grain, protein and pharmaceuticals and the general inefficiencies of feeding them concerning. I started to think how inefficient the energy and land use was in mainstream livestock farming for food production. I became increasingly interested in sustainable systems of food production and decided to move away from veterinary medicine. I enrolled on the Shift Bristol course and while studying was inspired by two books: J Russell Smith’s text ‘Tree Crops; A Permanent Agriculture’ and Robert Harts ‘Forest Farming’ both of which put forward a very sensible argument that cropping trees should play a more important role in our agricultural system (especially on marginal hilly lands unsuitable for grain), to produce human and livestock food.

I wanted to find out more about different systems of agroforestry occurring in the UK. I wanted to develop the practical skills needed to grow and propagate trees, with a focus on edibles and nut trees and embarked on a series of placements which ultimately led to experience at Schumacher College, Dartington. Dartington has a lot of interesting agroforestry experiments including; a fifty-acre silvoarable field, Martin Crawford’s mature forest garden, areas of silvopasture experimentation, and Schumacher College’s own five-acre horticultural scale agroforestry field and forest garden areas. I am still in the early stages of my ‘career’ in agroforestry, and recognise that as a new entrant I have a lot to learn. I figured the best way to learn is by doing, and I am sure the mistakes I make, and lessons I learn now, will help guide me in the future.

Tell us about your own recent agroforestry planting

I have planted 90 grafted nut producing cultivars of walnut (Juglans regia). I wanted to plant a nut tree crop as I think from a nutritional and food security perspective they have a lot to offer, and are currently under-utilised in this country. Looking at how climate change could impact growing conditions in the South-West, it is likely that growing conditions could become increasingly favourable for walnut production. At the same time conditions will become more challenging for existing main growing regions (Turkey/California) with likely droughts and wild-fire risks. I wanted to plant the trees as soon as possible, partly due to the production lag time as the trees establish and partly to start the learning and observation as early in my career as possible. My Grandfather had a long-standing interest in trees, being part of the organisation ‘Men of the Trees’ and managing a small woodland. When he died, I inherited some money which I used to buy my first trees in his memory. Whilst working at Fruit and Nut Ireland, I had an opportunity to buy a wide section of cultivars of grafted walnut trees selected to be suitable for the UK/Irish conditions.

I had access to space to grow the trees on for a year, so bought the trees, giving myself a year long window to find them a permanent home. I started looking to see if there was anyway of purchasing a small pocket of land that might be considered marginal for other uses and thus more affordable. I found that the land prices for small parcels of land were prohibitively high, so looked into alternative options for growing trees as a tenant. I spoke to several local land owners and used social media to send out an advert, looking for a land owner willing to offer a secure longer term tenancy for me to grow trees on their land. I was keen to be part of an agroforestry system working alongside existing land uses. I had many responses to my advert and met up with and spoke to several different people before selecting the land and offer best suited to me and the trees. Although I was partially following Dartington’s recent model of tenanted agroforestry, one of the challenges I faced was the lack of models and examples to follow. I would be growing an experimental crop using an experimental land agreement/sharing model. That is partly why I am keen to share the process I went through, and tools I used, to help others interested in embarking on a similar journey.

For landowners who are interested in growing tree crops for the first time, what do they need to consider before starting?

It is important to make sure you pick a tree crop that will be suited to the land in question. Having a good knowledge of the soils (including drainage), climate (and microclimates), aspect, exposure and ‘pest burden’ of the locality is a good starting place. A site can be modified to make it more favourable to a certain extent, but some factors (such as very low pH, very shallow soils or a noticeable frost pocket) would define the limits of what is possible. Land can have the drainage improved, windbreaks can be planted and fencing can be put up – you just need to anticipate potential problems before you start. There are tree species which could be grown on almost any site – so if your site is not suitable for the tree-crop you desire, perhaps research alternative cropping trees or consider trees for fuel or fibre. It is worth thinking about what the ‘product’ will be from your tree crops; will you be selling it fresh, dried or processed, how will you sell and market it? This may help inform your choice of cultivars and help you start thinking about a business plan. Also consider how you intent to harvest and manage the trees, as it may dictate how you choose to layout and space trees (Do you intend to thin out at a later date? Will you harvest mechanically or by hand? How will land between trees be managed? Do you want a succession in cropping or all at once?). There are factors to consider about combining different crops- walnuts for example are alleopathic- so are not suited to be intercropped with certain other plant families. Consider the time frame between planting and when harvesting will begin- different trees grow at different rates so you might be able to include a cash-crop species to grub up at a later date when the main crop takes off.

What about if you have no land but want to embark on agroforestry? What options are there?
If, like me, you are a young new entrant grower keen to plant and managing trees there are options you could consider. Most standard agricultural tenancies would not be suitable for growing the longer-term tree crops, as you lack the security to make the investment in trees and your time worthwhile. However models such as Dartington’s multi-tenant agroforestry field exist and could be replicated. From my own experience searching for land, I found that there were numerous opportunities for collaboration and enthusiasm from landowners and projects keen to incorporate a tree crop but not wanting to do the management or upfront investment. I think if you are clear about what your needs are as a tree-tenant and clear about what you can offer, there are opportunities out there.

What are your future plans with agroforestry?
I am very interested in planting up an area with grafted sweet chestnut cultivars for nut production. At the moment with the gall wasp and chestnut blight in Europe, it is challenging to import trees or propagation material. There are lots of interesting cultivars that could do well in the UK but currently can’t source. I have started propagating a collection of sweet chestnut trees, but am slightly restricted to the cultivars currently available in the UK. I am also keen to join forces with other growers of tree crops and maybe form a network to share information and resources. Although smaller orchards of tree crops are better ecologically than large mono-cropping systems, it is harder to make them economically viable. It would be interesting to look at how small producers of tree-crop products could work together to share processing equipment to make value added products and jointly access larger markets.

You can read more about Ella’s planting on her website/blog
https://treecrops.home.blog/

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