Farmers leading the way at Oxford

Dan Iles feeds back from his time at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Although I’ve been working in food and farming issues for a long time, this was my first time at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. And whereas before I would have been tied to the policy sessions, working for Innovative Farmers gave me the opportunity to go to as many practical solutions focused sessions as possible.

In each session, it was the farmers presentation that made the most impact on me. Their no-nonsense approach to research was very refreshing. And it crystallised how important farmer-led research was to inspiring more farmers to take these sorts of technological risks with their business.

Here is just a few of the exciting projects I learnt about:

Mulching and no till

Johannes Storch from the Bio-Gemusehof farm in Germany shared their latest research on the benefits of mulching to soil health. Through growing cover crops and converting them into mulch for field scale vegetable production, the Bio-Gemusehof farm has tried to mimic natural processes in agriculture as much as possible. They do this by trying to make sure that the soil is always covered by natural matter and that there are always roots present.

They showed the audience a graph comparing where the gaps are in roots and foliage cover according to their measurements.

Harvesting the mulch from these cover crops, they used mulch spreaders to evenly distribute it along their vegetable beds. They had developed a specific machine designed to plant vegetable seedlings into the beds through mulch as previous planters had struggled to get through the loose matter.

Using this mulching system they had 10% higher yields in their beetroot crops.

The mulch system also gave benefits in terms of water retention. Saving their crops from 2018’s summer drought which hit Germany hard.

This presentation was a great example of where farmers can be at the forefront of technological progress. And it was great to see examples of farmer-led research going on in other countries in Europe. I hope to see a UK field lab on the benefits of mulching in horticulture in the not too distant future.


It was great to see Innovative Farmers network member, field lab host and Nuffield Scholar, Andrew Howard sharing his results at a session on intercropping.

He told delegates that:
“Intercropping is one tool we use in our system alongside cover cropping and no till. It is something that we’re learning about, but my overall aim is reduce our inputs dramatically by using agroecological processes. And intercropping will hopefully be a good tool for that”

Although 2018 sounded like it had been a difficult year for testing new ideas on the field. Some of the benefits of intercropping sounded very promising.  Andy had some success growing lentils with linseed for Hodmadods:

“From my point of view growing these niche crops is highly risky. So growing them by themselves is even more risky. So my idea with the intercropping is to add another crop in so if the main crop fails you still have that intercrop to make up the yield so the field has an income. We know how to grow linseed and we grow that on the farm but we have never grown lentils before now. Luckily the trial worked really well, and it will probably be the best growth margin on the farm but unfortunately it was only on a third of a hectare. Next year I’ll be doing the linseed and lentils again on a bigger scale and I’ll be adding oats into that mixture as well.”

He had also trialled intercropping spring oats and beans:

“Where we intercropped the spring oats and spring beans together on the field we have a 15% higher combined yield compared to beans by themselves. I think I can get that up to 30% by increasing the seed rate of the oats.”

And oilseed rape with peas:

“The oilseed rape is used as a trellis to hold the peas off the ground. And it worked well for us. Other people in the area were dragging them off the floor and it was a disaster. So I will be doing that again. There’s some good contracts for peas as well.”

You can read more about the intercropping field lab on our website.


A form of agroforestry that combines trees, animals and forages, farmer and researcher Steve Gabriel from the US spoke about its long list of benefits.

He described how planting trees into pasture provides tree fodder for animals and can supply them with extra feed when mid-summer pastures are diminished.

Planting trees like willow, poplar, mulberry and black locust can provide livestock with nutritional and medicinal benefits. Not only this but they can contribute to the reduction in the carbon footprint of livestock farmers as well as providing secondary incomes for farmers who are able to sell the wood. 

This talk was a great crossover from the cider event I was live tweeting from the previous day where panellist and field lab host, Albert Johnson, told us about the benefits of introducing Shropshire sheep into his orchards. 

Attracting beneficial insects to tackle pests

Julian Gold, a farmer in East Hendred has been trialling biological methods of pest control to reduce his input bill and build ecological processes on his farm. These biological methods are gaining more attention in light of the growing pest resistance to pyrethroid sprays. He farms 800ha on a five-year rotation of oilseed rape, winter wheat, spring beans, winter wheat and second wheat, winter or spring barley.

By growing infield strips of beneficial attracting wildflowers every 100 meters through the crop Julian was hoping to attract pest predators into the centre of his fields. This would act as a good alternative to intensive pesticide spreading.

Julian is involved in a large research project with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) looking at beneficial insects on-farm. Along with CEH’s programme, ASSIST, Julian has been measuring the benefits in terms of beneficial insect abundance, spring slug reduction and aphid predation, as well as other pest counts.

Julian is a really good example of a farmer who is actively engaged in lots of different research. He is also part of the Innovative Farmers network and involved in a field lab on improving soil using farm yard manure co-composted with rock phosphate.

Start up or join a field lab?

Oxford was full of ideas that would make great field labs. So, if you’re a farmer interested in joining or setting up your own group to run a field lab on any of these ideas (or ideas you have yourself), please get in touch.

You can look at the field labs we already have up and running on our field lab page.

Agricology have filmed most of the talks mentioned in this blog. You can watch them here.

You can also see all the presentations from Oxford Real Farming Conference here. 

go to top

© Soil Association 2022. Charity registered in England and Wales no 206862, in Scotland no SC039168. Terms