Decision No.1

Stage Two

As a collective we have to decide about the application of Nitrogen fertilizer to the Field of Wheat. This is stage two of a discussion which is happening in three parts. To read a summary of stage one please click here and scroll down to the green box.

We have outlined two areas for further discussion during Stage Two. When commenting please try and be clear about which option you are referring to and where possible address them in separate comment boxes. As a reminder, if you want to add a new comment then simply write in the box at the end of the thread, however if you want to add a response to someone else’s reflection then press  ‘reply’ below that same comment.

An Extra Note to The Collective:

A number of vigorous side shoots emerged as part of Stage One discussions, particularly around the value and cost of food, the true costs of cheap and affordable food, the health of the soil, water and environment, economic viability of both organic and non-organic sectors and personal ethics. We would like to enable and encourage these conversations to continue after Decision No.1 closes on the 28th February, and we will send out an email with details about this.

Please read the guidelines below when participating in Stage Two of the decision.

February 24 2016 12:00:00
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The two areas for discussion at this stage are:

Nitrogen fertilizer options

The possibilities put forward were: adding no nitrogen to the crop at all; reducing input of nitrogen below current levels; splitting the field so half is nitrogen the other half is no nitrogen or keeping nitrogen inputs as Peter normally would.

Any alternatives to Nitrogen fertilizer

We invite further enquiry into possible alternatives including: adding an organic compost tea, under-planting the crop or adding a nitrogen cover crop into next year’s rotation (we realise this last option goes beyond the harvest time end date but want to discuss this as a possibility) or other options we may not have considered.

Many of these options depend on more information about soil health of the field and learning more about financial and management implications as well as considering the importance of financial investment and returns for The Collective. Peter will support where possible with technical and quantitative information to help the Collective consider different options.

Guidelines

  • Try and read through some or all of the other thoughts, questions and response’s before you write your own.
  • There are no limits to the amount you write but we recommend a maximum of 2500 characters (around 400 words) so that the discussion doesn’t turn into essays!
  • Try to take time to reflect on what you are writing before you submit your comments.
  • Please respect others’ comments and opinions and do not rebut anyone personally.
  • There are no questions too basic.
  •  This is a space to share your thoughts, ideas and questions whatever your levels of knowledge and experience drawing on your own feelings and contemplative insight as well as rational thought.

Summary of Stage Two.

This stage of the decision is now closed, thank you to all those who contributed and followed the process. Stage three (the final stage) will go live tomorrow.

In order to explore, understand and observe the complexities of modern wheat farming in this country and unravel its networks and impacts within a global context we have had to start somewhere. Conventional farming is the reality of ‘where we are at now’ in UK agriculture. Observing and being implicated in a growing cycle is a good starting point to see and feel how this system works. A Field of Wheat has a number of considered elements to allow dynamic and creative ways of exploring the prevailing framework for UK agriculture as well as where we have come from and where we might be going or want to go. The different lenses of the Farmers Almanac, Collective Enquiries, The Artists Pages and farm events provide different contexts through which to explore these aspects.

This decision.

This has been designed in such a way to create broad discussions around the options leading to a final decision. As you have witnessed, this framing can lead to a discussion which jumps between addressing very specific quantities of Nitrogen fertiliser on our field right now, to the wider global environmental impacts of fertilizers and touches on different systems or possibilities.

To make a decision as to whether to use Nitrogen fertiliser or not when the conventional seed we are growing is ‘designed’ for high inputs on impoverished soils mean that we have limited room for manoeuvre. We realise some of you may be feeling quite trapped by this. The duration of the project (following one cycle) means we are impacted by decisions made previously and earlier on in the cycle. We are including a focus on seeds at harvest time so this doesn’t get missed.

Deciding whether to ‘experiment’ with the wheat comes with its own complexity. If thought about as a scientific experiment what would it tell us? What do we want to know? Do we need to think about it as a scientific experiment? Is the desire to ‘experiment’ with a low or no nitrogen area motivated by something else?

There are many different ways of approaching this decision; it could be driven by a strong desire not to damage the soil in spite of risk to yield and money; an experiment to see for yourself what the differences are, a desire to support Peter’s preferred choices, a wish to increase the yield and profit as much as possible. Whatever is decided by the Collective along with Peter, we hope you have valued the stories that this process has revealed.

A Field of Wheat

Ruth and Anne-Marie

The Collective Responses

Craig

Following comments in the first stage of Decision no 1 my preference is clearly for the use of some nitrogen fertiliser - important to the economic viability of the crop given the constraints of a one year project.
I do think though that there would be value and interest in splitting the field and maybe fertilizing 2/3rds of the crop with N and leaving the other third to see how it manages on its own.
The contrast at harvest time would be very interesting to see and would tell us something about the value, or otherwise, the application of the N did indeed have.
Fascinating debate - the project is living up to my expectations and I am looking forward to seeing collective members in London next week.

2016-02-19 08:57:53

MARK

I like the idea - see my comments to Daniel

2016-02-22 18:07:48

Nicky

Recently and parallel to this Field of wheat enquiry, I have been writing, or attempting to put down on paper (and it is pencil on paper) my thoughts around food, which has been my passion since I was at HDRA (now garden Organic) in 1980. I have the thought, in response to this first decision,of the tourist in Ireland asking for directions of a local and the answer being 'well I wouldn't have started from here.'
I feel this is the way that the global food system is. Pushed into a cul de sac and this field of wheat and the discussions seem to echo this for me. I believe our first duty should be to those few inches of top soil in which our crop will grow. These few inches so often seen as a mere 'substrate' material to hold the crop upright, much as academics view their legs and bodies as transport mechanisms to carry their brains around. The soil's health should be our first concern and to build heart and fertility if it is lacking and to ask, 'what is it this field can best grow or support?' I would like to know more, going back into recent history of what has been grown. How old is the field? Is it an accumulation of smaller fields now become one bigger field? How does it fit into the larger farm, landscape and river catchment? which crops could be grown and processed locally to supply a local market rather than a Global commodity market? So instead of all this our focus is very narrowly on whether we should add a chemical nitrogen onto a crop, which we have no choosing even of the variety of, and which, it seems is designed to work with said nitrogen due to its shallow root system. Nevertheless it is fascinating to read through all the responses and thoughts of everyone and it will be interesting to meet up in London.

2016-02-20 16:15:09

Anne-Marie Culhane

Our first Collective farm visit in November took its starting point as soil and included the history of the field as drained fenland, the farm and Peter's farming practice with lots of questions and conversations on these subjects. The contributions by Tom Lane (archeology/soil) and Tom Powell (history of soil and carbon) and a brief pdf description of the day are documented on the website in News and Events in the post First Collective farm visit 6th November. Sorry you were unable to attend.

2016-02-20 20:09:07

Daniel Kindred

I just want to contest a couple of points that have been widely made and accepted without challenge - the first being the variety, the second being the importance of the top few inches of soil.

There is a general feeling on this collective that the variety decision is somehow critical and limiting in terms of how the crop will grow and what inputs it needs. The reality is that the variation between varieties is really very small and there really isn’t a choice in terms of choosing a variety that would need less agchem or fertiliser inputs. In fact JB Diego is a very resilient variety with good disease ratings and a reputation as being the best second wheat – implying it has very good rooting, scavenging and tolerance characteristics. I don’t have the figures to hand but I’d guess that JB Diego would be a very popular feed wheat choice for organic growers because of this (though most organic wheat in UK is grown for milling not feed). Growing a landrace or ancient variety would bring lots of other issues, not least keeping it standing on fertile soils. I don’t know of any farmers, organic or not, growing land races or non-modern wheat varieties- would be good to hear any experiences? When you see ancestor varieties and landraces growing in plot trials, such as the Watkins collection at the John Innes Centre, the variation is impressive but I've yet to see any evidence that there are old varieties that would outperform modern varieties with low inputs: when we compare elite varieties with old they tend to outperform across all conditions & environments, including zero-N. It is also often incredibly difficult to get old varieties to harvest without them falling over and birds eating all the grains. I’ve not yet seen convincing evidence that such varieties are better at rooting or capturing nutrients from the soil, but I'd be pleased to be proved wrong?

Regarding the soil, its main function is to supply water & nutrients to the crop. Whilst most of the nutrients may be concentrated in the top 6 inches, the water needs to be extracted from much deeper. We calculate that a high yielding crop uses around 400mm of water to grow, mostly during construction and production phases from March to July. In the East it will receive around 200mm as rain over this period, meaning it needs to access a further 200 mm from stored water in the soil - as available water content of soils is around 20% this means using all the water to 1m depth. Crops can root much deeper than 1 m, but our recent evidence suggests there aren't nearly rough roots at depth to capture all the water in most current crops. When we are thinking about soils it is therefore important we consider the depth and quantity of all the soil that the plant interacts with, not just the magic top few inches.

2016-02-22 10:13:36

John Letts

I thought I should comment on Daniel's comment re: heritage varieties and 'land races'. I've been growing older varieties and populations for 15 years now, and I currently have 120 acres in the ground - because they work at various levels, and because there is good and rapidly growing market for genuinely heritage grains.

I think Daniel is right in that there is precious little published on the growing of older varieties and ’land races’ (or the ‘evolutionary plant breeding’ methods being used to create new ones), but there is a lot of work being done in this area all over the world inside and outside of University labs. And there are many farmers growing heritage lines and old & modern ‘land races’ in the UK, Europe and N. America.

He’s right that if a farmer planted an old variety on very fertile soils it will fall over – because older varieties have larger root systems and are very efficient at scavenging nutrients (esp. N) from soils. They put this N to use producing lots of plant tissue all round, so the stem grows quickly, and very tall, and falls over once the ear starts to fill with grain. Older varieties are simply not designed to grow in high fertility soils, unlike modern varieties which have been hybridised and selected to have short stems while still producing lots of grain. The short stem also dwarfs root tissue, however, and since there is no mycchoriza in richly fertilised and sprayed soil (and many modern varieties can’t actually connect to mycchoriza even when they are present) they are dependent on fertilisers.

Many thatching straw growers grow older ‘heritage’ varieties very successfully in very low or organic growing conditions. Crops do lodge, but not usually. It all depends on how you grow them. Good farmers know their land and what to do so that the old variety they grow will perform well. That’s what farming is all about – not just getting the chemical applications correct. Some add a little P-K fertiliser but not nitrogen as this weakens the straw. Their yields are not much below the average organic yield using modern varieties – but these modern ‘organic’ varieties also depend on having lots of soluble nitrogen around. Modern varieties have been bred for conventional growing systems not organic systems, which have more complex N sources and less soluble N in the soil matrix. So if the organic soil is very rich then the farmer can get a high yield (although not as high as in a conventional systems) – but this takes effort and lots of manure, clover, tillage, etc.

I completely disagree with Daniel’s view that ‘elite’ modern varieties always out-compete older varieties in all growing conditions, including low input situations. In scientific/plant breeding this comparison is based on the concept of ‘Harvest Index’ (HI) – which is basically the ratio of edible grain to overall plant biomass. Plant breeding over the last 125 years has indeed increased the HI of wheat. Most of the evidence on this subject came from two studies done by Austin in Cambridge in the early 1980s (refs available). He claimed an increase of 44% between about 1900 and 1980. I grew the same varieties he used at Reading Univ in the late 90s and early 2000s and found a 12% (but unlike him, I never published... to my great shame). There is an increase, but it’s much more modest that most agronomists believe, in my opinion. And most importantly the yield – which is the only result that really counts in the end - all depends on how you grow the crops, not just the ‘genetic gain’ demonstrated in trials. If you plant a modern ‘elite’ variety in low N soils it will not perform well. There just isn’t enough nitrogen to produce its genetically enhanced bumper crop without lots of soluble nitrogen. Ditto if the land is organic and healthy. In organic fields, these modern varieties will struggle to compete against weeds – so you will have a lower yield. And because the crop is uniform, and doesn’t grow very healthily without lots of nitrogen, it is weak and subject to diseases. This is exactly what happened in my 4 years of research trials at Reading. The modern varieties were hardly worth harvesting, whereas the older varieties grew like crazy – and many grew too tall as the organic land was too rich. Still, the older varieties definitely out-yielded the modern varieties.

If, however, you reverse the situation and plant both older and modern varieties in modern soils, the older varieties will grow too tall and fall over and you will have no yield at all. The critical test is if you plant older varieties in modern soils with low nitrogen. In such soils there is usually low organic matter and no mycchorizae to supply the older varieties with nutrients – so they starve and do not perform well. The modern varieties do not perform well either, but probably perform a little better than the older ones because of the slight ‘genetic gain’ (i.e. higher HI) due to plant breeding. It would be insane to grow wheat in dead soils with no N of course – which is the ‘option’ we have been offered in this project (i.e. we can ask Peter not to add any Nitrogen to the crop). So in dead soils, and in high nitrogen soils, modern varieties are an advantage. But in healthy, organic-type soils, older varieties will do better and ‘land races’ will do best of all.

I should add that Austin’s studies – which form the basis of just about all claims of the ‘HI increase’ of modern varieties – compared old and modern varieties grown in rich and poor soils in Cambridge in the 1980s. If you read the fine print, his ‘low fertility’ trials were run in soils that actually got 38 kg/ha artificial nitrogen, so they were not actually ‘low input’ in a historical sense. This nitrogen (and the fact that the soils had been continuously sprayed with fungicide in the past, meant that there was little ‘life’ in the soil.

So it’s a bit like apples and oranges. We need organic varieties that are better adapted to growing in healthy, low N soils. Low input farming isn’t just about not adding Nitrogen. It’s about having healthy soils with reasonable/low, slow release sources of Nitrogen that can feed the crop throughout it’s life cycle. And in such systems older heritage varieties can out yield modern varieties. Older varieties have a larger ‘assimilate storage capacity’ which allows them to maintain a constant rate of grain filling after they ‘bloom’ (they are flowers!) in poor weather. Both yield and grain quality (i.e. gluten content) are also more stable from year to year if you grow a locally adapted, genetically diverse ‘population’ (land race). Martin Wolfe’s studies have also demonstrated this recently… although his ‘populations’ are actually made up of modern varieties and are not as genetically diverse as true historical land racesw or modern heritage populations (which many of us are now growing).

A pure line variety (old or modern) is a monoculture. If a disease or pest hits the crop it can spread like wildfire. If you have a genetically diverse population the disease doesn’t spread so quickly or cause so much damage. Mixtures also use soil nutrient reserves more efficiently, don’t lodge so easily due to the broken canopy and snuff out weeds more effectively than a uniform crop. And you can also grow landraces, in low input systems, in the same fields year after year without disease problems and without mining soil nutrients (if you under sow with clover, incorporate the straw, and just to be safe… rotate with other cereal species). The yield will remain just below the organic average year on year. I’ve been doing it in my fields for 5 years now (although not as well as I’d like to). Genetically diverse ‘land races’ (and genetically impure heritage varieties) are also much better able to tolerate poor weather and longer term climate change than modern varieties because they can evolve and adapt… as wheat had been doing for 10,000 years before industrial plant breeding got hold of it and adapted it to chemical farming methods.

I should add that Austin’s studies – which form the basis of just about all claims of the ‘HI increase’ of modern varieties – compared old and modern varieties grown in rich and poor soils in Cambridge in the 1980s. If you read the fine print, his low fertility trials were done in soils that actually got 38 kg/ha artificial nitrogen, so they were not actually ‘low input’ in a historical sense. But this nitrogen (and the fact that the soils had been continuously sprayed with fungicide in the past, meant that there was little ‘life’ in the soil and none of the mycchorizae upon which older varieties depend. So once again, this study was comparing apples and oranges.

So I think there is another way… that makes ecological and economic sense, that works in harmony with genetic diversity and natural ecosystems instead of dominating them… and using chemical inputs so that the soil becomes simply a medium in which industrialise plants grow. We can do better.

2016-02-23 00:12:40

John Letts

Sorry, my post lost its paragraphing after posting...

2016-02-23 00:14:46

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

John and Daniel
I'm one of those who think that a lot of genetic 'good stuff' was left behind during the intensive breeding programmes that led to the green revolution. Hailed as a huge success at the time allowing many more people to be fed from the available land area I think we are now beginning to realise that many beneficial genetic traits were lost to the modern varieties coming from the green revolution. We also have a situation where our modern wheats are based on a very narrow genetic base and are therefore potentially susceptible to catastrophic disease or pest attack - I know respected wheat breeders who are concerned that a situation could easily develop where we can't feed enough people.
Looking to the future I would love to develop a landrace specific for my farm/soils/climate/methodology and Martin Wolf's convergent wheat population could be a simple method for every grower to achieve their own landrace. But as you point out Martin's trial only used wheats from the top 16 on the NIAB list and therefore failed to take advantage of any lost traits (disease/pest tolerance and physiological) that could be reintroduced from heritage varieties.
Developing landrace varieties specific to a location would probably be criticised as turning the clock back to my great grandfather's time but I do think it would be a huge step forward in wheat breeding that could be more easily achieved using modern plant breeding techniques (marker assisted and gene sequencing) than grandfather's trial and error approach.

2016-02-23 14:36:54

Daniel Kindred

John,
We've compared old and modern wheats in experiments many times and I've never seen the cross-over where older varieties outperform modern varieties in no or low input conditions. We consistently see genetic yield improvements of around 0.5t/ha /decade. We rarely go back beyond varieties like Maris Huntsman though, and we haven't done this in certified organic soils, so I would really like to see any evidence of older varieties doing better in such conditions than modern varieties. Can you point me to any papers?

Peter's soil is highly organic, in terms of soil organic matter, and I expect it to be highly fertile even without N, so I'd find it difficult to accept that it is a 'dead' soil - I'd really like to see the evidence for how the functional quality of a peat soil like Peter's would be different if managed organically.

2016-02-23 16:00:09

Daniel Kindred

Given that the field is on a peat soil which will release a lot of N through the season I think we could reduce the fertiliser rate to 100 kg N/ha without major risk to yield. If practical I would advocate leaving a small area with no N at all and applying 200kg N/ha to an adjacent small area, so we can learn what decision was 'right'.

2016-02-22 13:51:16

MARK

Daniel - although we all may wish for different returns from this project I do like your idea of a "controlled experiment " which would be good to reflect on at harvest. - just not sure how complicated it will be for Peter to execute ?

2016-02-22 18:07:00

Miriam

As I read through the responses to Stage One... and these above for Stage Two... I echo the complexities noted by members before me.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to read the discussions between people who are in the industry in one way or another and are so immensely well informed... I base most of my decisions on very basic pieces of knowledge, putting as little time and energy into the related research as possible... so I can spend more time feeling and sensing and wondering/ wandering....
My choices are easily summed up as: "get involved as little as possible". What I mean is: I don'y buy much, I don't buy bathroom products- I use bicarb and vinegar to wash my hair; don't use much make up; don't go that many places; don't eat meat (used to be vegan); buy organic; make hummus instead of buy it etc etc you get the picture.
So, here I am now, as part of a collective, where the decisions made can actually affect a man's (Peter's) livelihood. And his livelihood is rooted in a part of the world that I don't really get involved in. And I am firmly involved.
From my point of view, I'm not too fussed about making a huge profit, or even any profit.... although I get that is a bit la la..... and not helpful to Peter... I feel adding a chemical fertilizer into the land is counter-productive to my happiness in terms of looking after our world; however I feel like being the cause of a potentially lower yield/ profit margin is counter-productive to my happiness in terms of wanting to support the needs of others..... It doesn't matter to me that we have bought a non-organic seed in this decision- I don't only buy organic because I don't want to eat chemicals, I just don't see the need for them in our system, in our land, in our air.
To read that there is already nitrogen in the soil and that the seed stock is fairly resistant to pests and disease I lean towards not using it. That is my preference. However, I am totally happy to support a smaller section where it is used in support of comparing and contrasting and learning.

Now for a slightly different aspect of the debate- I am uncomfortable that we are growing wheat for animal feed..... is that a definite thing? Is this the best direction we can take? Is there anything else we can use the wheatgrain for? I have this thought.... albeit rather fanciful..... that we could develop some really beautiful wheat-heat products- you know like those wheat bags people put in the microwave- what bags; wheat hats; wheat gloves; little inserts you can attached to the small of your back on a belt; little sections you can attach to a blanket for a wheelchair;- of course it requires someone with some business acumen to get involved- I'm pretty good on a sewing machine but it would need many hands- and I am not sure the turnaround would happen in time for the project's finish date or Peter's needs...... but I just wanted to put it out there....... Thanks....

2016-02-22 17:04:51

Miriam

Hi Peter
Just wondering- is the feed for chickens who will be slaughtered for meat or kept for their eggs?
Thanks

2016-02-22 17:05:47

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Miriam
In truth if we sell into the generic feed wheat market we will have no control over the final destination and use of the wheat. We will sell it as a feed wheat (as opposed to a bread making wheat) and it might go straight to an animal feed compounder for chickens, pigs or cattle; or it might go to the biofuel plant in Hull for ethanol production with the residues from that process going for animal feed. There were even plans to burn wheat for electricity production but I think that'plan has been shelved since the oil price collapsed
And yes it would be nice to sell to livestock farmers who keep their animals in a more acceptable manner or to use the wheat in manufacturing for a niche market but the reality is that the UK has around 16 millions tons of wheat to shift every year (and the UK's output is tiny compared with the world market) so whilst some may do well supplying niche markets the vast majority of the wheat is used by the anonymous food chain for livestock feed or biofuel.

2016-02-23 13:32:23

Maz

The wide and well informed discussions and the diversity of opinion around all of this add to the value of "The Field of Wheat" as an arts project - as I see it the definition of art being to awaken sensibilities and stimulate thought processes around a particular topic. Going through the twelve month cycle with all aspects covered - the planting, cultivating and economic - therefore creates the stimulus for such a process which hopefully will go on to reach a wider audience and open the discussion much further. So in a sense whatever the final decision reached at this stage we have had the "debate" which in itself has great value. Forr myself I would agreed a good compromise decision would be to go for the "controlled experiment" idea.

Re Miriam's question re chicken feed - I guess for eggs to be labelled "organic" their feed would have to be too and therefore animal feed from our field would not qualify in any case - but I could, be wrong.

2016-02-23 00:06:34

Susan Haedicke

I really like the ‘controlled experiment ‘idea to see the differences at harvest time, if it is feasible for Peter to do that. I also appreciate the opportunity that this project has given me to read all the fascinating posts in these decision debates. Thank you.

2016-02-23 10:33:15

Geoff

Thanks for the very interesting contributions to date. Reflecting on what I've heard so far, my preference would be to try two or, if possible, three approaches within the field. The key question first of all to Peter is, is this an option given the nature of the field and the equipment you have. If so, then I think we should go with a section of the field with either no nitrogen, or under sewing as was suggested, perhaps a larger section of the field with the lowest level of nitrogen applied, and the other section with a higher level. Is it possible to monitor the run-off from many parts of the field to see the content of the run-off water and how much nitrogen is leaching out?

It would be helpful to understand the relative economic costs and benefits of the different treatments. In other words if we put X amount of nitrogen on which will cost Y we would expect to get the following yield with a certain value. If we put no nitrogen on we will not have those particular costs and will probably get a lower yield with another value. Could we do some projections on those numbers but obviously these are only projections not how things will turn out. It would then be quite interesting to see in reality what actually happens at the end of this year.

This however is taking quite a narrow and very short-term view of what that particular piece of land is going to produce. And that takes me to Daniel’s comment about the soil’s main function being to supply water & nutrients to the crop. I think this could be interpreted, but I'm not sure if that is what was meant, as a rather narrow way of understanding soils. It is very crop focused and sees soils as a substrate for the plant rather than as a very complex interactive physical, chemical and biological system with a huge amount of biodiversity in it and with which the plant interacts.

2016-02-23 12:39:02

Daniel Kindred

Geoff,
re soil being a very complex interactive physical, chemical and biological system with a huge amount of biodiversity in it with which the plant interacts - I agree entirely. But as a crop scientist I want to understand how the soil complexity can affect crop performance beyond the availability of water and nutrients. I'm not denying that it can, but the mechanisms for how it can aren't part of our current thinking on what drives crop growth. Again I'd like to see the evidence that there is a contribution of the soil system beyond the availability of water and nutrients. The fact that it is possible to grow perfectly healthy plants in hydroponics perhaps suggests otherwise?

This is a really important question for agriculture now, and to my mind there isn't enough integrated thinking between soil scientists and crop scientists; soil scientists tend to see the crop as blotting paper taking things that the soil provides, crop scientists see the soil as blotting paper just providing things to the crop!

2016-02-23 23:50:18

Tom Powell

Hi Daniel,

This makes sense if the purpose of agricultural land is only to provide the maximum output of food, but I think we shouldn't neglect the role of soil in other systems like water management, the climate system, nutrient input to marine ecosystems etc etc. By some measure agricultural land is one of the largest biome types on earth, and a key interface between humans and the ecological processes of the Earth system. Soil is the space in which many of those interactions take place, and to characterise it as merely a vessel for nutrients and water to pump into crops misses its inestimable value in that sense.

This sounds a bit airy fairy, but the idea that our conception of agriculture should include stewardship of Earth system and ecological processes is promoted in name at least by the structure of the EU subsidy system, and a current burgeoning academic interest in actively managing farmland for carbon sequestration.

2016-02-24 00:13:34

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Sorry Geoff I did reply yesterday but the response didn't come up on the website for some reason.
I've tried to pick up on some of your points in my response to Ruth.

2016-02-24 08:30:33

Shelley Castle

Peter if you were on your own at this point, but had shareholders who perhaps were really up for experiment over profit, what would you use this field for in terms of informing how you work the rest of your farm? I mean what would benefit you the most as a farmer at this point in terms of informing your practice? And do you need to make a good profit on the wheat yourself or can you also use it as an experiment?

2016-02-23 14:31:57

Tom Powell

Great question, it would be really interesting to know what an experienced farmer with an enquiring mind would chose to explore.

2016-02-23 21:31:21

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Obviously this process is making me revisit past decisions on nitrogen use but in the past I have experimented with differing nitrogen rates - and I also look every year for areas in the field where applications are higher and lower (narrow tramlines for example where the spreading machine may overdose) to see what the difference is.
There is a lot of research on nitrogen rates available to me from research organisations and the industry. I also take the advice of my independent agronomist who walks and advises over huge acreages accumulating evidence as he goes.
Nitrogen is expensive and potentially damaging to the environment so I'm always looking to reduce my nitrogen use but I have to balance that with the overall profitability of the crop - it's a case of trying to find the optimum rate.

2016-02-24 07:43:38

Frances & Kevin Ryan

Hello fellow collectives,
I'm for the controlled experiment approach outlined succinctly by Geoff and others. I'm quite a practical person, so I don't necessarily follow some of the more technical stuff that's been posted. To me it's quite simple: let's try some experiments and see what happens!! I'm looking forward to the London visit where I hope I'll learn more about wheat.

2016-02-23 23:20:57

Tom Powell

This has been a great discussion to read, and to me it's really highlighted the disconnect between the issues at the global scale and at the scale of the individual farmer. I feel, like many other members, that I want my input to this decision to be informed by my understanding of the wider ecological and global impacts of fertilizer use. But when it comes to our own field of wheat the pressures and impacts driving the decision are about something completely different. This is frustrating, but also illuminating as I think it reveals something quite fundamental about why it's so difficult to make progress in many issues around sustainability.

I like that our collective feeling is to want to test the value of adding N fertiliser to the crop for ourselves, and see a tangible outcome of using different fertilizer applications in the field. As a scientist, my immediate instinct is to want to run an experiment with as many different inputs as possible, and to measure as many different outcomes and impacts as possible, but unfortunately we're often constrained by the context of the experiement (not to mention the cost of running lab tests!).

My feeling is that if we were to try to do an experiment with differing N application, we would have to be very careful that we were doing a fair test that could give us a real indication of the effect of the fertilizer, and that we were asking Peter to do something that is a) possible and simple to implement and b) a minimal risk to his livelihood. Peter already expects the yield to vary considerably between different parts of the field, so if we want to observe a real effect of different treatments we would need to focus on a smaller area.

Because the field is very long and narrow, we might expect relatively little variation in yield across its width, so I'd suggest a relatively easy option (and I wish I could draw a diagram here!) would be to choose a few (50?) metres at one end of the field (actually one end of one of the two field segments, as the field is divided in two by the central ditch, giving us 4 options) as an experimental area. This could be divided in half along the long axis of the field, so that when Peter spreads the fertilizer he would spread the full length of the field on one side, but stop 50m short on the other side. We'd then have a direct comparison between two areas which should ordinarily have approximately similar yields. I hope that makes some sense to someone.

2016-02-23 23:56:17

Ruth Levene

With only a few hours left we need to look at what options are actually realistic to implement. The options arising seem to be:

1) Add no nitrogen

2) Reduce Nitrogen level to 100 kg N/ha (as recommended by Daniel Kindred). An additional N level would need to be agreed for a second round in April

3) Original Nitrogen level as described by Peter for March 250kg/ha followed by 375kg/ha in April

4) A small area (100m sq.) left with no Nitrogen (at end of field for ease) and the rest with Nitrogen.


There are also a number of unanswered questions:

1) Underplanting – is this a possibility and manageable within our field and the timeframe?

2) Nitrogen cover crop in next year’s rotation – (although obviously this won't impact on this year's crop) but would this be a future option Peter?

3) Organic Compost tea - We do not know enough about this option to consider implementing at this stage. There is evidence of research with compost tea and arable crops here and here:

Wheat and Compost Tea - Link

Compost Tea and Arable Link

2016-02-24 00:02:06

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

Ruth
Thanks for summing up the options. I'm happy to accommodate the options for different application rates.
Having said that small areas with different rates is a challenge because the machinery has been specifically designed to work at 24m spacing spreading an overlapping pattern to give a uniform rate of nitrogen over a large area.
I'm also uncomfortable with applying no nitrogen because I think we will have issues with grain quality and marketability. And whilst levels of disease and pest attack are linked to the use of nitrogen it's a mistake to think that no nitrogen means no disease or pest problems - we will still need to protect the wheat against disease (and possibly pest attack although I would hope that my populations of beneficial insects will control pests for us).
I'm very interested in underplanting as a nitrogen source but at this time underplanting (even if it were possible) won't offer any nutrient to this crop as it moves into its period of peak growth and peak nutrient requirement over the next couple of months. If we wanted to try underplanting as a nutrient source/store for the wheat we would have needed to have undersown last autumn (and preferably for years before that to build up a reserve of nutrients).
I also have a problem with a huge weed burden on this peat soil and it would be a challenge to manage yield robbing weeds whilst trying to maintain the beneficial undersown plants. Realistically my best option is to underplant in the autumn and allow the frost to kill off the undersown plants in the winter making the stored nutrients available to the growing crop in the following spring.
As for compost teas I have no experience of using compost teas and will happily take advice from others.

2016-02-24 08:26:07

Daniel Kindred

Thanks Ruth,

To be clear the 100kg N/ha I suggested is for nitrogen as an element for the whole season. To get 100kg nitrogen/ha means applying 290kg/ha of ammonium nitrate product in total for the whole season. My recommendation comes as a FACTS qualified advisor, and as a researcher who has spent the last 15 years conducting N response experiments, and is based on the assumption that Peter's soil, being a peat with organic matter levels >20%, should provide enough nitrogen to meet most of the crops demand. Peter's soil is very different to most arable soils in the UK. I therefore think the economic optimum N fertiliser rate for this soil is likely to be less than 100kg N/ha total for the season. This could however easily be trumped by Peter and his agronomist's knowledge of the soil and their experience of how the crop responds - it is notoriously difficult to predict availability of N from peat soils, and consequently what appropriate fertiliser rates should be. There is therefore an understandable tendency to urge on the side of caution, applying more to avoid the risk of yield loss.

Depending on what the crop looks like now, I would advocate not applying any product until mid-late March at the earliest, applying 50kg N/ha (145 kg/ha product) in the first application and a further 50 kg N/ha in mid-late April. This could lend itself nicely to setting up small areas with treatment differences in the field down the length of a single tramline, by Peter simply not applying any fert on the first application for say the first 50m on one tramline then not applying any fert for 100m on the same tramline on the second application - this would give total rates of 0, 50, 100 kg N/ha in 50m lengths. If Peter was prepared to go to the extra hassle he could on each application date come back down same the tramline and apply an additional 50kg N/ha for 50m from 150m into the field. This would then give 0, 50, 100 & 200 kg N/ha total rates. There would be a bit of hassle marking out the 50m sections, but application in this way should be feasible.

As Tom says there is spatial variation in the field that needs to be accounted for, if we use a single tramline in centre of field then we should be able to compare to the standard N treatment on either side. Ideally we'd need a yield mapping combine to properly quantify the treatment affects in relation to the spatial variation, but I think just the visual differences would be instructive.

Peter are you on 24m wide tramlines?

On this soil I don't think the yield loss from applying no or low N to a small area would be very substantial. Geoff asked about projections of yield, costs and profits from varying rates of N - this is what I spend my life looking at! I'd be happy to share the typical N response curves from which we make these calculations, though unfortunately we don't have many recent responses from peat soils.

Regarding bio-fertilisers, we've tested various products but I am yet to see convincing evidence of their efficacy or cost-effectiveness in arable crops.

2016-02-24 10:34:18

Abby Schlageter

Sorry to come to this second discussion so late - so interesting and feels like a privilege to be part of it!
I have one more option to add to the mix as I was reading different sources around reducing uses of Nitrogen in conventional agriculture. Everyone seems to be singing the praises of Biofertilizers ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biofertilizer ) - including my current permaculture book. I'm still a little unsure what I think of them as they are prone to the same centralised commercial systems as current fertilisers. However if we prioritise the long-term health of the soil and want to help Peter to find ways to reduce the need for nitrogen fertilisers in the long term, as well as now, then I think it seems to be a perfect addition.

This talks about some trials done on grains in the UK with a specific biofertilizer in combination with a small amount of chemical nitrates - very positive results:
http://www.rwn.org.uk/rwn-bio-fertiliser.htm

Here is a lot more detail on different biofertilizers and their effects on wheat.

This paper talks about why biofertilizers are part of a sustainable agriculture system

So I guess the question is - would these work for Peter's soils? Does anyone know any more about biofertilizers? From what I understand they can be used along with Nitrogen but require much smaller quantities of Nitrogen so maybe they could be an additional part of our field trial. Or maybe as they are contributing to the soils in the longer term then we would want to add them to most of the field?

2016-02-24 02:38:12

Tom Powell

From what I can see biofertilizers sound like a really interesting part of moving conventional agriculture towards healthier, more sustainable soils. Essentially the idea seems to be to introduce beneficial nutrient fixing bacteria and mycorhizal fungi which aid the plants in taking up nutrients from the soil. This means the farmer can apply less N, as the N that is applied is used more efficiently. I don't know whether there's been much work on ho biofertilizers interact with herbicide or pesticide use, which might affect the efficacy of their use in the real world; afterall most of the organisms involved would already be present in the soils if t weren't for the high input regime the soils have already experienced.

I'd be really interested to look at trials, but from the material I can see it looks as though they are usually applied as a seed innoculation, and unfortunately we're too late for that this time around.

Tom

2016-02-24 09:49:46

Peter Allen-Williams

Thank you everyone for all your contributions. They make for such rich reading and we sure have some knowledgeable people in the collective! And some wonderfully creative ideas as well. Just being a part of this discussion is well worth my investment.
Also, having read all the responses and different views and approaches, I am fascinated by the way trying to formulate my own response throws a focus on my own priorities and values. In theory, I would like to live as simply and as sustainably as possible, but in practice, I am very aware of living in a very complex and mostly unsustainable way. Being a pragmatic person, I rationalise that in lots of different ways, but I am left with underlying doubts which I hope are a "healthy tension" between my values and my circumstances.
Now as I consider my experience of being a part of the Field of Wheat collective trying to make a joint decision, I find that I am torn between my values, which say use as few inputs as possible, and my pragmatic part which says that we have joined the whole process too late and it is too short for any proper scientific experiments to be likely to get useful results (I used to be a research manager). This is a short term project, at least in terms of growing wheat, and proper experimentation would require much longer time scales.
So for this project, against my natural inclinations, I feel that I am here to learn about the actual realities of growing wheat and taking it to the world market, rather than trying experiments which may affect Peter's livelihood without yielding any useful results.
As attractive as Daniel's suggestion of reducing the input this time is, I come down on the side of sticking to the "standard" prescription of fertilizer, ie option 3

2016-02-24 09:22:34

Charlie Clutterbuck

Thanks to everybody for the contributions, which I'm following. The scientist in me says let's go for 0/50/100 mg N, probably as Daniel suggests. These lower levels (rather than 0/100/200mg/N) would seem to be more appropriate for the peat soil.
I am talking with Anne- Marie about ways we can measure the soil animals in each treatment, using cheap equipment that others could use/join in with. it will difficult to get it ready now, but I think we should be OK by harvest time. I would like to build a case that soil animals can be a good 'marker' for soil health, and one that is more accessible to most than just numbers.
Cheers Charlie

2016-02-24 11:48:29