The Oxford Real Farming Conference 2022 a review14th April 2022
Nutrition and Biodynamic Food Quality Online Course – starts May 23rd 20229th May 2022
From the Spring 2022 edition of the Star and Furrow (issue 137) By Dan Powell
I arrived at Hungary Lane Farm on a clear, chilly February morning. I looked over the open fields to the cooling towers of Ratcliffe Power Station some four miles to the north. One of the few remaining coal-fired power stations in the UK and a symbol of Nottinghamshire’s coal mining heritage; indicative of the climate crisis we face today.
I remembered this landscape from 30 years previously, when I walked round the farm with the brave young farmer who had just moved up from Kent to take on the tenancy here. I was here again now, to talk to that same farmer, Jo Bradley, who has since become a key personality in the UK biodynamic movement. Now, coming to the end of his tenancy at Hungary Lane Farm, I wanted to talk to Jo about his reflections and his thoughts to the future.
Jo recounted his initial impressions when he and his family arrived at Hungary Lane Farm, they did not even know there was a Steiner school nearby, which was an important factor when considering schooling for their young family. They found that all the fields of the farm could be ploughed but there were no animals, no water and there was little infrastructure. It was pretty much a blank canvas. The farm is part of the Paget Estate; twelve farms covering 3,400 acres in private ownership. The landowner is passionate about organic farming and at some point in the future, the estate will be managed by the Soil Association Land Trust. She is interested in this farm remaining biodynamic.
Jo and his family brought their cows up from Kent in two lorries and two low loaders of machinery. They started an eight-year crop rotation, four years grass, four years arable. This was based on Herbert Koepf’s idea that ideally grass should be down for three to four years before you can make best use of the fertility of a ley. Jo observed that the last year of grass can be a bit poor at Hungary Lane. He felt that it may be down to the soil type which is mainly a coarse sandy loam over calcareous clay. In some places the topsoil is quite shallow, you need to stay off it during a wet winter. He uses sub-soiling occasionally to bring in air and open up the layers. When arable crops get established well, this soil can yield good harvests.
Jo feels the soil has taught him so much over his time here and he has complemented his experience with recent developments in soil knowledge, over the last 10 years or so. He remembers at the beginning, his neighbours charging around with strong tractors on rock-hard ground at cultivation time, a sign of how things are changing in farmers’ perception of soil care.
He tells me he has developed a flexible approach to cultivations and tries to avoid ploughing when time and weather permit. He has seen very positive developments in his soil quality where this has worked, some fields have not been ploughed now for 10 years. However, Jo still finds breaking the grass at the end of a ley a challenge without the ploughing. It is hard to create a clean foundation for a seedbed all in one go. Jo acknowledges the advances in knowledge, not only in soil life but also in plant science, which was unheard of when he started farming.
Moving from the soil community to people, I asked Jo how the relationship of the farm with the local community has developed over the years. Apart from the relation via his children with the local Steiner school, there was no real community there when they started at Hungary Lane. He says his time at Camphill taught him the importance of a strong vibrant land-based community, saying “I have spent the last thirty years carefully spreading compost amongst the local community to the best of my ability. That is why we grow vegetables, keep hens and grind flour, it gives opportunities for linking directly with the local people.”
Jo pointed out that the work needed to develop a wider farm community around Sutton Bonnington is different to, for example, developing links to a community around Stroud, in Gloucestershire, where awareness of biodynamics and food quality is greater. That is why he organises community events like singing carols around the cows at Christmas and a St John’s fire at midsummer.
I asked had the community developed over the years? He told me that he also participates in the biodynamic study group at nearby Ilkeston, and that it was already established when they arrived. He told me that another “layer” of the local community has been supported by their small farm shop. Melanie (his now partner) has developed this further with a regular band of dedicated customers. Jo is also an active member of the Christian Community, another important strand of community life.
After many years with little connection, he has begun to develop links with Nottingham University which has a campus nearby. They are currently hosting a French vet student who is studying there, and links have been made with a Romanian vet student who uses homeopathy, which is an interesting development.
I asked Jo if he thought he had contributed to a greater awareness of the Demeter brand around the different communities he comes into contact with. He answered by telling a recent story of two of his customers in Nottingham; they both told him that Hungary Lane produce is “second to none for quality and taste” and they “cannot find produce to beat it!” This seemed to be an affirmation for Jo that he is on the right track. The organic brand seems easier for UK consumers to get to grips with, in terms of what it represents, than Demeter. Jo remembered someone telling him revealingly, that there seems to be more of a growing awareness of what the word “Biodynamic” stands for than “Demeter” in this country.
I then asked what does Jo see as his key successes at the farm? Jo’s eyes light up when he said “Getting the Demeter symbol was a big win during the first couple of years. Demeter inspections were also a joyful occasion in the early years before they became a more bureaucratic process. It was always a joyful experience when Jimmy and Pauline Anderson came to stay at Demeter inspection time.”
They also planted a lot of hedges in the early years, and Jo remembers when he came across the first bird’s nest in a young hedgerow, it brought joy to his heart, it was a sign for him that their hard work at Hungary Lane was beginning to pay off.
Another key event was establishing their small ‘North of England Mule’ flock of sheep as they had no experience of sheep before coming to the farm. They started using Texel rams over the Mules but their marketing demanded smaller lambs, so they now use Exlana / Texel cross ewes crossed back onto Texel or Exlana rams. In this way they can keep a closed cross bred flock.
The cattle moved from multi-suckled cows in the beginning to a single suckler herd to maintain certification on the calves. Previously the extra calves were bought at market, but this could not be continued under Demeter standards. Now a local organic dairy has started and multiple suckling may be a possibility again. Jo reflects that this kind of co-operation with other farmers is becoming more possible and may well be a development in the future. He co-operates regularly with neighbours sharing machinery.
In relation to community, Jo brought up his experience from a conference at the Goetheanum on Otto Scharmer’s Theory U (2009). The central concept was to offer a revised idea of the farm organism from that of the Agricultural lectures, and both of us agreed that biodynamics needs to maintain flexibility regarding key concepts. Jo remembered following a swarm of bees on the farm and noticed the farm boundary did not represent a barrier for them; indicating how permeable those boundaries are.
I asked; how does Jo experience the farm in the context of the wider landscape? He pondered for a moment and then said, “It’s mostly negative.” He mentioned the proximity of the M1 motorway, Ratcliffe power station and East Midlands airport as examples of negative influences. He also acknowledged that he felt the water element on the farm could have had more of his attention over the years. During heavy rain, water runs through the farm in a rather uncontrolled way he mused, but he thoughtfully accepted that this is something that he may have to leave for another farmer!
Looking to the future, I asked Jo how he saw the ideal scenario for Hungary Lane Farm over the next phase of its development? He explained his current tenancy at the farm was drawing to a close, by late September 2022 he intends to give notice and hand tenure back to the landowner in 2023. He looked into the distance and said “ideally, I would like someone to take the reins at Hungary Lane who is committed to carrying the biodynamic impulse forward. Ideally it would be someone I could have an affinity with, and that I could offer a mentoring role without getting too much in the way!” In practice however, Jo accepts that he may not have much say in the farm’s future, if a suitable candidate cannot be found before he hands in his notice. I asked Jo how he felt leaving a good chunk of his life’s’ work at Hungary Lane? Jo’s philosophical and selfless qualities shone through at this point. He said that even if biodynamic practice did not continue here at Hungary Lane, it will continue on another farm.
I asked, what advice would Jo give the successor to Hungary Lane Farm? He thought for a moment and said, they will have to be prepared for hard work and some tears”. Resilience and persistence are qualities they will need to keep going and with less financial support available from the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) in the future, they will have to face some uncertainty. On the flip side Jo reckoned that there is now, a greater and growing awareness of food quality and environmental issues, more than before and this will provide good support for biodynamic and organic farmers in the future. For example, when Jo started the wheat price was the wheat price! There was little differentiation. Now there are prices for different types of baking, heritage and feed wheats which allows one to grow for the different markets more easily.
Whoever takes over will need a wide range of skills; environmental, business, to be a people-person to manage staff and customers. On top of that they need to be a good farmer! A real multi-tasker. Jo agreed with me, that there does not seem to be a shortage of land for new entrants wanting to enter farming as a vocation. The shortage may be more profound than that. Entrants to farming need skills and resilience, but maybe even more importantly, they need the security of a supportive family and community. This is possibly evidenced by the difficulty, including at Hungary Lane, in finding suitable successors to take up the various opportunities available.
Before our farm walk to the fields and stock, Jo referred to the threefold nature of the human being and explained how he had come to associate the sphere of the will being more connected to the sphere of culture and community. It is this area that Jo feels society is still struggling with, and trying to find meaningful answers to. He hopes that Hungary Lane Farm will find a suitable steward to steer it forward for the next decades, as he has done over the last three, and that it can continue to be a place that fosters both culture and community into the future.
To contact Hungary Lane Farm: Hungary Lane, Sutton Bonington, Loughborough LE12 5NB Tel 01509 673897
Dan Powell is the Biodynamic Association’s Farm Services Development Manager.