Over 30 people attended the Adisham Court Farm tour on Saturday 10 June, organised by Fiona Paterson and Guy Steward.
Adisham Court is adjacent to Holy Innocent's Church - when driving into the village from the Adisham Downs Road you can see the farmhouse and grain barn on your right.
The church have owned the farm since the time of Henry VIII. Patersons have farmed it for almost 50 years; Fiona's parents Jane and John took on the farm in 1974 and Fiona is the current, second-generation tenant, renting the land from the Church Commissioners.
The farm has just over 600 acres (245 hectares) - extending west as far as Mill Cottages on Bramling Road, north to the railway line and south to Woodlands Road (the section roughly between Highland Court/Shepherd's Close and Tower Woods), plus a field within the village itself.
Additionally, Guy and Fiona also look after the arable land at New Woodlands Farm.
Adisham Court farm is 100% arable, harvested by combine; 2023's crops are wheat, barley, oats and linseed. In other years the farm may produce peas, beans or oilseed rape.
Accompanying the visitors on the tour were:
James Short of Hutchinsons crop production specialists and the farm agronomist. James described himself as a "crop doctor", providing advice on growing crops varieties and inputs such as sprays and fertilizers. Hutchinsons have a local depot at Highland Court.
First stop after a short ride out of the village in the trailers: Flybridge Cottages (close to the railway line, a short distance from the Adisham Downs Road crossroads).
Here there were opportunities to see the "direct drill" and other equipment in the barn, a spring barley crop, and first of all, a field being grown with an Environmental Stewardship option:
The Environmental Stewardship scheme is run by Natural England. It aims to:
- conserve wildlife including farmland birds (biodiversity);
- maintain and enhance landscape quality and character by helping to maintain important features such as traditional field boundaries;
- protect the historic environment, including archaeological features and traditional farm buildings;
- protect natural resources by improving water quality and reducing soil erosion and surface run-off;
- respond to climate change by protecting existing soil carbon levels, increasing carbon sequestration and supporting the adaptation of the natural environment to climate change.
Entry Level Stewardship Environmental Stewardship Handbook, Natural England, 2013
There are various levels, options, points and payments farmers can choose from.
Dan explained the field was planted with a legume and clover ley - a "ley" is where you rotate between cereal crops and grass or legumes to improve soil quality.
He pointed out broomrape; a perennial species which in botany is classed as a colonist. It has tiny dust-like seeds and can popup anywhere.
The birds on your farm are a good indicator of the overall health of biodiversity, as they sit high up the food chain. If bird populations are doing well then it indicates that the plants and insects on which they depend for food are thriving too.
Environmental Objectives, Environmental Stewardship Handbook
Guy explained how the direct drill is used for min-till farming: the drill creates small slots in the ground and the seeds are blown through tubes and placed directly into the soil.
Adisham Court bought their direct drill second hand and although it's now around a decade old, it's been updated to do most of what a new one can.
Min-till (minimum tillage) is designed to maintain the health and structure of the soil, reducing nutrient loss, soil runoff, maximising its organic matter, avoiding harm to worms and reducing the time and effort needed for ploughing (which in turn can save on fuel). Also, the more you disturb and break up the soil, the more you are likely to release carbon in it.
It's not without disadvantages: less disturbance to the soil makes it much easier for weeds to become established so you need herbicides to remove them.
One way to mitigate that is to use livestock to do some of the work. Fiona explained how last year they borrowed some sheep from another farm and had them lightly graze the area.
Similarly, you can plant cover crops, which protect the soil from erosion and compete with the weeds.
The direct drill can also apply small quantities of other products, such as slug pellets, an additional plant (for mixed cropping) or a starter fertilizer. They tried the latter last year - it means you can reduce the amount of fertilizer you need because it ends up right beside the seed in the slot.
Although events like the annual East Kent ploughing match are still very popular, many farmers rarely plough as part of the job.
The barley field is just east of the barn.
Winter barley, wheat and rape are planted through September and October and go through the Winter and do their main growing during the Spring and early Summer. They are ready to harvest from around mid to late July and August.
The crop we looked at is Spring Barley and is sown in the Spring. It has a short growing season and is ready to harvest in August.
Before the barley was planted there was a cover crop established in early September.
One of the reasons is to remove as much nitrogen from the soil as possible so there is less chance of it contaminating the watercourse (the risk here is, in the same way that nitrogen helps plants grow in soil, it can do so in the water and encourage algae blooms which use the oxygen needed by fish and invertebrates).
James described how merchants buy the barley from farmers and then sell it to "maltsters" who turn it into malt, which is then sold to brewers, typically in the UK or Europe (English malty barley is a very exportable and sought after product).
The merchants take samples to check the quality, if it doesn't make the grade for any reason it can be sold as animal feed at a cheaper price.
Pointing out the blue folding "rolls" (rollers), Guy explained that everything is rolled for moisture retention - even standing crops such as the barley.
All the farm plastic (including supplies like fertilizer which come in plastic bags) is collected and sent for recycling.
There is another machine used in combination with the direct drill for min-till work; it stirs up the ground and cultivates it without actually plouging it or turning the soil over.
He also showed a conventional drill which is used in combination with a plough. One use for this can be after bad weather, where you have wet soil on the surface and you want to expose the drier soil underneath and drill into that.
The tour group also saw the "headers" (cutters) which attach to the front of the combine harvester.
The barn has a large owl box in the corner, however as Fiona pointed out, so far the owls have chosen to ignore this and live elsewhere in the barn.
Next the tour crossed to the other side of the Adisham Downs Road and headed for the the 6-metre "cultivated margin", on the edge of wheat fields.
This is cultivated every year, just like the rest of the field, except no crop is planted here. This generates "annual weeds" such as mayweed, poppy and charlock which rely on the annual disturbance: they only last for one growing season but produce lots of seeds for the following year.
Clumps of white campion were visible and a similar looking plant, night-flowering catchfly (so-called because it opens at night and releases a fragrance that attracts moths) is present in a field margin elsewhere on the farm.
Cultivated margins attract insects - particularly in cases like this when it serves as a gap between arable crops on either side. In turn the insects attract farmland birds such as skylarks, corn bunting and yellowhammer.
All these are among the 10 species of farmland bird that have declined the most in England in recent decades. Natural England have declared the whole of East Kent as a "high priority" area for farmland birds, but certain species are in abundance at Adisham Court.
From the trailers it was also possible to view the area close to the road where poppies are growing (the farm hosts more than one species).
A serious issue arable farmers have to contend with are grass weeds such as "black grass". Essentially the problem is the weed - a plant in the wrong place - competes for the same nutrients as the crops, using the same water, taking up the same space and reducing the yield.
Furthermore, each black grass seed head can produce up to 100 seeds; to keep its population in check requires a control level of 98%.
The safest, greenest (and most tedious) way to deal with weeds is "hand rogueing", so called because you are getting rid of "rogue" plants. Fiona and Guy employ people to literally walk the fields and identify, remove and bag any black grass which is then burnt to destroy the seeds. Where there's so much of it that's not practical, you have to use a weedkiller like Roundup. Unfortunately, this kills not just the weed but all the wheat in the area as well.
Oats are growing here. Dan drew attention to the sound of a corn bunting. Common on the farm, they often perch on wires, posts and other high positions.
The barley field at Flybridge and the wheat near Mill Cottages contain "trials areas". These are run by NIAB - the National Institute of Agricultural Botany. Small flags mark individual plots where different varieties of wheat and barley are tested, as well as different amounts of fertiliser or fungicide.
The large environmental margin at the bottom of the valley (on the left as you look towards Mill Cottages) is divided into two sections.
The upper part includes perennial plants such as:
The lower section has a wild birdseed mix.
Dan explained that, overall, there are three things farmland birds need:
He mentioned regular sightings of turtle doves in East Kent; some people have also reported them around the Cooting area of Adisham. If you see any, please contact the RSPB.
Listen to some birdsong recorded on the farm (near the farmhouse) one evening in May.
(The traffic noise you can hear in the background is from the B2046 on the other side of the village.)
The final stop before returning to the village: the Ordnance Survey trig point - at 72 metres above sea level this is (very nearly) the highest point on the farm.
Not much is grown in Kent. Winter linseed is planted in September and harvested in July - in spring a carpet of blue flowers was visible, by June it had turned entirely green.
It will be the first crop to be harvested, probably in mid July.
There's a field of wheat to the north of the bridleway, which, as agronomist James explained, is a milling variety called Zyatt. James said that because millers are fussy about quality, only about a third of all wheat grown in the UK (in terms of varieties) goes for milling.
Wheat is a "mainstay" crop and Adisham Court has a good reputation for high quality wheat - it may end up at companies like Allied or ADM.
Guy explained that good quality is dependent on protein in the grain, which you get with plenty of sunshine and nitrogen fertiliser.
The fertiliser inputs need careful management; James was keen to emphasise how, while one "large field" may look no more than that to the naked eye, Adisham Court use technology including GPS and soil testing to farm it as many individual mini-fields with different inputs to get the best yield.
Global fertiliser prices have increased massively since Russia's invasion of Ukraine - almost £750/£800 a ton last year or about double the usual price.
During the tour, James also spotted a few blades of a new invasive grass weed, rat's-tail fescue; an increasing problem in min-till farming.
Modern farming is highly complex and scientific: James and his company study the characteristics of individual crops varieties in great detail to gain whatever marginal advantage they can for their customers.
It's also clear that Fiona and Guy put considerable thought not just into which crops to plant where, but what sequence to plant them in, and how the nutrients in the soil will change from one growing season to the next.
After around 90 minutes touring the fields, the trailers headed back into the village where Guy showed everyone the grain barn.
The present building dates from the 1960s and was converted into a grain store in the early 70s.
At harvest time, the grain is collected from the combine in trailers, which are driven by tractor to the barn. First it's tested with a moisture meter, then tipped through a grill in the barn floor onto a conveyor belt.
If the crop is too moist, it is put through the grain dryer, and recirculated until enough moisture has been removed. This technique ensures there is minimal variation in the moisture content of the crop. The dryer is large and needs to be completely full; small yield crops would be impractical because you wouldn't have enough grain to completely fill the dryer and then it wouldn't be able to circulate.
Once the crop is ready it's diverted onto more elevators and a conveyer that runs the length of the barn roof. There are numbered bays on each side; the correct chute is opened and the grain falls onto the floor.
Elsewhere in the barn, there are a further 12 bins which can hold 70 tonnes of wheat each and allow crops to be stored separately.
The farm's Massey Ferguson combine was originally a demo unit, purchased in 2012. It's important to choose the right size of combine: you don't want one so powerful that it harvests crops too fast and overwhelms your grain barn process. At Adisham Court they have managed to adjust things so they can shut down the grain barn operation soon after they finish combining each day.
It's almost important to have an appropriately sized header. To get a combine working efficiently, you have to operate it at a certain capacity. The original header was quite narrow, which meant you needed to drive the combine faster. Guy purchased a larger 20-foot header which has increased the output by 10%, plus they don't have to go forward quite as fast.
Guy opened up each side of the combine to show how it works. He described it as "quite analogue": although there's some software involved, it doesn't use GPS or yield monitoring. According to Guy, dealers and fitters generally say most problems they see with combines are electrical.
The combine has a thresher inside which separates the grain from the stalks.
You have to adjust the settings very carefully, especially wind flow. If you get it wrong, light crops like linseed could be blown straight out of the back of the combine. Too little wind and chaff could end up in the grain tank.
The combine can drop neat rows of straw out of the back ready for a baler to make bales, however Adisham Court prefer to chop the straw which can be done as the straw comes out of the back of the combine. Leaving the straw helps with providing organic matter as well as saving money the following season by reducing the amount of Potash and Phosphate fertilizer needing to be purchased and spread.
The separated grain falls down through the sieves to the bottom of the combine, and is then taken up by an elevator into the grain tank on the top. The tank can hold around 5 tonnes and an alarm sounds when it's full. A movable arm transfers the grain from the tank into a trailer driven alongside, ready to be taken back to the barn while combining continues.
The thresher doesn't always successfully thresh items on the first attempt - it may not have separated all the grains from an ear of wheat for example, so the combine is designed to capture these in one of the sieves and send them through the "returns auger", which carries them to the thresher to be processed again.
Therefore another skill to operating the combine is keeping an eye on how much material is being returned, so the thresher doesn't get overloaded.
Guy explained that combine fires are always a risk - particularly as you are typically working on hot days, in the middle of a field with a crop that could also burn, and using a vehicle that has a large fuel tank. The combine is fitted with fire extinguishers and they also carry a drum of water on the top. After putting a fire out, you also need water to cool the combine down.
The farm know enough about the combine to take it apart themselves and do maintenance during the winter. The huge tyres last a long time because the combine is only used for six weeks a year, but they're expensive, some as much as £2,000.
Visitors were transported around the 600 acre site on trailers provided by Quex Park and Chalkpit Farm, one of them driven by Derek Wood, who helps Guy and Fiona during busy periods and is the farm's combine expert.
Victoria's Catering provided refreshments and lunch.
Other groups and individuals in the village leant equipment to make the event possible (and completely free to attend).