Continuous Grain Cropping
A challenge to the Organic orthodoxy!

Following a trip to The Oxford Artisan Distillery yesterday, where Andrew and I went to explore the opportunity to support their grain sourcing and supply, as they aim to scale up production of their spirits, having been party acquired by global alcoholic drinks company, Diageo, I wanted to write a short piece on the proposed cropping system they'd like their farmers who supply them with grain to transition towards.

The grain they use is from many of John Letts' populations that he has collected and developed over many years. TOAD as the distillery is known through it's acronym that also happens to be an "indicator species", specialise in gin, vodka and rye whisky also using heritage populations grown on either organic or "low-input" farms, with a strong commitment to grain grown without agrochemicals, without a particular commitment to Organic grain.

John himself considers "standard" organic arable rotations as intensive, unproductive and unsustainable, and too focused on producing feed rather than food, believing his alternative system that sees a cereal crop population grown year on year in the same field with an understory of clover and a natural plant community with minimal tillage is the future for sustainable cropping systems.

Whilst I find the alternative system interesting, and remain openminded I think there may be several assumptions that John makes that may not be totally accurate. I think most importantly what he considers a typical organic rotation, where he assumes 2-3 years ley, and 3 years of grains, with a feed wheat, a feed barley and a pulse grown all to feed livestock. In fact milling oats, malting barley and spring wheat used for milling make up a large proportion  of organic crop rotations. The second dubious assumption would be that under his system, his heritage populations can yield on a par with a typical modern variety grown under more typical organic management. I would find it very difficult to believe that a heritage wheat population, that can deliver many benefits and agroecosystem services, could yield more than 2t/ha where a typical crop of cv. Extase could be expected to yield on average around 4t/ha. Taking a feed wheat price of £400/t the heritage population would need to be priced at £800/t to be of the same financial value. Where John may challenge this is that, under his system you never need a fertility building ley as this has been integrated into the system so you can get 2 more years grain production which can make up for the lower yields of the heritage populations. A back of the envelope calculation for a typical organic arable rotation that has 2yrs fertility building and 3 years grain cropping (wheat, oats, barley) would predict around 10t/ha total grain output which actually would be similar to a 2t/ha/year output over the same time period. Perhaps there is something in John's proposed system. It certainly relies on the heritage populations, infield diversity and suppressive soils that inoculate against soil borne disease. John is keen to set up some research to compare the two systems and has been handed a rather large R&D budget from Diageo to explore his hypothesis. With his background in archeology and ethnobotany he is well placed to understand medieval farming didn't tend to involve rotations that was first popularised through the Norfolk four course. It will be interesting to stay in touch with his research and see if he's able to validate his claims that his continuous grain cropping system can indeed be more sustainable.

An article written by John for The Land Magazine: Continuous Grain Cropping | The Land Magazine