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The Astley Estate has been farming organically for twenty years, producing beef, lamb, chickens, Christmas turkeys, and a variety of crops.
We have always recognised the importance of healthy soil on our farm. As we don’t use chemical fertilisers, we have learnt to pay attention to the nutrients it provides, and regenerative farming means taking even more care. We avoid ploughing as far as possible, as it breaks up the soil structure and damages the fungi and microbes that feed and look after crops. It makes the earth less able to absorb water and releases carbon into the atmosphere. Whereas the aim of regenerative farming is to capture as much carbon as possible.
Our cattle graze as they would if they were wild, moving as a herd, finding fresh pasture after a day or two and leaving the old behind. Their movement gives the plants time to recover and means the pasture is always growing at its fastest. Also, as you can imagine, the cow manure leaves the land well fertilised. The cows eat a nutritious and varied diet of legumes, herbaceous plants and grass. As they move over the land, they are improving the quality of the soil and boosting its organic matter. This type of grazing is another feature of regenerative farming.
A third of our farm is in clover leys. But it is not only clover that grows there. We grow as many as fifteen different types of plant in each. These mixtures are an important part of organic and regenerative agriculture: the plants in them are fertilising the soil and drawing nitrogen down from the atmosphere.
The clover mix is also feeding the fungi and soil microbes so that when the land is planted again after a couple of years, the soil provides the new crops with essential nutrients. The grazing cows and sheep play their part, nourishing the soil and giving the best possible start to what we sow afterwards.
We like to leave wild areas and broad field margins to encourage predator insects and biodiversity, and we add flower mixes to attract the pollinators – bees, butterflies, wasps, moths and beetles.
There is a large area of woodland in the middle of the farm. In fact, it is practically the size of the land where we grow our crops. Over 200 acres of it is a National Nature Reserve, home to a huge diversity of trees, plants and creatures.
We are converting the remaining 450 acres into a conservation woodland. The existing reserve will be the seed bank that helps supply the new area, which will replace the former forestry commission woodland. Through a mixture of natural regeneration and careful planting, we are going to create a site that in time may become as diverse as the neighbouring reserve. The trees will continue to suck carbon out of the atmosphere instead of being felled for timber.
We aim to leave the land and soil in better condition for future generations than we found it. To make farming a part of the solution to climate change and not the cause.