Combining innovation with tradition and sharing natural resources with wildlife is the approach favored by Worcestershire farmer and last year’s Arable Innovator of the Year Jonathan Boaz.

Jonathan Boaz likes to produce high yielding crops of wheat, but also likes to see a bit left over for wildlife.

The arable farmer from Huddington, Worcestershire, describes his farm business as traditional with the aim of producing high yielding crops alongside consideration for wildlife.

Traditional it may be, but this has not prevented progressive crop management methods from being introduced, which earned him the title of Arable Innovator of the Year at last year’s British Farming Awards.

He says: “Our first role is production of food for people and profit, but we mustn’t be greedy and take the lot.”

This attitude has driven Jonathan to find ways to maximize soil fertility and health of his farm with minimal chemical applications, including use of home-made compost, careful variety choices and changes to his rotation to manage weed and disease burdens.

He says: “I believe we all spend too much money on chemicals. Margins are so tight nowadays so we need to get decent crops, but we cannot rely on chemicals.

“I am a great believer in getting as close to organic farming as possible. I would not make organic production work on my ground, so I cannot go down that route and I do not think we could feed the country that way.”

Instead, Jonathan chooses his varieties carefully to reduce the need for chemicals: “This year my wheat crops will achieve about 95 per cent of their potential without fungicides.”

Hybrid Barley

Similarly his decision to switch to hybrid barley this year for the first time was motivated by the need to control black-grass.

He says: “Hybrid barley is very vigorous so it should overwhelm black-grass.”

He has also taken the decision to put about 24 hectares (59 acres) of the worst-affected land into ryegrass, which alongside judicious use of herbicide, should ‘knock it on the head’

The Boaz family took over Mill Farm in 1968. Jonathan’s late father John had been farming in the Peak District, but with Jonathan, his twin brother Jeremy and their younger brother Nick all keen

to join him on-farm, he needed more acreage and opportunity for expansion.

Having been brought up in Worcestershire, John was pleased to secure a 162ha (400-acre) tenancy on the Huddington Estate.

They have since taken on further land, including purchasing 16ha (40 acres) to bring the total to 243ha (600 acres).

The move to Huddington gave the family the grassland they needed to continue their sheep enterprise and later to establish a beef suckler herd too, as well as potential for Jonathan to branch out into arable production.

He says: “My brother and I were 18 when we moved down here. Our father allowed us to take an important role in management of the farm from an early age. He encouraged us to learn from our

mistakes, but not to make them twice.”

The brothers took college agriculture courses after school, alongside working at home with their father.

Bigger Farm

Jonathan says: “My parents wanted to move forward and get a bigger farm. I was not so interested in sheep, but more arable and machinery, while Jeremy was keen to work with livestock.”

The first decade at Mill Farm saw a proportion of grassland being taken out for arable production, headed by Jonathan, while Jeremy and John established a beef suckler herd of about 50 cows (Hereford and continental crosses), as well as a 1,000-head flock of ewes. They also had a pig herd briefly and reared Christmas turkeys.

Jonathan says: “We have had our fingers in a lot of pies, but my real interest was with the arable business.

“At the time, Government policy was all about increasing cereal production and we were encouraged to grow more. Corn prices were good, so we ploughed a lot of the old ridge and furrow and got some great yields without a lot of input.

“Of course now we know it caused untold environmental damage, but it was what farmers were doing at the time.”

After several years of this, Jonathan found his grade 3 and 4 heavy clay soils were becoming increasingly difficult to manage.

He says: “The soil here is like grey putty. It needs plenty of organic matter to make it workable.”

So after two or three cereal crops, he would put the land back into grass for three or four years.

“I was naive about organic matter back then, but I could see there had to be a reason for soil becoming more difficult. As the fibre of the old grasses disappeared, soil started to get more sticky.

“We started working grass leys into the rotation, including white clover, plenty of fertiliser, then started using a paddock grazing system with the sheep.

“We got some good fat lambs from that and they put a lot of fertility back into the soil too. After four years, we would then get a fantastic crop of wheat. This system seemed to work, so we stuck with it.”

The suckler cows were sold to free up grazing for sheep and Jonathan took farmyard manure from neighbouring farms.

This prompted his interest in  composting and finding the best combinations to replenish the land’s missing nutrients, as well as organic matter which would benefit the soil’s texture and ‘workability’.

Jonathan says: “Bacteria in the soil breaks down organic matter to release nutrients for growing plants. So organic matter is only half the story, you also need the right bacteria.

“I found by mixing the manure with other materials we got the best outcome.”

Woodchip works well but is expensive, he says: “We pollarded some willows and chipped and used that which worked very well.”

Another good feedstock for composting is lucerne.

Final Cut

Jonathan says: “We grow lucerne for hay which grows well, but by the end of the growing season it is not economical to bale it, so I use the final cut for compost.”

His preferred method of preparing material for composting is to use his 15-tonne muck spreader with mixer wagon, which he uses to mix the material and layer it into a large heap before leaving it until it is ready.

Jonathan says: “It is usually ready in eight to 10 weeks, but we tend to leave it longer.”

Last year, for the first time, Jonathan purchased a new by-product from a renewable energy plant to further benefit crop quality.

“It is a limey ash which is about 22 per cent phosphate with lots of trace elements too. Our soil is hungry for phosphates and this is water soluble, so phosphate is more readily available. I used it directly on land in 2016 and crops are looking well. This year, I have been mixing it into compost.”

Five years ago, brother Jeremy retired and the sheep flock was sold. Instead, grassland is grazed by sheep owned by a Welsh farmer, who employs a local shepherd to manage them.

Jonathan is not ready to think about retiring just yet: “I love my job inside out and I want to go on as long as I can.”

Winning the Arable Innovator of the Year award at the British Farming Awards last year was a huge surprise and an honour, says Jonathan.

“I never dreamed for a second I would win, as there were such good entries in the class. To stand shoulder to shoulder with those and come out on top gave me a real buzz. It is really special and a highlight of my life of which I am dearly proud.”