The potential for companion cropping and intercropping on UK arable farms
The age of high input/ high output agriculture is coming to an end. The rise of weed, disease and insect pest resistance to agricultural chemicals is contributing to this demise, as high input farming drives the resistance to these problems it is trying to solve.
The other reason high input farming is coming to an end is because the over-use of tillage and artificial fertilisers in these systems had led to our soils being degraded, eroded and the overall fertility reduced. We need to find farming systems that can produce plentiful outputs without the plentiful inputs. Intercropping is one tool that will help us transition to low input farming. It is not a new tool - there is evidence of intercropping from 5000 years ago - it is a forgotten tool. My great-grandfather would be more familiar with the concepts in my report than more recent generations.
The aim of my Scholarship was to explore what intercropping had to offer UK arable farming and what ideas could work in the UK. To find answers to these questions I travelled to the USA, Canada, France, Switzerland, Germany, Kenya, South Africa, Sweden, Denmark and the UK. This mix of countries visited gave me an insight into highly industrialised farming, low input farming in the developing world, and visiting Europe and the UK gave me examples of intercropping in similar climates to our own. I discovered on my travels more ideas and intercropping options than I ever thought were possible. There are so many different options that I believe there is no farm in the UK that would not benefit from some type of intercropping, though is not a magic bullet. It is a practice that needs to be very well planned and managed to avoid any potential problems. There needs to be careful thought before ordering any seed, let alone planting it. Intercropping is a knowledge and management intensive practice, not input intensive. On average intercropping seems to give a 20-30% increase in output; there are not many techniques that can achieve such gains.
I found on my study trip that there is a lack of on-farm research into intercropping. This needs to increase to realise its full potential and for the practice to expand. I believe the research needs to be funded by and carried out by farmers, levy boards and governments. We cannot rely on agri-chemical companies to fund and develop research in this field as there is little opportunity for patents or profits.
The development of specific machinery for certain intercropping systems is needed for these systems to be successful. There needs to be machinery development at all stages of growing intercrops from seeding, weeding, through to harvest and separation. I think modern engineering can solve any machinery issues found in intercropping; it just needs funding.
The overall conclusion from my study is that intercropping has HUGE potential for the UK and the rest of the world.