This month Nigel Akehurst visits Eckley Farms, a regenerative arable farming business with a direct-to-consumer brand – Pure Kent – based near Staplehurst in Kent and run by Guy and Claire Eckley.
Pulling into the yard at the home farm, I notice the large grain store is a hive of activity. Guy’s father Mike is busy pushing up with a JCB telehandler. A few fields away the roar of their rotary John Deere s685i combine can be heard cutting oats at an impressive speed. Carting the grain back to the store is 18 year-old James Eckley in a JCB Fastrac.
I find my way to the old farmhouse, where I meet Guy, Claire and their younger son Thomas, who has taken a break from planting cover crops to come and meet me. It’s a blisteringly hot, sunny day and we take a seat outside in the shade of a gazebo to chat.
“It has been a relatively ‘easy’ harvest,” said Guy. The weather has been on side and there is a capable team of seasonal staff that includes both their sons, James and Thomas. Sitting in the combine seat this year is George Edmonds, a local livestock farmer who always helps them out during harvesting and drilling.
“It’s George’s first full year on the combine and he is living his best life,” said Guy, who is free to get on with other things, “like agreeing to be interviewed,” he said with a smile.
As we are chatting, Guy points out a bird call I’ve never heard before. It’s a turtle dove, he explained: “It’s like a pigeon cooing with a staccato in the middle.”
It’s a sound that had almost died out in the UK, I learn. However, thanks to an RSPB campaign (Operation Turtle Dove) working with farmers like Guy and Claire to create nesting and feeding habitats, populations are recovering.
Eager to learn more about their arable business, I ask Guy how long his family has been farming in Kent.
“Grandfather Jim moved to this farm in 1953 from Herefordshire. Jim and Gladys had two sons – Edward and Mike, who is my father.
“Edward lived and farmed at Boarley Farm, north of Maidstone, before he passed away. Mike and Vera lived and farmed a rented farm up on the North Downs at Stalisfield, which is where he and his sister Sarah grew up.”
Guy and Claire now live with their sons in the farmhouse Jim and Gladys moved to in 1953. Guy has been here since spending some time working off farm and traveling in Australia after gaining his degree from Harper Adams. Mike was the last person to dry hops in the oast he and Vera now live in across the road from the farmyard.
Mike used to keep sheep and maintain arable production but felt he couldn’t run the two enterprises efficiently, so concentrated on arable production. Over the years Mike and Guy have bought more land and specialised in arable production.
Up until 2008 they farmed (relatively) conventionally, using minimum tillage and chasing inputs to maximise yield.
Going no till and controlled traffic farming
Following the purchase of a sizeable block of land, they were forced to re-think their approach.
“We needed to cover more ground with the same kit,” said Guy.
He began investigating how they could improve their efficiency and started looking at no-till drills. After looking at the options they bought a second-hand John Deere 750A drill from the Cherry family that now hosts the increasingly popular regenerative agriculture show, Groundswell.
“The 750A reduced our blackgrass burden on this Wealden clay over the 10 years it was on farm, but you don’t get any cracking or fissuring like you do with a tine,” he explained, pointing out that that is why they had used ultra-narrow coulters on their original Horsch sprinter drill.
“It has narrow Metcalfe openers on it, which are only 12mm wide. This doesn’t create the disturbance that encourages blackgrass, but you do get a bit of cracking below the point, which helps a bit of water get away in a wet autumn like the two previous winters we have seen,” Guy went on.
“The 750A worked well on sandier soils but the Horsch had lower wear rates on those soil types, was better for the clay silt soil type at Staplehurst and is an all-round lower maintenance drill,” he said. They sold the John Deere last year.
Moving to no-till has drastically cut their costs, said Guy, suggesting that this was one of the key reasons why a growing number of farmers have ditched their ploughs. Today around 12.5% of the world’s arable land has been converted to no-till.
The same year they also moved to controlled traffic farming. “If we were going to spend the money on auto steer guidance technology to make our lives easier,” said Guy, “I wanted to see more return from that investment.” He came up with a controlled traffic system that keeps machinery to the same wheel marks. This reduces compaction across most of the field and allows them to target any remedial action that is required.
By not establishing crops through cultivation, Guy decided to use some of their savings to start experimenting with cover crops and companion cropping to keep living roots in their soils throughout the year.
Initially they bought in a diverse Pedders mix of oat, vetch, buckwheat, linseed, millet, radish, pea and sunflower. They have since started making up their own cover crop mixes. Buying in straights means the mix includes as many family groups of plants as possible. Running our fingers through a half tonne bag in the store we see seeds from the legume, brassica, borage, flax, polygonum and daisy families.
“We like that diversity. You can get deep rooting, shallow rooting, tall, short, climbing, prostrate growth types, plants that like high or low temperature or will germinate in dry or wet conditions. The same mix planted a week apart or into different stubble can look like a completely different proportion of components by the end of its term.
I asked how they terminated their cover crops. “We have trialed rolling cover crops on a frost, but the only reliable method available to us at the moment is glyphosate,” replied Guy, who added that they were “open to new ideas”.
He went on: “We have grazed cover crops in the past, but this silty clay doesn’t recover well unless winter conditions are ideal, and with the last couple of wet winters we haven’t grazed any on the home farm recently.”
Regen ag and soil health
Back in 2008 nobody was talking about soil carbon or different types of earthworms found in a healthy soil. A few years in they noticed that their soils seemed to be better, so they did some tests – revealing that they were improving.
About the same time, BASE UK (Biodiversity, Agriculture, Soil & Environment) started up and a gang of farmers from Kent went up to the first meeting. He described how the group – which he affectionately refers to as the ‘Nutters Group’ – was all thinking along the same lines. The Nutters Group still meets today to share knowledge and ideas.
Guy talked about books dealing with the subject of ‘why’ such as Dirt, the Erosion of Civilisations by David Montgomery, and those books dealing with the subject of ‘how’, such as For the Love of Soil by Nicole Masters, the former tackling why a civilization should change and the latter explaining how a farmer can make these changes.
After reading a fair number of books on regenerative agriculture, he realised they were already doing the right things. They were no longer disturbing the soil, they had living roots in the ground all year round. Companion crops went in with the rape.
“We were building soil health without realising it,” he said.
An independent agronomist firm, Edaphos, run by Mike Harrington, has also helped them better understand their soils and the importance of plant health.
“Their approach is based around the health of our soils, maintaining the health of our crops and helping our soils reach their full biological and physical potential,” explained Guy.
“If you’ve got a healthy balanced soil with active biology in there, they are making the P and K and all the other nutrients available for plant growth. We’re not applying solid P and K to the soil, we’re trying to get the plant and soil biology to do that for us, so we do apply foliar nutrients to the plant so it has the energy to feed soil biology, to make more soil nutrients available to the crop. Also we’ve learnt that if you’ve got a healthy plant you don’t have to go in with a fungicide,” he continued.
“Nitrogen application rates have also been reduced to around 120kg per hectare (which includes some organic manures) with little to no negative impact on yields,” he added.
Average yields and new routes to market
I ask how their yields compare to conventional systems.
“We no longer seem to have boom or bust years. It normalises our yields,” said Guy.
“I’ll take the averaging effect – it’s a lot easier to budget with. The bottom line is we are spending less on inputs, which means our margins are better,” he said.
He also points out that they are producing a more nutrient-dense crop.
It’s still not a perfect system and they are working to overcome a number of challenges on farm.
Top of the hit list is black grass, which has improved since going no-till but is still a problem.
One potential solution they have been exploring is hoeing between the rows. Guy made a prototype from a modified Wil-Rich cultivator, enabling him to use autosteer to hoe between the rows with 1cm accuracy.
“It’s the repeatability we need; because we’ve drilled it in the autumn and we go in to hoe it in the spring, we need to be able to find the same place, allowing us to knock out the stronger seed producing black grass plants between the narrower bands of wheat,” he said.
Guy wants to move to a nine-metre drill and hoe that would take one wheel mark out of their system.
Thomas remarked that hoes were big business at the Cereals show this year, with manufacturers showcasing expensive ones with cameras. “Someone said they can make a 12-metre hoe for when we get a 12-metre combine,” he joked.
“The goal is to eliminate the need to use herbicides, which keep going up in price,” added Claire.
“We put up with some weeds and we spend less growing a healthier crop,” said Guy.
The other issue they are noticing on the home farm is that their clay soils are getting tighter. To combat this Guy has been experimenting with the mole plough. “Is the benefit the vertical fissure or the mole?” he asked. “I don’t know. We’re cracking the old plough pan and we’re getting air and water interchange with the soil.”
His aim is to aerate the soil without burning the carbon and mushing up all the soil biology. We take a quick spin out in the field to see Guy pulling his two-legged mole plough behind the tractor. He stops and uses a spade to dig down into the dry soil to see what impact it’s having.
It’s not immediately obvious but he describes how the fields he mole ploughed four years ago still show beneficial signs from that intervention.
Guy will trial operations or treatments across a field. With the controlled traffic system, it is easy to find your trials, “if you can make a field look stripy then something you have done has made a difference,” he quipped.
Marden Farmer Cluster Group
Guy and Claire are members of the local farmer cluster group. They attend regular meet-ups and have enjoyed getting to know farmers from different sectors all working together to explore novel conservation and regenerative farming ideas to enhance the landscape for wildlife. The group works closely with Marden Wildlife group and together they are boosting populations of scarce farmland birds like turtle doves and yellowhammers.
In 2010 Claire decided to set up a direct-to-consumer food business, Pure Kent, from the farm. At the time both her sons were still young, and it was something she could fit around childcare. She sent off some of their home-grown rapeseed to get pressed into oil and bottled. She then added a label and started selling the oil locally.
Sales were good and in 2016 a frozen ready meal company approached her wanting to buy in bigger quantities. They were presented with the dilemma – to wait for some diversification funding and jump through various hoops or build their own plant and start supplying the customer after a shorter lead time.
Guy bought a second-hand press that is installed on the top of a shipping container that functions as the clean filtration room. With a gravity-fed hopper and a holding bin, the rapeseed is blown through to the plant from the next-door grain store. Within a couple of months they were in business and kept increasing their volume to a point where they were supplying 10,000 litres a month, buying in seed from other farms and with two additional presses to keep up with demand.
“We’ve since slowed up production. With the price of rapeseed increasing and the need to buy in to meet our requirements there was no longer a viable margin on the largest customer. Wholesale and retail customers took a realistic price increase and that work is still there, significantly reducing workload but still connecting the farm with customers, and it’s a lot less stress,” said Claire.
Guy doesn’t miss constantly being on call to fix any problems. He likened it to keeping livestock: “It needed checking twice a day and you were wondering what was going to happen next,” he said. He’s glad of the extra headspace and being able to focus on the farm, which he enjoys.
Claire has also set up their own artisan flour mill which she uses to process the best of their milling wheat into small batches of flour for baking.
It’s a much smaller scale enterprise than the oil plant but more than paid for itself during lockdown, when everyone was at home baking their own bread, she said.
I ask Guy and Claire if they have a five-year plan. Guy quips that they are waiting for the Government to come up with a plan first.
“We like the way we farm and can’t see us going back to being production led,” replied Claire.
“It’ll stay soil led or regen as a principle, because we’re not having to spend as much on inputs and we can make more of a margin while looking after the farm, building the condition of the farm. To hand it on to the next generation in a better condition than you took it on has always been the target,” added Guy.
- •The Eckley family has farmed in Kent since 1953, when Jim moved from Herefordshire to grow hops. They now specialise in regenerative arable farming with a total acreage of 1,400 acres
- Grow milling wheat, oilseed rape, barley, oats, beans and linseed in four locations around Maidstone
- Home block of land is silty clay with some sandy soils behind Leeds Castle
- Switched to no-till farming in 2008 in a drive to reduce inputs and improve efficiency after buying more land locally and expanding their arable operation
- Moved the same year to controlled traffic farming and started planting cover crops to improve soils
- Claire started Pure Kent in 2010, sending off rapeseed to be pressed and packaged before selling it locally in farm shops
- Approached by a large frozen food business in 2016 to supply oil in larger quantities and decided to build their own on-farm plant.
- Set up their own artisan flour mill to produce small batches of flour from the best of their farm-grown milling wheat
- Currently in Countryside Stewardship, having been through two rounds of entry level schemes
- Lockdown brought a flurry of flour orders as everyone stayed at home and baked their own bread, and a huge increase in oil production
- Core team includes Mike, Vera, Guy and Claire. Seasonal staff include George Edmonds and their two sons, Thomas and James.