Reducing energy use and waste on the farm

A Case Study Energy Action Plan

Presented to the Soil Association Conference January 2007

Iain Tolhurst

This presentation, heard by many of the big names in the conventional organic field, is just one example of Tolly’s continual efforts to spread the message about stock free, environmentally friendly growing.

The farm:

Tolhurst Organic Produce is a horticultural unit of 7 ha situated on grade 3c land on the edge of the Thames floodplain at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. It is a stockfree farm and grows over 70 different horticultural crops over 3 separate rotations. We have a well developed organic system having been in organic production for over 30 years. All produce from the farm is sold through its own Box scheme supplying 400 customers in Oxford and Reading. We measure our yields in terms of the number of families we are able to feed; this is currently rated at 55/ha. This is feeding families at the rate of 75% of their vegetable requirements for the whole year. The figure includes the 30% of land that is in fertility building crops and beneficial predator habitats. We also measure direct energy usage for production and distribution using the same family format, this is currently 4.5 litres per family per year. This energy usage includes all energy used for tractors, irrigation requirements and delivery vehicles. It does not include energy use for materials imported to the farm such as packaging, electricity, tunnel/crop covers, seeds etc.

At Hardwick we have for many years been aiming towards an increasingly energy efficient system, and to that aim we have adopted a series of policies.  These policies are designed to get to the heart of energy sustainability, rather than a bolt on extra.  The idea is that it becomes an integral part of the whole systems approach of the farm.

Rotation

This is at the very heart of the systems approach. We operate a stockfree system as this makes optimum use of the inherent soil fertility without resorting to importing another farm’s acres to supplement our fertility. Rotations are long to reduce pest and disease pressure and to allow for the maximum opportunity to develop fertility. This has a dramatic effect on reducing energy consumption in the transport, handling and application of bulky organic manures. It also allows other landowners to maintain their own fertility whilst reducing their own transport needs.

The health of the soil is central not just to the energy efficiency of the farm, but also to the health of crops and environment. Rotation is a very important tool to preserve soil health, particularly the earthworm and soil bacteria populations. A healthy soil structure ensures less energy usage in tillage and higher yield crops, better crops for less energy.

Marketing

We have developed a marketing system that is energy efficient. The box scheme only operates within a 25 mile radius of the farm, and within a tight geographical area. We have organised our customers into neighbourhood groups, led by a neighbourhood rep. Each Neighbourhood rep is responsible for looking after around 15-18 customers. These customers will all live within a very short distance, often the same or adjacent streets, some are schools, universities or workplaces. We actively discourage customers from driving to their reps, and try as far as possible to encourage them to walk or cycle. Most of them maintain this ideal as they are close enough to be able to do so. We do not take on customers that are too far from the neighbourhood rep. So we are expecting our customers to join us and make some extra effort to reduce food miles; they accept this in return for a reduced price organic product. The use of neighbourhood reps also brings an important social element linking food, the farm and people.

Packaging

Our marketing structure gives us the opportunity to develop excellent recycling facilities, as we are able through our neighbourhood reps to maintain close contact with the customer. They return more than 60% of all packaging used; and packaging will in many cases be used many times over. We do not use boxes as they are awkward for people to carry especially on bicycles, but use carrier bags instead. These are cheaper, use less energy to make and are easy for customers to store from week to week. There are different colour bags for different sizes, the Soil Association Eat Organic bag is the one that gets reused the most! We have now introduced paper carrier bags and are finding that customers are returning more of these compared to plastic bags, it seems that they respect and care more for paper.