Deepdale Farm is an arable farm on the North Norfolk Coast. The farm has sandy loam soils and overlooks Brancaster Staithe Harbour, Scolt Head Island and the salt marshes. They produce wheat, barley and beans and also have a tourism business and retail units as well as hosting music and other events such as outdoor theatre.
The past couple of years have seen a major shift in the way that they farm as they move towards more sustainable farming methods. The farm has been in organic conversion since 2020 and will be fully certified in 2023. A key focus for them has been to improve soil health and increase biodiversity through changes to cropping, building natural fertility and by making space for nature.
One of their most radical changes has been to move to farming 5ha blocks in each field with the rest left for wildlife. This has been made possible by their enrolment in a Mid-tier Countryside Stewardship scheme.
They have been using fieldmargin since 2020 and their usage has evolved with their farming practices. The team uses the app for mapping all of their field subdivisions, planning and recording field work, and noting issues around the farm.
Fieldmargin is very helpful in terms of day-to-day management of the farm to reduce the friction of getting quality information in and out of the farm. Fieldmargin really reduces the stress of dealing with this information.Nathan Nelson – Farm Manager
We spoke to Farm Manager, Nathan Nelson, to learn more about the farm’s journey from conventional to regenerative farming and how fieldmargin has been used in that journey.
Tell us a bit about the farm and how it is managed
Deepdale Farm is a 265ha farm with sandy loam soils on the Norfolk coast.
I started as Estate Manager in January 2020 after the Managing Partner, Jason, took over from his father. The farm had been intensively cropped with wheat, potatoes, carrots and maize for some time. All of this was contracted out apart from the wheat. Very early in my time at Deepdale we saw major issues with soil erosion in heavy winter rains and found the soil in poor health, a consequence of this intensive management.
We quickly decided that we would move to agroecological farming. This meant the farm’s first use of cover crops and clover leys, and organic conversion. We also ran a successful trial of sheep grazing through an agreement with a local livestock owner. We sold or safely disposed of all of the chemicals we used to use on the farm, and now use our old spray store as a seed store.
Now we are growing no root crops and our rotation consists of two-year clover leys, cereals and legumes. We are experimenting with niche crops and heritage varieties such as YQ wheat. We are also investigating agroforestry and planting trees as well as restoring hedgerows.
60% of the farm has gone into environmental options through our Countryside Stewardship agreement, which also supports sensitive management of our farmed area such as the use of winter cover crops. We are just farming square 5ha plots in the middle of fields with the rest in stewardship options such as AB8 (Wildflower-rich margins). So for example in a 16ha field we have two 5ha plots which are farmed and the rest is set aside.
What motivated this shift?
Neither Jason or I are ‘farmers’ in a conventional sense. Our priority is the landscape and conservation and that has influenced the way that we manage the farm. We knew that BPS payments were going to go away and so we needed to find new revenue streams for the farm through stewardship, premium produce such as organic crops and agritourism.
Our soils were in very poor health due to heavy use of the bag and bottle for fertility and lots of damage from harvesting root crops in winter.
A real wake-up call was when one of our fields was drilled the wrong way by a contractor. In the winter we had heavy rain which took away lots of soil and flooded the house next to the field, and the village church. This showed how vulnerable our soils are and that we needed to do something to build them up and improve our resilience.
What challenges have you faced with this process?
This is our second harvest since starting the conversion process. Our first didn’t go well. In hindsight I can see that we were a little optimistic in trying to go ‘cold turkey’ post conventional agriculture in year one. In particular we made the dogmatic decision not to plough as well as going organic.
My wife described this as our ‘wonky pancake year’.
This year we grew all spring crops following winter cover crops and clover leys, paying more attention to good crop establishment as well as spreading manure and addressing nutrient deficiencies. We have had far cleaner crops and our barley yield per hectare has increased by over 70%.
This will be a multi-year program of getting the soil biology and organic matter up.
What attracted you to fieldmargin?
We were attracted to fieldmargin because it has a really approachable system. The farm historically used Gatekeeper but I was keen to move to something more user friendly.
I liked the fact that it was designed to be mobile-first and simple enough that team members could pick it up and start using it right away. I can add and view all our farm information in the field.
Support is also really helpful and I like the fact that you take feedback on board and keep adding new features.
How has fieldmargin helped with your conversion?
The use of fieldmargin and other tools has developed very organically as we work out the way we set up and run the farm.
We have come to the point where fieldmargin is much better adapted to our needs now than any other time due to the granularity of what we are doing. All of our blocks and stewardship areas within fields are mapped out using sub-fields. We wouldn’t be able to use anything that looks at a field as a single entity – we can have up to 6 crops in a field!
This may seem extreme but I believe this is something that will apply to many farms in the future as they make more space for nature, participate in schemes such as ELM and diversify cropping choices.
How do you use fieldmargin on a day-to-day basis?
Fieldmargin is very helpful in terms of day-to-day management of the farm to reduce the friction of getting quality information in and out of the farm. Fieldmargin really reduces the stress of dealing with this information.
The main things that I use fieldmargin for is mapping out all the areas within our fields including stewardship options using sub-fields, planning our crop rotations and recording all of the field work we have coming up, who needs to do it and if it has been completed. I have also started to use the costings and reporting tools
The ability to filter the activity list by team member means that I can plan and track work for each member of my team.
It is an easy sell for anyone who is accustomed to using mobile apps compared to filling in a job sheet. I also like that it’s relatively easy to assign to contractors as well.
We are still getting some of the team accustomed to this way of working and so it has been useful to be able to go in and record who has completed work if someone forgot to note things down. This is a feature I asked about which was recently added to the app.
We recently had a Red Tractor and Organic Farmers and Growers inspection and we found that it was much easier to pull records out of fieldmargin than our old system. It is becoming our point of record.
What is next for the farm? Are you looking at things like Carbon Credits and biodiversity net gain?
The next few years will be fairly pivotal for the farm – organic conversion was a response to the problems created by one way of farming. We need to work out if our new, sustainable, approach truly makes sense in this environment and context.
The question for us is is it commercially viable to maintain the balance of farming and wildlife? We have had a mix of establishment success for our biodiversity areas but we have more bird and butterfly activity than we have ever seen before. We need hard data of how the wildlife is improving and so we have been bringing in people for baseline monitoring such as bird ringing, insect traps and flora surveys. This allows us to place a value on what we are doing.
There is huge scope to do more with carbon and biodiversity net gain and we have already had interest from external parties in this.
How we farm in the future will also depend on provision of support for farming. Do we stay with 5ha blocks or do we shift to take advantage of the increase of yield from improved soil fertility? For now the main thing is that we have got some breathing room until 2025 when the Countryside Stewardship agreement ends to make these decisions.
What take away message do you have for other farms considering what you are doing?
Taking 60% of land out of production and managing for wildlife may seem quite extreme – we are able to do it at the moment because of our mid-tier agreement. However these are exactly the kind of decisions that any farmer will need to be taking from right now – how do we keep farming in the future? What will be the balance of income from farm produce vs payments for environmental improvements?
We also need to consider how the climate is changing. We have been preparing for heavy rainfall and more extremes. This year’s weather feels like a preview of what we have coming. It is a constant trade off and risk assessments with the sloping fields that we have. For example we can’t have winter wheat in sloping fields because of erosion and run off if we have a major weather event.
Hopefully with a few years to improve the soils we will be able to give a case study to show the benefits of continuing on a regenerative path instead of returning to an extractive method of farming.
One of the interesting things about fieldmargin is it’s shown the flexibility to manage those things. It’s not too focused on just your standard cropping operations.
Thank you for sharing your experiences, it has been great talking to you
Are you interested in using fieldmargin on your farm? It’s free to get started and make an account.
You can find out more about our plans and pricing here. Deepdale Farm are on the Plus plan which includes full mapping with sub-fields, field records with inputs and yields, reporting, costings for Gross Margin calculation and data export.
If you have any questions or need help getting started you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org