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UK Hop Growers Will Explore How Cover Crops Can Improve Soils

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Hutchinsons are leading a new farmer-led research project exploring autumn planting cover crops in the alleyways of hop yards. Funded and supported by Innovative Farmers and Charles Faram Ltd, and working with the British Hop Association and NIAB EMR (East Malling), they are looking for fifteen interested hop growers to help develop ways to enrich soils between the hop rows. Rob Saunders, fruit and hop specialist with Hutchinsons, says he is delighted about the funding and support that Innovative Farmers has agreed to give.

Rob Saunders Hop Garden
 
Rob explains that as the harvest of hops involves the removal of the whole plant, no organic matter is returned to the soil in the normal cropping cycle. Growers must frequently travel through the hop yards, irrespective of the conditions, and consequently the health of the soil deteriorates. A perennial crop, hops are grown from hop setts and can live for up to twenty years.
 
The field lab will look at several aspects of soil health including worm populations, organic matter, soil mineral content and water infiltration rates. It will compare yards with and without cover crops down the rows. The cover crop is likely to be made up of combinations of forage rye, oats, vetch and buckwheat, though in many yards verticillium wilt is a significant consideration and the chosen cover crop must not increase the risk of wilt by harbouring or vectoring the disease, so part of the project is to identify the best cover crop to use.

Kate Pressland, Research Manager for Innovative Farmers, said: “There is evidence in the US of cover crops in hops production, but for the UK the benefits and practicalities of including them in alley management are unknown.  British hops growers are very interested in improving soil health and it is great that the field lab will support collaborative working to investigate how cover cropping could work for them.”

Growing organic matter in situ should be less expensive than importing and spreading, with the added benefit of avoiding further traffic in the winter, and avoiding the bare soil ‘vacuum’ that nature invariably fills with pernicious (and wilt susceptible) weeds such as nettle, fat-hen and groundsel.  “It is only by measuring the baseline criteria and the subsequent effects on soil health that you can see any impacts; the project hopes to prove that using cover crops in hops is worth doing and does improve soil health. If it does, then they hope to widen this practice in hop yards, which has the potential, in the long term, to increase yields.” says Rob.

Rob reports that baseline assessments and cover crop sowing are planned for Autumn 2017 and the initial evaluation made available in spring 2018.  Any growers wanting to be involved should contact Rob at rob.saunders@hlhltd.co.uk.  

You can follow the field lab’s progress, and learn more about Innovative Farmers, at www.innovativefarmers.org