A Norfolk farmer has revealed the secrets behind his award-winning crop of bread wheat - including using recycled sewage and newspapers to boost organic matter in his soil.
Alex Wilcox farms 250ha at Hill Farm at Stowbridge near Downham Market, part of the Norfolk County Farms estate, and he is also a senior agronomist for Hutchinsons, advising on 25,000 acres of land across the East of England.
He took first place in the Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) milling wheat quality challenge with a crop of Crusoe which yielded 12.2 tonnes per hectare, with a protein level of 13.1pc.
The grain sample was judged to have excellent quality, and after it was milled, the loaves baked from it gave the required white breadcrumb colour, structure and texture.
Mr Wilcox puts his success down to a careful focus on the health of his productive Norfolk fenland soil – although he said some people were “a bit squeamish” about how this was achieved.
“We have very much been advocates of adding organic manure to the land, whether it is treated sewage cake, which provides a lot of natural phosphates, or recycled paper crumble,” he said.
“The sewage cake is produce by Anglian Water, and it is a by-product of how they clean the sewage. We do it before oilseed rape crop because there are obviously restrictions to putting it on milling wheat. We put it on in a different part of the rotation so it conditions the soil.
“Back in the olden days, we all had an outside toilet and you put the ash from your fire in there and it created something called 'night soil', which was dug out and put on your vegetable beds. It has gone on for many years to use sustainable waste to produce food without fertilisers.
“It is just a sustainable way of doing it, and people still get a bit squeamish about it, but I don't know why.”
Another key element in the soil's organic profile is paper crumble – recycled newspaper produced at Palm Paper in King's Lynn – which is applied in a one-inch layer on stubble fields after harvest.
“Organic matter is absolutely everything in terms of farming sustainably,” he said. The biggest thing agriculture is struggling with at the moment is 100 years of reducing soil organic matter because of the way we cultivated the soil, and we no longer traditionally have a lot of livestock on the land and mixed farming.
“So by putting the paper crumble on and adding soil organic matter, the earthworms love it, the soil organisms love it, and it improves the soil structure.”
Mr Wilcox's award-winning crop of Crusoe was drilled at 350 seeds per square metre in late October, and he applied a total of 210kg of inorganic nitrogen fertiliser per hectare, compared to the 280kg applied by some of the other YEN participants.
“By improving soil organic matter levels, and creating a proper healthy soil, is how we have done that,” he said. “You do get negative reactions to people putting manure on soil. But if you want sustainable production of food, this is such an important part of it.”