Note: While this case study is of a farm in Romania, there is still a lot of useful information (e.g. farming at larger scales, rotations, stock-free cereal farming and fertility management, and more) that can be applied to Scottish stock-free agriculture despite the obvious differences in climate.
Upon moving to Romania in 2004, Christian Hani and his family established Bio-Farmland, an 800-hectare family farm that specialises in growing several different cereal varieties. At the start of 2021, Bio-Farmland became certified with the Biocyclic Vegan Standard, making them one of only a few cereal farms in the world right now to be run using stock-free/veganic methods. This means that no animal-derived inputs (e.g. manure, slaughterhouse waste products), synthetic fertilisers or agrichemicals are used and so, only stock-free agroecological techniques are relied upon (e.g. green manures, minimal tillage, etc.). Despite having undertaken this conversion only recently, Christian tells us that Bio-Farmland has essentially been managed according to stock-free organic practices since they began in 2004.
Bio-Farmland run a 5-year rotation for their cereal crops which consists of 2 years of white clover to generate fertility and improved soil structure, followed by a year of wheat, then a year of oats or barley, and finally a year of spelt or rye. Although not part of the main rotation, einkorn wheat is also grown over 50-80 hectares since the market for this grain is more niche. Aside from the cereal crops, Bio-Farmland also grow a variety of herbal tea crops on about 0.5 hectares, which is self-supporting economically, even though it does not contribute significantly to the farm’s overall income. For each of the cereal crops, their yield varies between 2000kg and 3000kg per hectare per year. To grow and harvest these cereals costs approximately €400 per hectare, excluding the farm owners’ salaries and the cost of leasing the land. Importantly, the cereals grown at Bio-Farmland are winter varieties which makes them more suitable for Romania’s continental climate where there are extended dry periods in the spring and summer months.
To process the harvested grain Bio-Farmland first clean it and then mill it with the Mühlomat 100 Tornado, a small-scale whole grain miller which can process up to 100kg of grain per hour. This is then sold as flour for bread making. On the other hand, Bio-Farmland also sell a portion of their cleaned grain unprocessed, for customers who have their own home milling equipment. Sometimes, the wheat they grow is not of a high enough quality to be used for bread making, in which case they can sell it to be used in baby food products, or if the quality is too poor even for that, they sell it as animal feed. The Biocyclic Vegan Standard allows forage material from up to 40% of a farm’s cultivated area to be sold as feed in the first 5 years after the farm’s conversion, so as to make the transition more financially viable (See section 3.6.2 ‘Management of forage areas’ of their 2020 guidelines). Aside from the wheat, they haven’t had any problems obtaining a high quality with their other cereals.
To sustain this output of cereal crops, many practices are utilised by Bio-Farmland. As mentioned earlier, 2 years of white clover are included in the rotation as a green manure, but surprisingly, they don’t make compost. Christian explained to us that simply cutting the white clover and leaving it to mulch on the arable fields is more efficient and cheaper for them than to make compost which takes longer because more transportation is involved, and the composting process is also lengthy. The availability of nutrients in the soil is also maintained by their plough-less cultivation practices, where they only work the top 5cm to 8cm of soil. Bio-Farmland have used this method of cultivation from the very beginning in 2004. Cultivating the soil in this way disturbs the soil biome much less, keeping more of the mycorrhizal fungi intact for example, which are important for making nutrients available for crops. The main piece of machinery Bio-Farmland use in their minimal tillage practice is the Kuhn Performer. Aside from an initial deficiency in calcium which they brought in external inputs for, Bio-Farmland have found that they have been able to maintain their soil fertility rather simply with just green manures and minimum tillage.
There are also other benefits to Bio-Farmland’s management practices. For instance, the 2 years of white clover again prove very useful as they leave the soil in an ideal state for the subsequent crops to grow without significant interference from disease or weeds. Moreover, 7% of their farm’s area is left alone for the benefit of wildlife and in turn, this can help attract beneficial pest predator species. Initially, Christian tells us that they had planted lots of trees too, but only some were able to establish themselves because they had trouble with neighbouring sheep from other farms who got into their fields and damaged them. They are however, planning to attempt more tree planting in the future which would add a whole host of benefits for the wildlife, soil, climate, and the crops being grown.
In terms of markets for their produce, currently Bio-Farmland sell about 10% of their cereals directly through their website and are hoping to increase sales to local Romanians through this outlet. Having obtained the Biocyclic Vegan Standard quite recently, Christian expects that their veganic cereals won’t fetch a significantly larger price than organic cereals for the next 2 to 3 years. However, he hopes that over the next 5 to 10 years, the veganic market will become more developed and thus hold far more economic potential.
While Bio-Farmland might not immediately notice the financial benefits of having the Biocyclic Vegan Standard, Christian feels that it is nonetheless important because it helps distinguish their higher standards of farming. For instance, before their certification, their products would be lumped in with other EU certified organic products whose production could still involve conventional practices to some extent. Whereas now, the Biocyclic Vegan Standard sets Bio-Farmland apart as a completely organic, agroecological farm that is dependent on no animal inputs.
Bio-Farmland is an inspiring example of a large-scale stock-free cereal farm, showing that stock-free farming is entirely possible on larger scales and that consistently good yields (by organic standards) can be maintained in the long-term. While the stock-free farming movement has plentiful examples of great horticultural farms, we hope to see more larger-scale farms like Bio-Farmland establish themselves in the future!