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Rethink Farming - Helen Keys

Helen Keys, alongside her partner, Charlie Mallon, have forged innovative routes to market by selling rotational crops, like potatoes and oats, alongside developing a food production and distribution resource for local producers and growing flax which they sell as linen.

Key facts:

  • Helen and Charlie’s research into alternative systems inspired them to sell their suckler herd and begin growing diverse crops as a more profitable enterprise
  • Their scutched flax fibre returns more profit from one crop planted across three acres than the whole farm would have generated in previous years as a dairy or suckler herd farm
  • Helen and Charlie developed Source Grow – an online platform that helps farmers decide what to grow based on their soil, their location and what is in demand from local restaurants, including what other farmers are already growing to reduce competition and support more profitable, niche products. Using this platform, farmers can then sell to restaurants through a weekly pick-up and delivery service.
  • Mallon Farm implement a number of approaches to ensure they maintain optimum soil fertility, provide safe pollinator habitat and improve water quality

“We believe that our mission as farmers is to leave the place better than we found it.  If we don’t, we’re damaging our assets which makes no sense.  If we do it right, agriculture is a mutually beneficial enterprise for the farmer and nature.”

What natural assets do is water something that concerns you as a farmer?

We grow a variety of crops, so the soil is obviously our most valuable asset.  We operate a crop rotation to try to keep the soil in good condition and we also try to choose crops that suit the soil and location, so we grow the right things in the right places.

We rely on pollinators, so we don’t use any chemicals that might be damaging for them. We keep several beehives and fill the hedges with flowering and fruiting trees and shrubs to support them.  We benefit from the honey and fruit, too.

We have a couple of streams that run along the boundary of the farm, they eventually run into Lough Neagh which is one of the main sources of drinking water in Northern Ireland.  We protect the waterways by leaving wide buffer zones and not using any chemical fertiliser or pesticide.

How do you approach nature-friendly farming in the long term?

The farm was mixed two generations ago, then went to dairy, then to a suckler herd, so all the fields were grass.  Managing even a small herd was hard work and stressful. We were lucky to only have one suspected case of TB on the farm, but it was very prevalent so that was a constant worry.

We started to look into alternatives and became more and more convinced that a variety of crops could be both more profitable and better for the environment. We eventually sold the herd.  It was a real wrench at the time, but we were struggling to see a future in it and looking back we realise just how much that affected us.

Now we have a clear vision and confidence that we are working for something positive.  It probably took us about 10 years to get that clarity and sense of purpose.

We didn’t do an audit or anything so formal.  We bought a wildlife camera on a whim and got more and more interested in the wildlife on the farm.  That led to an interest in the variety of plants and insects and we started to appreciate that our unkempt hedgerows, boggy areas and old trees were actually pretty great. We just take the environment into account in our decision making and try to find the right balance.

What nature-friendly business opportunities have you identified?

We are involved with three different projects in Northern Ireland, all of which focus on nature-friendly farming that can be profitable.

With support from Innovate UK, we developed Source Grow – an online platform that helps farmers like us to decide what to grow based on their soil, their location and what is in demand from local restaurants.  Farmers receive recommendations for what to grow that are informed by what other farmers are already growing – so we can stop competing against each other and find more profitable, niche products.  We can then sell to restaurants on the platform and there is a weekly pick up and delivery service.

We are also growing flax to turn into linen.  We started a few years ago without really realising that there is a huge gap in the processing in the UK.  Bit by bit, we’ve worked out how to do it at a commercial scale – retting, scutching, spinning, weaving.  The last bits are going into place now and we have a waiting list for sustainable locally grown textile.  The interest in Mallon Linen has been huge and we are working now alongside projects in England, Scotland and Wales as well as Europe and the US to restore these local supply chains.

Finally, we have been working with the Water Innovation Network in our catchment to research how farms can improve water quality and make a profit from it.  We are looking at nature-based systems to treat dirty water using swale systems and crops like willow, miscanthus and nettles. The nettles can also be used for textiles.

What have been the biggest learnings and challenges?

We’ve made loads of mistakes.  We planted a seed variety of flax rather than a fibre variety in the first year and put it on far too sparsely so the weeds outgrew it.  Now we prepare the field a month before and use a chain harrow to knock the weeds back when we sow, that’s worked a treat.

We’ve been overwhelmed by the support we’ve had from all over.  We are always asking questions and people have been really generous with their time, even giving us machinery that we can use for processing.  We’ve learned that we can’t do it on our own and building relationships with other people on the same journey is better for everyone.

It was probably easier for us as we are small and hadn’t borrowed or invested heavily.  It will be a lot more difficult for larger-scale operations, but all the more reason that those of us who can adapt quickly or need to do it as a matter of urgency.

What are your top tips for farming in ways that can mitigate climate change and restore nature?

  • Learn to be OK with an untidy farm.  Let the hedgerows go a bit wild, leave margins and a good variety of species in them.
  • Focus on profit rather than turnover – it’s not all about scale.

We can’t just point the finger at other countries or industries or the government.  We can’t wait for policies to emerge.  We all have to do what we can, right now, and that starts with the choices that we make in our own homes and businesses – we have to get on with it.

Have you experienced the effects of our climate change on your farm?

We’ve certainly seen a decline in biodiversity.  Our parents remember wildlife and plants that simply aren’t there anymore.  We’ve seen more flash flooding in the river catchment too.

What support do you need from the government to continue farming in a nature-friendly way?

The government could support innovative farming methods and build a culture of innovation within the agri-food sector.  Innovation is about more than new technology, it is about radically rethinking the way we do things.  Our experience has been that the traditional structures for agricultural policy and funding are unwieldy and admin heavy.  We need to allow for the risk-taking which is necessary to foster innovation.  The best support we’ve had from the government has been through Innovate UK who helped us to set up the Source Grow platform.

We need to shorten our supply chains and massively diversify our production – more fibre for textiles as well as natural fibre composites to replace plastics and building materials, more fruit and veg production to replace imports.  Support for campaigns, like Peas Please, will support farmers as well as improve health.

What would your message be to the public to encourage them to support farmers’ delivery of climate action and nature recovery? 

Ask questions! Consumers have real power to effect change so be conscious about where you buy your produce, when was it grown, how and where? Eat seasonally, eat locally grown, eat more veg, eat less meat and dairy, buy better meat and dairy. Similarly, for your textiles and clothes – buy less and buy better.