Willow farming

8 August 2022

The Somerset Levels is a wonderful area for willow farming. It’s the reason why the Musgrove family has been growing willow here for nearly a century.

While willow is relatively easy to grow from a cutting a great deal of skill is needed to produce a high quality,  large scale crop with minimal chemical intervention. Our aim is to work with nature rather than against it. Pesticides are kept to a minimum despite the fact that some of the varieties of willow grown here are not fully disease resistant.

Willow farming with the help of an agronomist

If you don’t know and understand the soil that you are planting your willow in, how can you expect to grow and produce the very best crop?

Willow cuttings starting to grow on our farm

For many years, the Musgrove family has sought the expert advice of an agronomist. Soil samples are regularly tested to ensure, amongst other things, a balanced pH, high organic matter content and a good level of microbial activity.   

A changing landscape

The agronomist’s reports are incredibly detailed. They show how the properties of our soil vary greatly across the 200 acres that we farm. In some areas, around half the physical soil property is silt, 37% sand and the remaining 13% clay. Move a few miles down the road and the silt content drops below 30%. The way in which the soil is treated has to take these (and many other) differences into account if we are to get the best from the land and produce a high quality crop.

Soil chemistry

When you first see an agronomist’s report it can evoke memories of school chemistry lessons. A report usually begins with the pH balance. From this, we are able to begin ascertaining what the soil is rich in and what it is lacking.

Keeping the pH balanced is key to nutritional availability, however it is also particularly important to the microbial population below ground. A balanced pH is key to allowing the populations of bacteria and fungi to remain in good balance and this ultimately assists in supplying nutrients to our crop of willow and maintaining good soil structure. The goal is to maximise the ‘free’ nutrients and unlock the potential of the soil. Less intervention = money saved!

Harvesting willow
Harvesting our willow

After the soil pH level comes a long list of chemical properties; Magnesium, manganese and molybdenum to name just the ‘M’s. Each chemical plays a part in how a plant grows. For example, molybdenum is required for optimal nitrogen and phosphorus utilisation.

Next, it’s the biological properties, e.g. percentage of organic matter (our soil has an extremely high percentage). Then, the physical properties – how much sand/silt/clay there is. As mentioned before, these percentages vary enormously despite our land all being in Somerset.

Good soil matters to a willow farmer

Soil texture determines the key soil characteristics that influence plant growth. These include drainage rate, water-holding capacity, inherent fertility and ease of workability.

Most of us appreciate that trees are good for the planet, however good soil also makes a difference. We therefore also consider what is known as active carbon. This is the amount of carbon being utilised by the microbial population to make (amongst other things) nucleic acids, peptides and carbohydrates. If a soil has good levels of active carbon, organic matter and microbial respiration, then it can more readily sequester carbon from the atmosphere and that’s beneficial for our planet. If microbial activity is low it can be improved with the application of a liquid carbon fertiliser.

Knowing the make-up of the soil and its structure helps us to intervene in the right ways. For example, when to apply additional nutrient applications and how much. It also helps us to know how well the soil can retain moisture. 

Willow farming – Simple steps

While there are a number of fixed site factors such as the topography, geology and hydrology which we can’t change, there is a huge amount that we can do to improve our land. One of the simplest is to minimise the amount of traffic travelling across it. Tractors compact soil! Soil is only mechanically moved when absolutely necessary and our drainage / irrigation structure is designed to optimize efficient water use. (A number of our fields are surrounded by water ditches and rainwater is also extensively harvested in huge storage tanks.)

Willow farming
A water ditch next to one of our fields

Treat your soil well and you will reap the rewards. Less chemical intervention, less watering and a healthier, higher yielding crop.

While the Musgrove family has been growing willow for nearly a century, we still need some specialist help of our own from time-to-time. Employing an agronomist certainly makes a real difference to our willow farming.

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