Sophie Alexander farms at Hemsworth in Dorset. The thousand acre organic enterprise practices a rotation of three years in premium arable crops followed by three years in diverse herbal pastures which provide year-round grazing for a new dairy herd of 350 Viking Red cows.
The system is designed to achieve optimum – as opposed to maximum - production while at the same time delivering ecological benefits such as improved soil quality and increased biodiversity.
In 2017 Sophie was nominated for the Arable Innovator of the Year Award for her work using microbial inoculants as part of on-farm trials with Innovative Farmers. Hemsworth is an Agri-Epi Satellite Farm with a particular focus on the making and use of temperature controlled microbially rich compost and the effect on soil health. Until recently Sophie wrote a monthly column in Arable Farming Magazine. Sophie is Chairman of both Organic Arable Marketing Company Ltd and the Dorset Branch of the CLA, and she sits on the Farmer & Grower Board of the Soil Association.
What drew you to farming?
How have the lockdowns and Covid restrictions affected your business?
One positive outcome from the Covid misery is that an increasingly discerning public want assurances about both the provenance and the environmental impact of what they eat. Organic farming methods deliver a solution on many fronts which is reflected in the 22% growth in organic sales since the lockdowns started in March.
Facial and body products? If so are they organic and which ones would you recommend?
Aesop for good smells and its benefits for outdoor ravaged skin. It is not certified organic, but they do try hard to minimise packaging, undesirable chemicals, waste and the use of palm oil.
Favourite time of year on the farm?
Can’t choose. Every month has its wonders and merits. But I feel I am missing out on the best moments if I leave the farm for any length of time between March and November.
Have you planted a hedge? If so what type? Has this improved wildlife on the farm?
Just over 3 km of hedge has been planted in the last 8 years. And many more kilometres are planned. Diverse mixtures work best for resilience and wildlife so a native Dorset hedge mix - from Ashridge Nurseries naturally - of Blackthorn (Sloe), Hawthorn, Field Maple, Dog rose and Hazel has been the most widely used. Organic farms are acknowledged to nurture 30% more biodiversity than chemical farming systems because herbicides, pesticides and fungicides are prohibited. We are in year two of a five-year biodiversity study being carried out by The Dorset Wildlife Trust and the variety of flora and fauna they have identified on the farm is heartening.
Climate change and how it affects you on the Farm?
The climate crisis we are all facing drives the imperative to urgently build economic as well as environmental resilience. The two are indivisible. Fundamentally that means concentrating on regenerating soil heath and biodiversity in order to deliver improved ecosystem services such as better water holding capacity and infiltration.
What advice would you give to young women considering farming as a career?
Go for it. It’s fascinating and farming needs you.
Do you ever get a holiday? If so when and where?
Being on the farm is one continuous action-packed holiday. But breaks away are advisable. Preferably somewhere mountainous on a horse.
Are you a tree planter? If you could only plant one tree what would it be?
I aspire to be a tree planter. My father was amongst the giants of post-war tree planting and I wish I had listened harder to what he had to say. I don’t know nearly enough about trees, and I am always worried about planting them somewhere I will regret later. But the time is now, and we are about to launch into as much tree planting as we can manage. If only one tree - that is a much harder choice to make than I expected. Instant reaction English Oak. But then there is no blossom or edible fruit. Apple perhaps? I have a thing for ancient mulberry trees. The fruit is uniquely exotic, delicious and brilliantly stains everything it comes into contact with. And they feed silkworms. Not that that is a very useful attribute in the UK - yet!
As a custodian of a farm what will give you the most satisfaction when it’s time to hand over the reins?
For it to thrum with wildlife and soil biota so that it delivers health in the widest sense and for it to remain financially viable, appreciated, looked after and enjoyed.