Intercropping – growing a few crops at the same time – is a great idea. If you grow barley and peas, for example, the barley gets drip-fed ‘free’ nitrogen from the bean crop, the pea gets a scaffold to support its growth, and pollinating insects get a food source from the flowering peas. A crop co-op – with different plants working together for mutual benefit! There is also evidence that pest and disease pressure can be reduced for both crops. But the reality is a bit more complicated. There are challenges. Sowing times, cultivations, herbicides, ripening, sieve settings, separating the harvested crop, and more.

I learned a lot about these opportunities and challenges recently. I am working with Jim Booth on the EU research project called IntercropVALUES. We were at a workshop in the heart of Germany in April. The project has research partners from all over Europe, studying lots of different types of crop mixtures and their impact on crop quality and yield, soils, and biodiversity.

Picture above: participants of the workshop held in Germany, April 2024, during a field tour (by Robin Walker).

Our small part in this big research project involves learning from a group of ‘intercroppers’ in Scotland, along with SRUC. These intercropppers are part of a group of organic farmers who have set up an association called Scocan to grow and market organic oilseed rape. This crop has two, and very high value, uses. The rapeseed meal is used for livestock feed, displacing soya; while the cold pressed rapeseed oil is sold as a high value culinary product, ÒR-ganic rapeseed oil. But growing organic oilseed rape is not easy. Weeds and pests are a challenge, and the crop is hungry for nitrogen. To overcome these challenges these innovative farmers are intercropping, trying different combinations of crops to improve yield and working together by sharing their results and learning from each other.

Video released by CICS 03 (UK) showing part of the producs developed from intercropping (by Jim Booth, David Michie (Scottish Agricultural Organisational Society) and Robin Walker (Scotland’s Rural College))

We aren’t carrying out field trials with these farmers. We’re not Scottish Agronomy! Instead, we are following their progress to understand their challenges, what works for them, what is motivating them to try different mixes, and what they are learning from the process. We are also speaking to the processor to understand any challenges they may have.

I’m looking forward to learning more from both the Scocan farmers and from our European counterparts over the next few years. I am really interested in following the progress of the farmers’ innovative ideas in Scotland. I am also really interested in the results from crop trials in Europe, as many of the crops are also grown by our co-ops. If the results look promising, then it would be great to import some innovative ideas for Scottish co-ops to try out.

This news item was written by David Michie (Scottish Agricultural Organisational Society, SAOS).