27 March 2024

 

As new recruits to agroforestry and commercial blueberry production, the learning curve was a steep one for Josh and Abi Heyneke and with, by their own admission, many mistakes made along the way, that all changed when they were matched with a Farming Connect mentor.

Josh had been working as a project manager in the technology industry when he and Abi, an artist and illustrator, made the decision to leave London and buy 10 acres of farmland on the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire.

“We had no knowledge of farming but lots of energy,’’ Josh recalls.

The land near Hebron offered a “blank canvas’’. It wasn’t sufficient acreage to make a living from livestock farming so they set about producing organic duck eggs, growing short rotation coppice (SRC) and establishing 0.5 acres of blueberry bushes using regenerative agriculture and permaculture techniques. 

“We made all the mistakes that it was possible to make!’’ Josh admits.

One of the first people they met when they relocated was their neighbour Tom Clare.

Tom is an agroforestry consultant and is also a Farming Connect mentor so the Heynekes applied to have him as their mentor.

It was a turning point. “Having that relationship on a formal basis enabled us to really knuckle down and focus on detail, it has helped us to hone and sharpen up on how we are doing things,’’ Josh explains.

One part of the business is blueberry production with 500 bushes of seven different varieties planted and with the ambition of producing the fruit commercially in 2025.

A variety of native broadleaf trees have been planted and poplar and willow are being grown to produce biomass instead of importing woodchip, to build soil health and insect life and to strengthen carbon stores.

The trees and blueberry bushes have an important symbiosis and the shallow rooting nature of the fruit bushes mean there is no competition for root space.

All this provides the ideal environment for their duck breeding business.

They have a flock of rare breed Khaki Campbell, Dark Campbell and Welsh Harlequin ducks that forage among the trees, eating pests and fertilising the soil.

The Heynekes are also breeding earthworms and have natural lawnmowers in the form of sheep.

The Farming Connect Mentoring programme provides them with up to 15 hours of Tom’s time. “It is perfect,’’ says Josh. “And the free bit is amazing!’’

Although there is plenty of knowledge available on farming in the form of books and online content, he says there is nothing that compares to input from a mentor with the relevant expertise.

“Yes, we will still make mistakes, but they will be mitigated,’’ he says. 

Tom has also gained a lot from being a mentor. “It is a real privilege to get an insight into what others are doing.

“There is a real movement going on in farming with farmers recognising that ecological integrity is the basis of good agriculture, it is great to be part of that.’’


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