12 May 2000

Turning bracken into a profitable garden line…

Bracken, the most invasive

vegetation on many hill

farms, is being turned into

"gold" on a Cumbria farm.

Jeremy Hunt went to

Dalefoot Farm to investigate

BRACKEN, the scourge of our uplands, continues to spread uncontrollably in many areas. But an enterprising Cumbria farming partnership is about to turn the problem into a business.

Farmer Simon Bland and Dr Jane Barker, an environmental scientist, have devised a method of harvesting the bracken on their farm near Penrith and turning it into a soil conditioner after composting it with farmyard manure.

Buildings at the remote Dalefoot Farm, Helton, near Penrith are now heaped with tonnes of the rich, black mix of the bracken-based soil conditioner in readiness for the official launch of Lakeland Gold to gardeners this spring.

And its possible that other landowners with invasive bracken beds may also be able to reap the benefits of the gardening boom and the demand for this type of material. Mr Bland and Dr Barker are considering offering a franchise agreement to other landowners who would provide bracken, as part of their efforts to control its spread, to be turned into the new product and then be allowed to buy-it back for retail sale.

Dalefoot Farm is also the base for their environmental contracting business Countryside Contractors which provides bracken control and heather management services to landowners and environmental organisations.

"Once we became involved with bracken control, as a keen gardener I became aware that bracken had some useful properties particularly as a source of potash.

"We had been dealing with large areas of bracken so I thought we ought to try and compost it and thats how the idea started," says Dr Barker.

Bracken, which can be cut and baled or cut with a forage harvester, has been taken from their own fells at Dalefoot Farm. It has taken three years to perfect the mixture of green and brown bracken and farmyard manure which is mixed and composted in the farm buildings to produce the dark, friable conditioner.

&#42 Good aeration

"We are constantly working at the heaps to ensure the mix is well aerated and does not get too hot. We dont want the temperature to rise much above 60 degrees," said Mr Bland who reckons a batch takes about two months to produce.

"Theres quite a lot of work involved during that time. It isnt just a case of heaping it up and leaving it."

Last summer Lakeland Gold was offered to gardeners for the first time at a Farmers Market in Kendal. "The first lady to buy a bag on that day has since bought another 20 bags and we have already had a lot of repeat orders even though we havent really got going yet."

Lakeland Gold will be available in garden centres this spring as well as through mail-order. It is also being sold through the Henry Doubleday Research Associations catalogue.

"Bracken has always been a traditional bedding for livestock in upland areas and more people have been using it for that in recent years. But bracken will always have to be controlled; this is one way of getting something positive from it."

And for gardeners who like nothing better than a bag of horse manure for their roses, Messrs Barker and Bland have produced "Horsepower" – a composted mixture of pure horse manure from a very traditional Lakeland source – the Dalefoot Farms fell ponies!

Black Gold: Dr Jane Barker and farmer Simon Bland with their bracken based soil conditioner.