Farming at Holkham

Crop Rotation

Six Course Rotation

The rotation of crops was a hallmark of the famous ‘Norfolk husbandry’. First promoted early in the 18th century by ‘Turnip’ Townshend at neighbouring Raynham, the use of turnips, sown grasses and clover, alternating with barley and wheat, was soon adopted on Holkham farms. It prevented exhaustion of the soil and removed the need to leave land fallow. Twenty-five years before Coke of Norfolk, some Holkham leases already stipulated a degree of rotation, typically a six course such as a sequence of corn, turnips, corn, corn, grass, grass, but it had many variations.

Coke of Norfolk greatly strengthened the idea of rotation with his famous mantra, ‘No two white straw crops one after the other’. His formidable agent, Blaikie, drew up a ‘General Form of Leases’ with specific rotations designed to suit the various soils on the estate: a four course (which became by far the most common), a five course, and several variations on a six course. Some fifty years later, times had changed again. A new Holkham model lease introduced in 1871 by Coke of Norfolk’s son, the 2nd Earl of Leicester, removed all restrictions on cultivation, reflecting the fact that new artificial fertilisers enabled more intensive arable farming without exhausting the soil.

170 years after Coke of Norfolk led the way with his innovative ‘Four Course Rotation’, the Holkham Estate is once again forging ahead with new ideas and new practices. A new ‘Six Course Rotation’ is taking its place ensuring the sustainability of Holkham’s land for future generations. Many of modern agriculture’s problems would sound familiar to Coke – a need to increase production and deal with falling fertility means that we need to look for new answers to old problems. Holkham is now developing a rotation which takes Coke of Norfolk’s principles a step further.

The new ‘Six Course Rotation’ will grow oilseed rape, winter wheat, sugar beet, winter wheat/spring barley, potatoes and winter barley/winter wheat. Every element will feed into the food chain in Norfolk and beyond. The new crops would surprise the ghosts of past Holkham farmers – it took all of Coke of Norfolk’s persuasive powers to induce his cottagers to grow and eat potatoes even as a garden crop - but they would have no trouble in recognising and applauding the principle.

An article on six course crop rotation, written by Director of Farming Poul Hovesen, appears in the Holkham Gazette summer 2013 issue. Click here to read more.