The ice age, farming and our Ipswichian surge soil

When I left school farming was in the grip of low commodity prices and the tragic events of foot-and-mouth. My parents told me to go and try my hand at something else, as farming was in a difficult place.

So after a trip around the world, I headed off to Lancaster University to study Environmental Science. The thought of mixing my enthusiasm for geography and earth science was the reason but I didn’t have a clue where it would take me. ‘Ice ages and glaciations’ was one of my first modules and I came to learn that one of the last ice surges of the ice age was called the Ipswichian. The enormous frozen ice cap had pushed and bulldozed the earth’s crust with huge force down from the Arctic. When it reached our humble home of East Anglia it started to melt and deposited huge amounts of debris known as ‘glacial moraine’, a fancy term for soil deposits. This debris was then left as the ice retreated; melt water carving it into valleys and carrying sand and gravel with it. Vegetation started to grow on it and as thousands of years passed the organic matter built up as plants stabilised the soil and we are left with our unique geology beneath us.

Now what does this have to do with farming I hear you think?

Well it has had a huge effect on our farm and a recent electro-conductivity scan shows just how varied our soil is, due to this process. A quad bike towing an expensive ‘pole on wheels’ collects data of soil variation at two depths as it passes over it.

The picture shows an example of my soil variation but East Anglia is home to a full spectrum of soil types: Beccles series clay, blowing sand and silty wellie-bootclinging loam. We have it all and we forget that our soil has taken thousands and thousands of years to get where it is today.

Recently, environment secretary Michael Gove was telling farmers that we need to look after our soil better.

It is true, we all need to value this unique matter on which mankind relies so much. As part of the AHDB Strategic Farm programme we want to do just this; learn, understand and appreciate our soil better. Farmers don’t want to lose the fertility of their soil and there is much we can do.

Next time I’ll explain what we have found from our field drain water samples and our over winter cover crops with this in mind.

[published in the East Anglian Daily Times, 26 February 2018]

Field nutrient variation - Brian Barker

Field nutrient variation – Brian Barker



Brian and his cousin Patrick run E.J. Barker & Sons, a family farm partnership and contracting business in Suffolk dating back to 1957. The 667ha arable farm business is farmed on 12 - and nine-year rotations, incorporating winter wheat for feed, spring barley, herbage grass seed, oilseed rape and a break crop of beans, linseed or peas. Environmental consideration is crucial to the running of the business, and remains a key factor in all decision-making on farm.

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