Martin Wolfe, a pioneer of diversity in farming

Martin Wolfe, a pioneer of diversity in farming

by Josiah Meldrum 2 Comments

Professor Martin Wolfe was a great friend and mentor to us. A true pioneer, Martin pursued his research into agroforestry, co-cropping, crop populations, new crop trials and more at his Suffolk farm Wakelyns.

Believing that sustainability depended not just on a whole farm approach but on radical change to the whole food system, he shared his expertise widely and generously. Martin died peacefully at home earlier this month. He leaves a lasting legacy of work, not least his YQ wheat population, and his memory will remain a guiding inspiration to us.

Our great friend, inspiration and mentor Professor Martin Wolfe died last weekend after a short illness. We'll miss him terribly, but take heart in knowing that he was exactly where he wanted to be, at Wakelyns, the 60 acre Suffolk farm that he and his wife Ann designed and established in the 1990s to research and demonstrate agroforestry and diverse cropping systems. Martin came to Suffolk after a distinguished career as a plant pathologist, initially at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge and latterly in Zurich where he held the Chair of Plant Pathology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

The principles that underpinned all Martin's work at Wakelyns and his vision for lower input, lower impact farming and food systems took shape during his years in Cambridge and Zurich and are simply captured in one word: diversity. And diversity is on display everywhere at the farm, between species and within species, in the woody rows that divide the annually cropped alleys and in the annual crops themselves - perhaps most famously in the cereal populations that Martin developed in his role as Principal Scientific Advisor to the Organic Research Centre (ORC).

Martin took this philosophy beyond the agroforestry alleys. The farm played host to a huge number of wild species and Martin found great joy in them all (except perhaps the squirrels that ate all his hazelnuts). He firmly believed that food systems need to be diverse too, that monocultures exist not only in fields but in the businesses that control seeds and move and sell food. His work on cereal populations, to be exchanged freely between farmers and grown without the strictures of intellectual property rights, reflect this system-wide perspective.

Nick, William and I first met Martin almost twenty years ago through our involvement with East Anglia Food Link (EAFL). At EAFL Martin helped us to develop the Norwich Resilient Food Project which imagined what a more resilient, re-localised food system might look like for a small city. We then established three initiatives to show how parts of that system might work. Hodmedod grew out of the Norwich project and reflected our shared frustration that such a narrow range of arable crops were being grown and eaten in the UK to the detriment of our health and the ecosystems we depend on.

As Hodmedod developed Martin continued to support and encourage us, generously offering the benefit of his considerable knowledge as well as helping us trial new crops. We wouldn't be about to drill lentils this spring had Martin not offered to 'slip in' a trial plot as part of a wider ORC experiment. Wakelyns played host to some of our early naked barley trials and we've taken great pleasure in helping bring the ORC Wakelyns Population wheat (or YQ) to a wider audience. Martin was always incredibly generous with his time and we hosted occasional joint open days on the farm where he would explain the often complex ideas behind his research to non-expert audiences in an inspiring and inclusive way - we all had a part to play in his agricultural revolution!

Martin's life was extraordinarily rich and he bubbled with ideas and energy, it's remarkable to think that we only really knew him in what most people would consider to be their retirement years. Rather than try to capture all that Martin did and all that he meant to so many (in so many different ways) Nick, Joe, William and I have decided to share a few personal memories. Below them there's a short interview Martin gave last year at Wakelyns and a recording of a presentation he gave at the 2011 Oxford Real Farming Conference; he does a much better job of explaining his ideas than we ever could.

It was wonderful that Martin lived to see agroforestry move from the fringe to the mainstream (he was tickled when it became a storyline in the Archers) and his wheaten legacy is already drilled in fields across the UK and being milled, baked and eaten.

Memories of Martin


"I started life as a very conventional, conventional farmer - I've chucked around more pesticides than most! But I began to question the use of all these chemicals. Firstly, because I was finding there were natural ways of achieving the same results while saving money, and then because I started to notice the effect that not using some of these pesticides was having on my farm.

"But it was meeting Martin almost 15 years ago that really brought things into focus. Martin stitched together the pieces for me so that I could understand the whole world as it should be understood; ecologically, and not from the point of view of commodity traders and the agricultural establishment. He helped me complete my education.

"Martin always had time for me, Martin would always listen and then offer such wise words. I will miss him greatly and he will very much be in my thoughts as we continue working to help create a better food system."

Joe (who worked at Wakelyns before joining Hodmedod ):

"I will remember Martin's presence at coffee times; it's one practice I have bought over to Hodmedod from the farm - everyone stops at 11 to discuss the business of the day and have a drink and a chat. Sometimes the chat would be about science and sometimes about what cake had been made to go with the coffee - both were important.

"Martin encouraged us to have innovative ideas, to work together and to enjoy eating the produce from the farm, I hope we can continue do those things in his absence."


"I came back to Suffolk in the late 90s and set up a small organic vegetable box scheme, I'd heard of Martin and what he was doing and was slightly in awe of him. I remember feeling quite nervous about my first visit to Wakelyns, concerned that this incredibly well respected and undoubtedly very busy professor would give me short shrift.

"I couldn't have been more wrong, Martin welcomed me into the farmhouse and told me I was 'just the sort of person we need'. I'm still not entirely sure what Martin had in mind for me, but he immediately set me at ease and gave me the confidence to ask questions that I might otherwise have dismissed as stupid. I've subsequently seen him welcome many others in a similarly generous fashion - everyone had something to offer and Martin always had time to explain his ideas.

"There's a lot to remember; our joy at seeing lentils pouring out of the plot combine (when we thought the trial had failed). Martin dancing round the kitchen when I brought him the first YQ sourdough from the Small Food Bakery. Martin's wonderful optimism - just before Christmas he was, only half jokingly, planning the next 20 years of work. But also his realism and the sense of urgency he felt about the changes that need to happen if we're to avert a wider ecological catastrophe. Thank you Martin for your vision and clarity of thought."


"I vividly remember first meeting Martin in the early 2000s, when I arrived at Wakelyns to interview and photograph him for the new Eostre Organics growers' co-operative website. Typically for Martin, the planned hour for the interview extended through the rest of the day, encompassing the first of many cherished farm walks-cum-lectures, along with discursive breaks for coffee, lunch and tea.

"Martin combined an informed and intensely critical assessment of the state of our food and farming systems with an irrepressible optimism about a multitude of alternative approaches that could be demonstrated to be viable and contribute to systemic change for the better. Never one to be deterred by criticism, scepticism or initial setbacks, his openness to new ideas and his determination to put those ideas into practice, and to scientifically trial and assess them, brought results where others would have long given up.

"His dogged yet relentlessly open-minded approach will always remain a guiding inspiration."

The story of Wakelyns Agroforestry from Kevin Waldie:

Prof. Martin Wolfe - Oxford REAL Farming Conference 2011 from ORFC.



Josiah Meldrum
Josiah Meldrum


2 Responses

Alexandra McCormac
Alexandra McCormac

March 19, 2019

I am extremely sorry to hear that Martin has died. He was such an inspirational innovator in advancing sustainable agriculture. I was lucky enough to visit Martin and Ann at Wakelyns, and their generosity with their time and hospitality was remarkable. The world of agriculture, science and people in general is much depleted without them. They leave a fantastic legacy.

Gary Battell
Gary Battell

March 21, 2019

I lost a friend who I greatly respected. Martin’s contribution in the world of agri-forestry was immense and therefore he leaves behind many younger people who he supported, advised and influenced. Martin had time for anyone who was interested in agri-forestry. Martin will be remembered not just for agri-forestry, he will also be remembered as a very kind person, engaging and friendly; a person who never looked down on anyone, he was always willing to share his expertise with everyone on equal terms. Martin was on my list to visit to discuss tree diseases and also to introduce him to my friend, Mulugeta Gebru, who has done so much for agri-forestry and urban agriculture in Ethiopia.

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