A new project is looking at how to make farms more resilient and better equipped to deal with and policy challenges as well as producing food. Marianne Curtis speaks to one of the farmers.
Managing land rather than simply farming it is the direction of travel indicated by policies such as the forthcoming Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs).
While work is ongoing through pilot trials to better define this concept and how it can be applied in practice, few doubt it will account for an increasing proportion of farm income as the Basic Payment Scheme is wound down.
Soil health, biodiversity, carbon footprint and sustainability will become the new commodities. In the same way wheat yield is a measure of success, numbers of a particular bird species or soil health measurements could ultimately influence farm income.
It is with this direction of travel in mind that out of 18 applicants, four farmers were selected to take part in the three-year Resilient and Ready programme, set up by Leaf and Corteva Agriscience.
Simon Parker, marketing manager at Corteva, says: “The reason we are launching this is to gain a good view about what it takes to undertake a sustainable
farming system on-farm.
“We were looking for people who had not started to put such a system in place but were looking into it and had made tentative steps.
“People who were looking to change what they are doing and what we can do as Corteva to support them and how well our products fit into a sustainable system.
“We want to follow those people through that process so other farms can see what hurdles there are to come, how much it costs, the economic implications – how quick the outlay is made back.
“We are also thinking about Government policy; how farms can adapt and change and get the most out of the policy changes and environmental schemes. And whether farmers need to change their farm structure, how this will change the way crops are grown, for example use of cover crops and different rotations.”
The Resilient and Ready programme focuses on providing farmers with access to the best technical insight into their businesses coupled with the training to enable them to turn theory into commercial application, explains Leaf demonstration and innovation manager Alice Midmer.
The programme began with an initial meeting with the four farmers to introduce it.
This was followed by soil testing and a Zoom virtual meeting about that, followed by a biodiversity survey and a meeting involving two of the farmer participants about participating in ELMs trials.
Corteva is also conducting its own trials at these sites, looking at biologicals and biostimulants.
One of the farmers taking part is Nick Down, who has managed the farming enterprise of the 3,200-hectare, Berkshire-based Yattendon Estate since 2017 on
behalf of Velcourt, following management roles in Wiltshire over the past 14 years. The site includes 2,000ha of combinable crops which are established in a
He says: “I think the whole industry, not just this farm, is at a crossroads. The Agriculture Bill points towards farming in a sustainable and responsible way and the core Leaf principles sit at the heart of what we wanted to achieve – how we produce crops and manage our land in a more sustainable way, pushing our standards higher and recognising this with the Leaf Marque.
“We also want to have the ability to engage with the public more and to promote what we are doing.”
Covid-19 has not proved a barrier to getting the programme underway and a face-to-face communications course was instead held online, led by Susie Emmett of Green Shoots. This included use of social media, taking good photographs and answering tricky questions, says Ms Midmer.
The farm’s ELMs trials began at the end of April and will look at potential ways of measuring biodiversity, says Ms Midmer.
“We will look at what measurements and metrics we can collect around sustainability and soil health.”
Mr Down’s farm has also been surveyed to determine what species are present and the programme will look at how he can enhance these.
“We are in the process of looking at Mid Tier stewardship, so biodiversity mapping ties in well. There is a push to be bolder in how we approach our Mid Tier application, aiming higher for better results.”
In terms of soil health, Mr Down says soils on the estate are challenging.
“We have quite challenging soils so anything we do needs to be quite specific. I think the last nine months [of weather] have shown us the need to be more
resilient in how we manage our soils. We want to build on what we are doing, rather than reinvent the wheel.
“The soils have a high stone content and are very abrasive. Whatever you do to them can be detrimental as well as positive. The soil testing [in the programme]
goes well over and above standard soil testing.
“We have been looking at the Healthy Soils analysis with Ian Robertson at Sustainable Soil Management, looking at the physical, chemical and biological properties and soil health. This work also gives us a greater understanding of soil carbon and how what we do affects it.
“We are growing cover crops and learning what works best for us.”
Measuring and monitoring is done using the Leaf sustainability review and guidance is given by sustainability consultant Andy Guy on the strengths and weaknesses of the business from an integrated farm management point of view and where there is room for improvement.
Mr Down says: “It is not that different from what we are doing. We are tailoring it to be more specific to our farm and production methods. What we have not been doing is sharing knowledge and we are probably not shouting about what we are doing enough.”
He also believes it is important to quantify what the farm is doing and he is looking at phone apps, such as an owl survey app for recording owl sightings and
directions of movement.
“It’s crucial we learn what does and doesn’t work and using simple technology will allow us to record this. It also allows us to work with local monitoring groups who can feed information all back into one place.”
In terms of future measurement, a Leaf sustainability review will be conducted every year, as well as soil testing.
Other areas, such as AHDB benchmarking and carbon footprint measurement will also be considered, says Ms Midmer.
With food standards not seeming to be uppermost in politicians’ minds, Mr Down believes a more open-minded approach to crop production is needed.
“Some of our land is quite marginal and we need to look at taking some land out of production under a stewardship agreement. But also looking to increase yields with fewer inputs on the better land is still very much at the front of our minds.
“We need to be doing more with the tools we have and using inputs more wisely.”