There has been a fundamental change to the future of farming which could be compared to the agricultural revolution of the second world war. For the first time in 70 years, the Government has released an Agricultural Bill.
Within this bill there is a particular focus on environmental issues, with a direct link to the Government’s recent Environmental Bill. In the greater sense, there will be more pressure to ensure wildlife and biodiversity thrive, increase engagement with the natural environment, and reduce the risk of environmental hazards. One of the biggest priorities is that of soil. Currently, erosion rates from ploughing are between ten and one hundred times greater than the rate of soil formation. This will lead to a change in the agricultural payment system, meaning more and more farmers will move into regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture focuses on soil regeneration, biodiversity and carbon sequestration, with the aim to use farming to combat climate change.
The future of farming is changing, and the LEADER programme is helping farms fund their advancements.
One of the most effective ways to move from soil erosive ploughing is the direct or minimal till approach. To date, the LEADER programme has funded 39 of these drills, which equates to over £1 million worth of grant funding and will lead to 20,000 hectares of land, just over 28,000 football pitches, being cultivated this way.
The direct / no till method inserts the seed directly into the soil rather than having to plough, ensuring less soil disturbance, soil compaction and water logging, which leads to run-off - a key factor in soil erosion. The soil now has the ability to retain its nutrients, including carbon and nitrogen, which leads to less fertiliser needed.
In the case of Hampden Bottom Farms, Ian Waller has been on a twenty-year journey to create the optimum condition of his soils and the biodiversity that surrounds them. As a result of this, he has now been able to farm for the last four years without the need for any insecticides. The purchase of this drill, partly funded by the LEADER programme, has allowed Ian to plant cover crops across his whole farm. As a result of this, there is an increase in his carbon capture and the quality of his soil. Ian believes that this management system is key to carbon sequestration, and passionately talks about the responsibility we have when it comes to the sustainability of our land and how farming can play a key part in the future of environmental change.
Another farm reaping the benefits of the no till approach is Kensham Farms, based in the Chilterns. Their LEADER programme-funded drill allows for lower soil disturbance and the window for planting to be lengthened, meaning they can plant for a longer period of time, which reduces weed pressure (the sum of the effects of weed growth in a field). This leads to less need for pesticides. As a result of this lessened soil disturbance, there is a further build-up of organic material and biodiversity. Kensham Farms has also installed a GPS monitoring system on its drill to guide the tractor. This allows the drill to monitor the contour of the land and prevents planting in the incorrect places, minimising side hill erosion, improving long-term drainage and mitigating erosion.
Andrew Pitts of Grange Farm, Northamptonshire, has been researching the move to no till drilling from shallow cultivating for the last five years. The LEADER programme grant has enabled the farm to increase its contract work to three other farms and boost their productivity, whilst reducing their fixed yearly costs by £50,000 per annum. As a result of this drill, Grange Farm has been able to increase its soil biodiversity and carbon capture, building organic matter in soil from 2-3% to 5%.
Reducing tractor engine load
This new technology has also reduced the average engine load factor for the tractor by 5%, which translates to an average fuel rate saving of six litres per hour. At Hampden Bottom Farm, Ian Waller has reduced his tractor fuel usage from 25 litres per hectare to four litres per hectare. At Grange Farm, Andrew Pitts has reduced his fuel usage by 16,000 litres per year.
Mirroring this change, a group of volunteers created the Farm Carbon Toolkit aiming to encourage and support farmers to reduce their emissions, improve farming businesses and knowledge-share. As part of this Toolkit, there is a free carbon calculator which calculates each farm’s carbon footprint by taking into account the farm as a whole, including livestock, buildings, waste and carbon sequestration. Ian Waller recently completed this tool and found that the farm saves over 4,000 tonnes of carbon a year and sequesters more than the farm omits, leading to a negative carbon impact of 1,400 tonnes.
The UK is now leading the world in agri-tech with core strengths in plant science and crop precision. These are already widely used to improve farm operations, and it is crucial we enable farmers to reduce environmental impacts and fuel usage, while empowering them to share their knowledge to increase carbon monitoring and sequestration, creating a more sustainable future.