Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Changing Agronomy

By Will Frazer

24th February 2021


Last week, we hosted the first of five #RoutestoAction workshops, which explored the technical agronomic aspects of agroecology. The #RoutestoAction series aims to help build the evidence, ideas and community of practice for a transition to agroecology in the UK by 2030 - and we were joined by a fantastic mix of over 150 farmers, academics, NGOs, Government and civil society.

With quick-fire presentations from speakers Lucy Bates from LEAF, Ed Horton, a farmer and agronomist, and Becky Willson from FCCT, questions from the audience and contributions from the floor from farmers John Pawsey, David Aglen and Fidelity Weston, the session covered a huge amount of ground in 90 minutes, including the potential for:

  • nature-based, ecological solutions instead of synthetic inputs 
  • reducing nitrogen losses/excesses 
  • yields within agroecological farming systems  
  • carbon sequestration in agroecological farming systems  

This blog discusses some of the evidence and ideas gathered from the panel speakers, the audience’s comments and questions and the answers given in the survey that accompanied the event. We will use this material to inform the second phase of our Farming for Change research, due to be published in the spring.

If you would like to contribute your own ideas, please complete our survey

What did we hear?

  • Agroecological practices are becoming increasingly achievable and realistic
  • Complexity and diverse rotations are essential for the natural control of pests, diseases and weeds
  • Diversity coupled with a less is more and flexible mindset can increase output off a smaller area of land
  • Continuous testing and benchmarking are key if the potential of agroecological practices is to become more widely understood and more mainstream
  • For agroecological practices to be scaled up markets and supply chains need to be able to reflect the diversity and complexity of production systems
  • Learning about and understanding agroecological principles can be a full-time job. A more effective means of sharing knowledge and practices is needed.
  • All farmers can make a difference and the agronomy is increasingly accessible to all
  • There are multiple ways to start a transition to more agroecological practices, it's not exclusive by farm size, geography or sector
Comments from Lucy Bates, LEAF

“Agroecology is not a set of rules, it’s a frame of mind and a way of thinking.”

“We are entering a new period of agronomy where nature-based solutions look increasingly like the most achievable and realistic in the market.”

“The next agronomic era is already here its accessible to all and the benefits of embracing it are real and tangible.”

Comments from Becky Willson, FCCT

“We can build resilience by working with nature rather than spending time money and resources battling against it.”

“All farmers can make a difference in the transition to agroecology and in so doing reduce GHG emissions and improve soil health but what do they need? They need knowledge and support and an understanding of what to do.”

“We need to build an intrinsic understanding that it can be done. It may be complicated, there may be six trillion things we can measure, but it can be done, and it starts with a single step.”

“Diversity is key, not just a diversity of different rooting depths, but also different crops, for different windows, different markets and different management opportunities.”

“A lot of farmers are increasingly setting targets to reduce fertiliser usage by say 20 or 25% and trying to harness better soil biology to help them get there.”

“The mindset of the successful farmers we work with includes being willing to try something new, to change, to experiment, to be flexible, to work together with other farmers but also with researchers and to gather data to evidence their progress.”

Comments from farmer and agronomist Ed Horton

We now actually produce more saleable commodities than we used to because we have such a large range of outputs that we are actually producing more than we used to while being far less intensive and farming less ground.”

“Some of the key approaches that have helped us progress this agroecological system include

1) education through webinars like this;

2) learning that less is more and producing a lower yielding crop that is far more sustainable, environmentally friendly and comes out with a better gross margin puts me in a much safer place moving forward;

3) flexibility and never fixing our rotations, but adapting them according to soils and the season;

4) testing and benchmarking to check progress and seeing how we perform compared to others

Comments from the audience

“Getting all this out to the wider community is tricky. We have mostly grown up in an industry that has been lead by science (bad or otherwise). We now generally expect solutions to appear through the scientific route complete with statistically valid data to back up advice. Unfortunately, alternative agriculture is very much based at the moment upon anecdotal evidence. The system works, but nobody can absolutely tell us why in a way many can accept. Until we can demonstrate the benefits without forcing this upon our peers in an evangelical fashion, wider roll out will be slow.”

David Aglen, Farm Manager at Balbirnie Farm, an AHDB strategic farm in Fife

“Being preached to by converts won’t necessarily work. This type of farming requires a far deeper understanding of how biology works; it’s very knowledge intensive. The evidence base needs to be strong; ensure management measures are realistic and include the financials”

Emily Grant, sheep and grazing consultant, Perthshire

“Complex rotations are key, and also complexity within crops is essential, when thinking about natural control of weeds, pests and diseases. I also think that leys (herbal) and animals are fundamental to increased biodiversity, healthy soils and healthy crops. The biggest problem with combinable crops is that our plant breeders are not delivering in terms of crop architecture (weed suppressing), disease resistance, grain quality and the ability to scavenge for nutrients.”

John Pawsey, organic mixed farmer, Suffolk

“Farmers around the world always think that their farm is the most unique and most difficult place in the world to farm. Many farmers would love to have the benign climate that we have throughout the year. Agroecological farming systems mean that our farms can be more resilient to whatever the weather decides to give us.”

Johnnie Balfour, owner of Balbirnie Home Farms, an AHDB strategic farm, and agroecology ambassador working with the Soil Association

“I suppose the challenge for farmers looking to move in that direction can be not just overcoming adversity to visible 'untidiness' but workstream/ machinery/ market complexity. Supporting this kind of system through market and consumer demand that appreciate smaller batches, mixed crops, less standard specs will be key to sustaining the scale up of these practices.”

Lucy Bates, LEAF

We can all grow better crops and veg, all in mixtures, without soil disturbance etc which are better for the soil. What we cannot do currently is market all these mixtures at scale to our biggest customers, supermarkets. If we can change the marketplace, then we can make rapid progress towards a better agricultural system.

David Aglen, Farm Manager at Balbirnie Farm, an AHDB strategic farm in Fife

“There are loads of organisations doing great things, but accessing advice and information is a full-time job. These groups need to come together in some umbrella organisation so farmers can find information much more easily and quickly.”

Julia Currie

Questions

What does an agroecological farm look like?

We asked the audience to design their dream agroecological system. Here are some of the elements they came up with.

  • Perennial trees and shrubs provide a range of benefits linked to ecosystem health and food production.
  • Crops, livestock and grasslands wholly integrated.
  • Farms working collaboratively across landscapes to ensure the stock are in the appropriate place at the appropriate time.
  • Multiple products and enterprises on each farm with well-developed localised routes to market, bringing together produce from farms in local areas, enabling seasonal, local food to be accessed by communities.
  • No bare ground, all animals outside year-round.
  • Deadwood areas around field edges for beetle habitat for pest control and creating more micro habitats (ponds, wet ditches etc) for reptiles and amphibians which can exist at very high densities and be a powerful pest control.
  • A horticultural site could include mixed canopies, diverse hedgerows and trees, interspersed with shrubby/scrubby land, that is repairs and protects soils, provides habitat for wildlife, and low input food/material yields.
  • Within this system sits substantial glades with annual and perennial veg and fruit crops. These crops are edged with 2-6m verges of wild, herbaceous, beneficial insect attracting plants.
  • Integration with non-chemical input livestock farming provides manures and pest management.
Where do you start?

We asked the audience to describe the one practice you would suggest to a farm looking to transition to agroecology. This was our favourite answer:

I like intercropping and companion cropping as a starting place for farmers to think more deeply about agroecology. Why? Having more than one crop in the field at a time can help improve soil fertility (esp. were using nitrogen fixers), soil structure (esp. is using different rooting plants), reduce pest/weed/disease burden (e.g. using buckwheat or clover) and start reducing synthetic inputs, build diversity into the rotation (esp. if able to plant and harvest more than one cash crop from the field).

Essentially, the practice is good at delivering multiple outcomes through the synergies you gain from it, but you can work within your own boundaries and build up to more innovative thinking as you learn/progress - and there's plenty of opportunities to integrate livestock by having a companion crop that is graze-able. (Anonymous)

More questions to explore

We ran out of time for all the great questions that the audience shared. If you would like to help us answer these, please complete our survey.

  • The language and terminology is confusing and poorly understood in the wider food industry. Feels like we are in an agroecological bubble – how do we get this more mainstream and better understood?
  • How do you get buy-in from agri-business and agronomists whose livelihoods depend on selling artificial inputs?
  • Are there enough advisors/agronomists out there who can advise on a shift to more agroecology? Or does it have to continue to be farmer led?
  • What can we learn from and build on from successful Farmer Cluster Groups and their approach to knowledge sharing?
  • What role can soil additives play in restoring soil biology and functional soils?
  • What is the impact of crop planting density on resilience to fungus?
  • What impact do agroecological practices have on fossil fuel consumption and carbon footprint?
  • How long does it take to transition away from high input system to an agroecological system?
  • Does the mindset issue of farms needing to be seen to be tidy and up together need to be addressed?
  • How can more farms shift their focus to profit over yields?
  • Is there a cultural peer pressure against change in UK farming?
  • How do you best measure soil biodiversity and biology and know that its going in the right direction?
  • Is it best to measure crop nutrition instead of soil?
  • How do you best measure and monitor soil organic matter levels?
  • Where best to site trees for carbon sequestration – is it a mistake to plant trees on biodiverse permanent pasture?
  • What are the best methods of testing soil carbon?
  • Is there a way of marketing product that originates from a good soil farmer, like Red Tractor?
  • How do you avoid agroecology being greenwashed by corporations like they have with regenerative agriculture?
This session was the first in five workshops helping to build the ideas, evidence and community to enable a transition to agroecology in the UK by 2030. Please join us for the rest of the series.