Changing Land Management

By Will Frazer

17th March 2021

We recently hosted the second of five #RoutestoAction workshops, which explored the land management 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 130 farmers, academics, NGOs, Government and civil society.

With quick-fire presentations from speakers Janet Dwyer of CCRI, Niels Corfield, and Susan Twining of the CLA, questions from the audience and contributions from the floor from Archie Ruggles-Brise of Spains Hall Estate, the session covered a huge amount of ground in 90 minutes, including:

  • The benefits of ‘land sharing’ - multifunctional land use for food, health, nature, climate, farm businesses and the economy
  • The potential of agroecological practices to produce beneficial synergies when delivered together, across farms at scale in a landscape.
  • How different forms of land tenure affect the take-up of agroecological practices
  • The long term and strategic decisions needed on land use for forestry, agroforestry, horticulture and permanent crops  

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?

  • Agroecology, when done right, will be more profitable than conventional farming methods, but it is not easy and is highly knowledge intensive.
  • When diversity becomes integral to a farmed landscape rather than peripheral, there are clear and measurable production benefits, for example through the provision of shade and shelter for livestock throughout the field rather than just around the edges.
  • Government policy needs to learn the lessons of the past. Past conservation and agri-environment schemes have fragmented many landscapes and habitats making them uneconomic to manage and causing biodiversity decline. A more holistic approach is needed such as understanding the integration between the top of the hill and the valley bottom.
  • Technology is enabling greater diversity of choice in lots of other industries and there is no reason why that should not be the case for food and farming too. Standardisation and specialisation are perhaps not as desirable as they once were and diversity of land use and product are increasingly achievable.
  • Metrics to record the performance of more diverse, mosaic, agroecological land management practices are in short supply. Conventional approaches always reduce performance down to individual enterprises and ignore the ways in which different enterprises support each other. Better and more relevant standards and metrics are required to show the impact of agroecological practices so these can be included in future Government support schemes.
  • People are needed on the land. Productivity improvements should not simply equate to more tech/ less people. More people with the right skills are needed to run knowledge intensive, more diverse farming businesses with more diverse supply chains.
  • Collaboration is central to the delivery of a more agroecological and diverse landscape and farming system. It’s rare that one individual will have all the skills and knowledge to deliver the full potential of a particular area of land.
  • Joint ventures are a helpful way of attracting people to help towards making long term, agroecological management decisions about land, increasing land mobility and accessibility to new entrants. More work should be done with estates and county council farms to pioneer these approaches and support investment in associated infrastructure to work for their tenants.
  • Agroecology points to lots of synergies between emerging markets for natural capital and profitable food production, but these are not always clearly signalled. Can a clearer connection with supportive market cues be made between, for example, carbon markets for land and the profitable production of food?
  • Time is not on our side when acting on climate change and biodiversity loss. Many businesses cannot afford to hang around until 2024 for the new ELM scheme and wish to start making changes right now.
Comments from Janet Dwyer, CCRI

“Through past agri-environment schemes we’ve too often focused on trying to protect the highest value habitats in uplands landscapes. What this has done is reduced agricultural management to a point in these areas where it is now uneconomic to manage these landscapes for upland businesses. What used to be a business that used the valley bottom, the side of the hill and the top of the hill in an integrated farming system moving stock back and forward has broken down. What happens is there is no longer an economic incentive to manage the high nature value landscapes and so the conservation value goes backwards when you don’t have any management at all.”

“For the country as a whole we have this really important tradition of land management and much of our most internationally valued biodiversity is semi-natural habitat, which has been managed by people for centuries. If you take away that management, you may well lose what you are valuing.”

“If we’re going to do this then we need to get collaborating. You might have skills in environment, but there will be other people farming around you who have skills in food who can make the most of your productive acres and add value.”

“We really don’t have enough people managing the land. I’m really happy with idea of productivity in terms of delivering multiple private and public benefits from the management of land, but don’t use productivity as a way of getting rid of more people from the management of our countryside. We need more people on the land and you can do it if you take the approach of building diversity into production systems.”

Comments from independent consultant, Niels Corfield

“Increasing structural diversity on the farm. Typically, our farms are fairly uniform with cropping or grass over here and trees over here or around the edges. So typically, trees are peripheral, but we should be aiming to introduce trees into the interior of our fields, making them integral rather than peripheral. This will give us greater access to the soil health benefits through more fungal supportive species which associate heavily with mycorrhizae reducing the bacterial dominance of conventionally managed soils which often result in tight soils, poor infiltration, boggy fields.”

“Need to account for the benefits of shelter and shade. Livestock and grasses have measurable production benefits from having shade and shelter, so for example in hot conditions livestock will finish earlier because they are spending less time loafing in the shade and more time grazing and at the same time distributing their manure more evenly across the pasture instead of just manuring the hedge!”

“Agroecology if done right, will be more profitable than conventional operations, even if total output does go down.”

Comments from Susan Twinning, CLA

“The question of whether emerging markets for natural capital have any synergies with profitable food production is a good one. I think the answer is yes, but it might not be clearly signalled. There are examples where premiums are already paid. Organics is probably the most established, but conservation grade oats and the LEAF Marque have both been around for 30 years and there are many more marketing standards emerging, gaining traction and delivering higher prices such as PFLA."

“From a farmers point of view it feels at this moment in time there is a bewildering range of possible directions for any business. Lots of drivers for change, but really not any clear direction. And there is an equally bewildering lack of information around the policy that might support these emerging markets. While many are keen to address the climate and nature crises, the bottom line is the need to be profitable and we mustn’t forget that. For this to work it needs to make economic sense."

“I think the land tenure challenge is really more about land mobility and new entrants, getting the right people to make management decisions on farms. There’s a growing interest in joint venture models such as share farming, machinery and labour collaboration, or franchise farming all of which can bring new skills and ideas into play."

“Central to making agroecology more investable is a supportive Government policy. Clearly more mixed farming systems have the potential to deliver a wide range of public goods, which could be well supported by emerging public payments for public goods policy in England."

Comments from Archie Ruggles-Brise
Comments from the audience

“If we simply offer greater variety of choices to people who can then choose to fit their lifestyles, we have the danger of people NOT choosing to change to healthier diets. How can we use suppliers, education, tighter connections between farmers and consumers, to shift diet from high fat, oil, salt, sugar to a healthier and more sustainable diet? How do we make sure that people who have difficulty accessing healthy food now can do so easily in their communities?” Jean McKendree

“A challenge is how to set standards/boundaries/descriptors around regenerative farming such that it can be included within schemes & strategies in a measurable way that can demonstrate the impact on biodiversity & climate. It's a contradiction in terms really since regenerative is a process/spectrum rather than a system, but we need some way of monitoring & testing.” Becky Hughes

“Mixed farms may sequester much more carbon in the soil, than new plantations of trees will lock up, over time. I know of examples where longstanding mixed farms have 3 x the quantity of C in the soil than the average crop or livestock-only holding.” Janet Dwyer

“If we put 1p on a loaf of bread via the supply chain to finance zero carbon ag, the annual spend on bread increase would be 60p/year but would give £720/hectare for malting for beer, £400/hectare on milling wheat for the farmer.” Jean Mckendree

“One of the challenges to farmers taking action to create sustainable systems is a fear that they will be effectively penalised when changes to BPS/ELMs/GLASTIR are introduced. and payments may be made for actions rather than achievements.” Alice Lampard

“We are having an interesting time with setting up regional PFLA groups. In the SE we have a regional facilitator who is actively looking at growing supply chains for Pasture for Life certified members. What is interesting is that it appears we are very quickly getting networking going with a wide range of interested parties. So having boots on the ground may well prove to be a real catalyst for wider collaboration." Fidelity Weston


What are the strengths of agroecology?

“Once a farmer starts to take an agroecological approach it leads to a mindset change which in turn leads to further openness about new ways of thinking about the land and how you manage it. Whatever the particular decision that is reached you can be sure that nature, ecology and all the elements of agroecology will be there in that decision. So, land management is based on a virtuous circle of decisions.”

“1) More productive and resilient soil mean a stronger and longer-term agricultural sector. 2) Reduced diffuse pollution means better water quality which benefits aquatic life and human consumption. 3) Greater landscape diversity, through IPM strategies and more space for nature, is beneficial for biodiversity and climate resilience. 4) better integration of trees into farming system is beneficial for livestock health/welfare, biodiversity, better looking landscapes where appropriate (mental health and cultural pros), diversity in healthy food. The list could go on...”

What are the weaknesses of agroecology?

“The transition stage from current practice is potentially a weakness, both financially and emotionally. It also requires a longer term view which can be a challenge particularly to the landlord/tenant relationship.”

“More complex landscapes and farming systems require the know-how to make them work. Very much achievable but require changes in mindset and the way future farmers/land managers are educated and college/university. Wrong tree, wrong place is a real threat to climate and biodiversity outcomes. We don't have a good enough mechanism to risk assess and then say no to wrong project in the wrong place. We need government to implement this to not create unintended consequences.”

“None in terms of the environmental sustainability issues but it may be hard to maintain AE businesses financially without positive support from government, consumers willing to invest in the full range of benefits it provides and imposition of full cost accounting on foods produced to lower standards.”

“Currently, a tiny % of research funding goes to agroecology - this needs to change. There is plenty of evidence, but it doesn't seem to be taken seriously be BigAg.”

What would the landscape where you live look like in 2030 if managed agroecologically?

“Many of the more productive livestock farms on the best quality land would have diversified to include some human edible crop production. Trees and hedges would be more prominent within the farmed area as part of a shift towards agroforestry. Previously channeled streams and dykes have been renaturalised so that they flow according to the local landscape features. Semi natural habitats will have been reintegrated into the wider farming economy for rearing hardier native breeds of cattle and sheep.”

“Smaller fields, hedge divisions, strips of mixed broadleaf woodland within the fields, species rich long-term leys with grazing livestock, some ponds and wetland, areas of coppice and woodland, family farms, small scale electric machinery, small scale local co-operatively owned processors selling through food hubs direct to customers.”

“It would be much more diverse with much greater structure - more trees, hedges, ponds, wet areas, agricultural diversity, more wildflowers etc. It would have a lot more people working in it - more jobs on farms, conservation sites, more rural businesses etc. There would be a much greater abundance of wildlife and biodiversity in general. It would be connected, dynamic, thriving and a living landscape. It would help to provide a lot more food for its local population.”

What would the landscape where you live look like in 2030 if managed as it is currently?

“Still visually attractive (South Lakeland) but having lost a few more iconic farmland species. Still not included in NVZ regs so water courses suffering from run off of slurry spread at inappropriate times in winter. Local estates still heavily invested in their pheasant shooting operations whilst their farm tenants are left to struggle on with inadequate and worn out infrastructure that increases the risks of pollution incidents.”

“Huge fields, no divisions, short-term highly fertilised and pesticide treated monocrop leys, no livestock outside, raw slurry applied heavily all year round, huge and heavy machinery compacting soils and racing long distances along country roads, itinerant workers packed into low grade accommodation working long repetitive hours on minimum pay spending little on local services, articulated lorries constantly delivering vast inputs and hauling produce to gigantic centralised processors hundreds of miles away to be highly processed and sold cheaply in the out-of-town supermarkets..”

“I'm fortunate to live in an area that arguably has more diversity/structure to it. But it would still be fairly quiet, lacking in the sounds of the hustle and bustle of wildlife and people living together in abundance. It would not be fairly well connected, with people mostly living within the boundaries of their village, rather than better connections across the landscape. It would be one for the few and not the many.”

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.

  • What are the drawbacks of over-wilding a landscape?
  • What are the possibilities of resurrecting te use of owls as crop protection control and giving over poor agricultural land habitat to support their abundance?
  • How do we address the issue of habitat fragmentation in UK landscapes? Fragmented landscapes make environmental shocks much more damaging.
  • An agroecological revolution/food system in the UK by 2030 is a great aspiration… how are we both developing young farmers, enabling multifunctional farm business design and enabling secure, long term, affordable land access amidst ever concentrating farmland ownership?
  • Do we even have the tools to measure yields from a mosaic? How do we measure productivity in this case?
  • What is the beneficial impact of hedgerows and trees on natural predators working for crop benefit?
  • How can the kind of mixed and diversified farming system that IDDRI have modelled for the UK be implemented soon enough to avoid calamity when farmers and land managers are responding primarily to market cues? Do we need some form of land use planning system?
  • Fungal biomass and diversity can be improved by cover crops, diverse leys, regenerative ag. Is there evidence that incorporating trees greatly increases fungi beyond this?
  • How do we ensure that farmers/land managers are encouraged to plant a diverse range of native trees? There's a bit of a concern that if we look solely through a single lens and start planting too many non-native tree species that can lead to unintended negative consequences.
  • Productivity - what is it and what is it for?
  • How can we translate the doughnut economic model into the food and farming system?
  • Is there a brokerage role for knowledge transfer and land access for farmer to farmer and farmer to other food and environment enterprises?
Research shared by the audience

Hope Farm: Farm Accounts - The RSPB

This session was the second 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 final workshop of the series on Wednesday 24th March.