Nature and food together are a win-win

Martin Lines explains how his business benefits from nature-friendly farming techniques

20th June 2022

“As we’ve improved the soil structure, my agronomist no longer wears his wellies because the soil doesn’t stick to his boots – but puts them back on when visiting my neighbours.”

We visited Martin Lines at Papley Grove Farm in Cambridgeshire to find out why he’s embraced stewardship schemes and how he’s implementing nature-friendly farming techniques.

Martin at Papley Grove Farm

Martin is a third-generation farmer, who also works for the Nature Friendly Farming Network. In total he farms roughly 1400 acres, which is a mixture of owned, tenanted and share farmed; “I’m farming very differently to my parents and more in tune with my grandparents.” In the past few decades, Martin recognises they “were damaging the soil with cultivation, tractors and heavy machinery.” For the last 7 years, “I’ve had a plan to stop compaction and instead work with nature. We’ve used cover crops and cultivated less and less each year, until we reached a no-till, direct drilling system.” Martin is focused on improving soil health to reduce reliance on expensive inputs; “We had a horrendous weed problem with black grass and were spending a fortune on chemicals to solve the problem. When I looked at it honestly, our rotations were too short, planting was too early. I’ve implemented a wider rotation, diverse cropping and diverse planting dates. Now we are spending less money on inputs and our margins are higher.” The soil is heavy boulder clay but “as we’ve improved our farming system, the soil structure has also improved.” This is evidenced by the fact “my agronomist no longer wears his wellies here because the soil doesn’t stick to his boots but puts them back on when visiting my neighbours.”

“I'm farming very differently to my parents and more in tune with my grandparents.”

Martin is an advocate of stewardship schemes: “We’ve been in stewardship for nearly 20 years now, the last 10 years has been about habitat placement and wildlife recording. Currently about 12% of my own farm is in habitat delivery, on my rented and share farms it’s about 8%.” He reflects, “When I first started farming, I thought - and was taught - that I must grow loads of crops. Now, I’m trying to look at my landscape as an asset manager. What does society need me to deliver? Certainly healthy food, but also biodiversity recovery and climate mitigation. I look at my farm and know my most productive areas for growing food. Then in the misshapen margins or parts that don’t produce much yield, I can use them for habitat restoration or plant them with food for birds. Using stewardship schemes, I can increase my income from creating these nature-friendly areas. It’s about knowing the land and valuing every part of the landscape.”

However, he also admits that a great deal of the nature-friendly farming he does is voluntary “because it makes my farming system work better.” Martin stands in his field of winter wheat, “You'll see a strip in the centre, not just on the margins. We're now subdividing all our fields into 120 metres, putting biodiversity in the centre of the field to increase predatory insects because we recognise an increased yield from their presence. Currently they're unfunded, but I’ll hopefully get them into a new stewardship scheme when one's available - I deliver a lot of public goods that I currently do not get rewarded for.”

Martin thinks farmers have a mixed view of stewardship schemes “because in the past they feel they have been overregulated and over inspected”. Martin reflects, “I lost funding for 2 and a half years until they gave me a report which showed the little mistake I’d made, by about 40 square metres. Thousands of pounds were deducted. Lots of farmers are afraid of stewardship. The system must work better, and trust needs to be built with farmers.” However, he has started to see more farmers enter stewardship schemes and create wildlife habitats: “They don’t always agree with it, but they see the financial reasons for doing it. To engage everyone in nature-friendly farming I think you need to engage people in different ways.”

“What does society need me to deliver? Certainly healthy food, but also biodiversity recovery and climate mitigation.”

For Martin, data is important to his farming system: “The combine is on GPS and it’s collecting data about yields and quality of the grain as it passes across the field. I can then look at the yield data map and find out which areas are producing less. By identifying the area, I can try and find a way to improve it, or if I can’t improve it I can decide to take it out of production because it’s only breaking even.” Martin also maps his soils so he “understands the germination rates across the field” and only applies fertilisers on targeted areas. He believes the fields are as sustainably farmed – with inputs – as possible and that also means “nothing is wasted because I want anything that I buy to stay on my farm and not run into the river.”

Martin has embraced precision agriculture to help reduce inputs but recognises the initial investment admitting “it’s taken 8 years to set up everything.” By using precision agriculture and changing his priorities, Martin has reduced herbicide use by almost 70%, and fungicides are down by 40% - “Every year it reduces further because the soil is healthier, and the crops aren’t as stressed. Obviously, my costs have also fallen. Although, my agronomist does say I ought to be doing a 3-spray programme because it’s the norm, but I don’t agree.” Ultimately, from a business perspective Martin thinks, “Every time I write a cheque someone else has benefited but if I don’t write a cheque, I benefit – as long as I can produce a valuable product.” He also notes that precision agriculture requires fewer hours on the machines, meaning “less investment in kit is needed because I’m not wearing them out as quickly.”

Through farming this way, Martin feels more resilient to external shocks, “We haven’t exposed ourselves to high input systems – it's more tolerant to peaks and troughs.” Although, he notes that he would never describe his farming approach as sustainable because “we shouldn’t be sustaining what we are currently doing when we have a climate and biodiversity crisis - we need to regenerate first.” Martin also knows that there needs to be a transition away from artificial fertilisers derived from fossil fuels and has “been replacing synthetic fertilisers with composted manures and grazing.” Welcoming livestock back into the rotation has given him another income stream - “a young shepherd grazes his sheep on my land, I don’t have to manage them, but they come and eat my weeds and cover crops, whilst giving the soil nitrogen from their backend.”

“Every time I write a cheque [for inputs] someone else has benefited but if I don't write a cheque, I benefit.”

Looking to the future, Martin believes we need to be considering the long-term - “What do we want in 2050 and 2100?” He notes that “for Cambridgeshire there will be some huge changes to come as a result of climate change. Our landscape is going to become much wetter. When you look at tidal surges and flooding maps, then compare these to the areas that need to be protected, you soon realise we cannot protect it all. So which bits are going to flood and how large is that area? [The government] needs to zoom out and identify the key assets and work with farmers to protect them because some fenland will need to be rewetted.” Down the line Martin suspects things are “going to get quite painful but if we make changes early enough the shocks won’t feel as extreme.”

Martin admits much of his inspiration and energy comes from all the farmers he engages with: “It’s powerful to hear another farmer speak and walk around other farms, everyone’s on a journey and you absorb and adapt what they are doing for your own farm. Similarly, I love hosting farmers and members of the public here, they question everything I am doing.” He thinks “BASE is a great resource, which focuses on group discussions about regenerative farming. I don’t have time to be in all the meetings but being a member gives you access to all the videos they create.”

Ultimately Martin’s approach is to “farm the most productive parts well and the other bits can deliver for biodiversity.” Food production and nature can exist side by side, “our landscape is interconnected so we have bird habitat, watercourses, pollinators and predatory insects – nature helps my farming system work better.” However, Martin cautions that “we must be conscious about what is classed as food production.” Much of the land around his farm “produces large amounts of grain, with about 60% used to feed animals that could be eating grass.” In many ways, “farmers are actively encouraged not to produce food for human consumption.” He feels there should be an incentive to produce food that can supply local citizens, from farmers markets to schools and hospitals.

More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.