By Dr Iain Gould, Isobel Wright, Jenny Rowbottom - University of Lincoln
Greater Lincolnshire is home to ten percent of English agricultural production. Its combination of climate, soil type and topography make the county ideal for a variety of crops; around 25% of the UK’s vegetable production and 21% of ornamental crop production takes place in the region(1).
The county’s diverse soils, including clays, sands, shallow limestone, chalk Wolds, peats and silt soils underpin this production, providing a valuable resource not only for crop growth but for the ecosystem services that our society relies on. Healthy soils can store water, alleviating flood pressures downstream. In doing this, they can also act as a filtration system, contributing to cleaner drinking water. Well-functioning soils can also store carbon, fixing CO2 from plant photosynthesis into more stable carbon forms below ground, and are home to a vast and diverse biological community, which help cycle nutrients, enhance soil structure and regulate pests.
Over a third of the world’s soils are degraded, with factors such as erosion, sealing, contamination and salinisation causing this deterioration. In the UK,
agricultural soils suffer from erosion by wind or water, loss of organic matter from land use change and soil disturbance, and compaction from heavy machinery(2). Recent years, however, have seen a growing interest in soil conservation in the UK, with organisations including the Sustainable Soils Alliance, Catchment Sensitive Farming, the Soil Association and AHDB championing the issue to policymakers and practitioners.
A degree of soil management practice does feature in current UK farming payment schemes. To adhere to Cross Compliance, farmers must comply with several Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC), three of which directly link to soil protection. However, unlike water, soil conservation does not benefit from a Soil Framework Directive
The specific details of any future Agricultural Bill are yet to be announced at the time of writing, however, the recently issued 25 Year Environment Plan(3) highlights the need for appropriate soil management, with a view to managing all UK’s soils sustainably by 2030. As such, it is likely that soil health indicators may play a role in future payment schemes.
Recent research by the Lincoln Institute for Agrifood Technology(4) has sought to understand from Lincolnshire farmers what they are doing to improve soil health; to understand from their experiences how further action could be incentivised; and to test interventions with other famers which encourage the take up of sustainable soil practices.
Farmers involved in the study expressed a range of motivations for adopting practices to promote soil health, from those seeking financial savings to those with a keen interest in soil biology. Those acting for reasons of financial savings found that reduced costs on fuel and labour went hand in hand with reduced soil disturbance and improved quality. Those using cover crops, however, needed to weigh up the initial seed costs against long-term benefit on soil, and therefore the financial savings are not so easily ascertained.
Farmers described being on a journey to improve soil health, for example by gradually switching from ploughing (high soil disturbance) to min-till, to strip-till and eventually to no-till (very low soil disturbance) with other components such as controlled traffic and cover cropping also implemented at various stages. Several discussed a further stage of reducing fertiliser inputs after their gradual build-up of soil biology in recent years, which could provide a further cost, as well as environmental, saving. Farmers use a range of indicators and measures to track the progress of their soil health interventions.
Those involved sourced information about sustainable soil practices from a variety of places, including Twitter, YouTube, training courses and books. A large proportion of this information is coming from North America, who appear to be leading the field in this type of practice. In the UK, groups such as BASE UK, and events like Groundswell, provide opportunities for knowledge exchange, but these are still marginal. Peer support and reassurance from other farmers who have already taken steps to improve soil health is valued.
Much like soil itself, increasing the take up of sustainable soil practice requires a variety of approaches, and may have no ‘one size fits all’ approach. What can work on one farm and one soil type may not always provide the same results or may have a slower response on others. As such, incentives to take up more soil-friendly practice also can be manifold. A ‘top down’ approach, providing payment for soil improvement is one way forward, and it may feature in a new Agricultural Bill. However, the challenge here is to find a way to assess practice and soil condition across a range of soil types that have seen a contrast in management history. For example, simply assessing soil organic matter levels will favour some soils more than others, and perhaps not favour management systems which have been building up organic matter already.
A grassroots, local approach provides a key mechanism for increasing uptake: in-person events and activities which provide farmers with independent advice, practical knowledge and an opportunity to meet and learn from one another appear to be important in promoting the take up of sustainable soil practices in the county, particularly when placed in an informal setting to allow discussion afterwards. This approach can utilise existing farmer networks, but also build up new ones.
The Lincolnshire research highlighted several recommendations for those seeking to run activities and engage farmers at a local level:
Obtaining farmers’ trust and commitment takes time. It is important to respond to the energy, interests and needs of the farmers involved. Identifying these can take time. Achieving long-term change in practice is likely to require sustained engagement. In achieving this it is the peer relationships, as well as any relationship formed with a training or organising group, that are most important to nurture. Networks and relationships, either formal or informal, which already exist amongst farmers can act as good platforms through which to introduce information about sustainable soil initiatives. Local knowledge of how, where and who holds these relationships is valuable when seeking to engage farmers.
It is important to understand what the drivers are for change and the areas of interest amongst the group and network. Focussing on the needs of the farming community helps builds trust, showing that their issues are cared about and making it easier to engage.
The greatest benefits from activities which bring farmers and other practitioners together to discuss soil health come from the potential for peer learning and connections. The farmers involved in the research found the reassurance from their peers to be important in encouraging them to continue developing their sustainable soil practices. Online communities can also provide this support, but in person and local relationships remain important. Providing a hot lunch in a welcoming environment is a simple step which creates a friendly and convivial ambience for informal discussion and networking which helps to build trust and connections. Farmers often work in isolation and creating a social space provides additional benefit and appeal to a skillsbased workshop.
Farmers responded particularly well to practical learning activities. These included ‘in-field’ demonstration sites and talks where they heard from experts about the latest research and were also able to try activities themselves as well as lab-style demonstrations of soil testing techniques. Ensuring that Continuous Professional Developments points can be collected during training provides another incentive for farmers to attend. In the vein of large events such as Groundswell, these more-local engagement events could build momentum by occurring annually or bi-annually, with a smaller community of neighbouring farmers attending, sharing knowledge and benefitting from hearing the latest from farmers, industry, and research.
Bringing together a range of practitioners, academics and other stakeholders, such as water companies, provides an excellent opportunity for knowledge sharing. To get the most out of this opportunity it is important that activities and agendas instil trust and encourage openness amongst participants. Independent events with a range of activities and inputs can provide this. Support for such activities is likely to continue to require support from the third and public sectors to remain viable.
Providing farmers with a range of useful, quick and inexpensive methods to assess soil health reduce barriers to action and ensures that they can easily undertake assessments on their farm.
Agronomists can act as ambassadors Agronomists provide soil health advice to farmers throughout the county. Through their wide client bases, they can promote the take up of sustainable soil practices. Encouraging agronomists to attend events and form part of soil health networks is also important.
(1) Collison, M. (2014). Greater Lincolnshire Agri-food Sector Plan 2014-2020.
(2) Gregory, A. S., Ritz, K., McGrath, S. P., Quinton, J. N., Goulding, K. W., Jones, R. J. A., Harris, J. A., Bol, R., Wallace, P., Pilgrim, E.S., & Whitmore, A. P. (2015). A review of the impacts of degradation threats on soil properties in the UK. Soil Use and Management, 31, 1-15.
(3) HM Government (2018). A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. Available at www.assets.publishing.service. gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/ attachment_data/file/693158/25-yearenvironment-plan.pdf