Soils are fundamental to this agricultural economy, with significant areas of excellent quality (Grade 1) land suitable for a wide variety of crops including wheat, oilseed rape, sugar beet and potatoes amongst other horticultural production. Pig and poultry farming is also significant. The region is home to the Fens, areas of low-lying marshland mainly found in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, many of which were drained centuries ago to form agricultural land. The low-lying nature of the land and coastal erosion make East of England particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by climate change, whilst low levels of rainfall in the region generally makes it vulnerable to water shortages, particularly concerning for agricultural irrigation needs. The agricultural and food and drink industry is a major employer in the region, including migrant labour – the future of which is uncertain following the UK’s exit from the European Union. With around three-quarters of the land in the region used for agriculture, farmers play an important role in managing the countryside, so a fair transition to new models of Environmental Land Management will be crucial to both environment and financial sustainability of agriculture in the region.
The first phases of our inquiry focused on Lincolnshire. Work was led by Iain Gould at Lincoln Institute of Agri-Food Technology (LIAT) at the University of Lincoln and funded by the Ashden Trust. Between September 2018 and June 2019 LIAT engaged with a range of farmers to look at sustainable soil practices. This aimed firstly to understand how farmers are approaching these issues, and secondly, to support and initiate networks for sharing good practice between farmers at different stages of their ‘soil health journey’. The report Sustainable Soil Practice and Promotion in Lincolnshire outlines the work and findings.
Initial phases of the work were led by Lincoln Institute of Agri-Food Technology, engaging with farmers to improve soil health. In the next phase, the inquiry will focus on Cambridgeshire, bringing together a range of stakeholders across farming, environmental conservation, academia, community development and health (including Stephen Briggs of Whitehall Farm; Martin Lines, Chair of Nature Friendly Farming Network and Gavin Shelton, Director of CoFarm).
Following this move in focus to Cambridgeshire, the next steps for our inquiry are to establish a Leadership Group and put together a workplan for the next three years.