Just days after the world’s hottest day on record, BASF revealed interim results for Project Fortress – an on-farm five-year trial exploring strategies to increase resilience to the impacts and challenges of climate change.
Project Fortress is hosted at The Grange Farm in Northamptonshire and is a collaboration between host farmers, Andrew and William Pitts, and BASF. A 12.5ha field sitting on Hanslope clay has been divided into five plots where different approaches are being implemented and analysed.
“Each strategy aims to improve soil health and increase carbon storage, keeping land in production while ensuring there’s a home for wildlife and biodiversity,” explains host-farmer, William Pitts.
Alongside the broadacre crops, the plots include three and four-year herbal leys with grazing sheep and ‘supercharger’ cover crops. The plots are interspersed with what the team are calling ‘agrofloristy’ – 2m of undisturbed grass between two 3m meadow flower strips – as well as being topped and tailed by headlands which have been taken out of production to be ‘reset’ under a three year meadow mix .
While Andrew and William are keeping a close eye on productivity and profit, there’s a team of independent experts analysing the effects on soil and biodiversity.
“Being sustainable within the context of agriculture means having a viable business – building and maintaining an adequate income stream – as well as maintaining everything that co-exists around us,” says William.
“It’s what Project Fortress is all about – talking about ‘sustainability’ is no longer enough,” adds BASF agricultural sustainability manager, Mike Green.
“Climate change is accelerating and our adaptation needs to take us ahead of it .”
Increasing soil carbon
In just two years Project Fortress is yielding results, with the herbal ley and rotational grazing increasing organic matter in the topsoil.
“When I first looked at this field, it was clear that it was degraded,” says independent soil consultant Jenni Dungait. “The field’s topography and underlying geology and soil type make it prone to erosion and compaction.”
Jenni’s initial analysis showed that while the topsoil had relatively high levels of organic matter at around 6.5%, the subsoil was very compacted and had little organic matter.
“To our surprise, some of the deep-rooting plants in both the herbal leys and cover crops have managed to penetrate the compacted layer,” she says. “Given a second season, the chicory grew to over 5ft tall and its taproot just about broke through. However, even taproots would take years to achieve what a sub-soiler can do in a single pass.
“The thick taproot of the sweet clover in the ‘supercharger‘ cover crops also penetrated the tightly packed layer. Deep roots like this are really important – with carbon in its biomass and in the exudates it’ll be releasing, it’s getting carbon deep into the soil. That root will also keep the soil structure open, allowing air and water to penetrate.”
The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) have been monitoring insects at the farm since 2017 and are assessing the impacts of Project Fortress with pitfall traps and an ‘insect vacuum’.
“The move from ploughing to direct drilling on this farm has had a significant impact on insect populations,” explains GWCT research ecologist, Lucy Capstick. “We’ve seen beneficial insect numbers increase where the soil structure has not been disturbed and there’s an increase in organic matter on the soil surface. Interestingly, we’ve also seen fewer pest species.”
“With the areas designated to biodiversity getting more established, this May we recorded 2.5 times more insects than last within the confines of Project Fortress,” adds Lucy.
Arguably one of the biggest impacts of the Project has been its reach.
“With policy makers, regulators, farmers and other stakeholders coming to see the farm and the trial, it’s been a catalyst for conversation and inspiration for action,” says Mike.
For the host-farmers that’s been key to the success of the relationship with BASF. “We had been working on issues that come under the umbrella of ‘sustainability’ long before Andrew met the team at BASF. But nobody listens to two farmers from Northamptonshire. BASF has given us a platform on which we can share our journey, exchange ideas with other farmers, and discuss the challenges and opportunities with experts, and those with influence. It’s been both a flattering and humbling experience,” says William.