Leading farmers demonstrate net zero in practice

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Improved efficiency, production of renewable energy and carbon sequestration were identified as key strategies to reduce farm emissions at the Innovation for Agriculture and Royal Agricultural Society of England’s (RASE) ‘Farm of the Future: Net Zero in Practice’ event hosted in April.

Speaking in the first panel debate of the event, Helen Browning OBE, Louise Manning, Abi Reader and Stephen Briggs each shared how they have been working towards net zero emissions on their own farms.

Ms Browning, chief executive at the Soil Association, farms in Wiltshire, producing organic dairy, beef, pigs and cereals. In the panel debate, she shared how she undertook a full assessment of the farm business, as well as looking at it on an individual enterprise level.

“I looked at the nutrient balance on the farm, what was going on and what was coming off, by way of N and P especially. We also did a review of our carbon emissions and I wanted to understand what our mitigation options were as part of our ‘getting to net zero’ plan,” she added.

“The results, on the basis of what our soils were doing, along with a small area of woodland and some young agroforestry, showed that we were sequestering 70% of our emissions.”

Ms Browning shared that this leaves over 1,000 tonnes of carbon per year which is being emitted, and that they are looking at natural sources for methane inhibition, such as willow and herbal leys, to reduce emissions from livestock, as well as calculating how much more woodland and hedges would be need to offset emissions on the farm. 

Professor Manning, a poultry farmer and professor of agri-food at the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology, spoke about how renewable energy can play a role in farm decarbonisation. 

“If there are the right triggers for farmers and the financial support from government, farmers will decarbonise very quickly if it works within their business model,” she said. 

Renewable Heat Incentive

She shared that the launch of the Renewable Heat Incentive in 2011 enabled her family farm business to build enough woodchip boiler capacity to produce just under 1MW renewable energy to heat their chicken houses. 

She added that they also have 75GW of solar, but are constrained from increasing solar capacity because the grid in Herefordshire, where the farm is based, is limited in being able to take additional energy.

“We’re totally held back by the grid capacity, to not only decarbonise further ourselves, but to support our neighbours to decarbonise too. We need to look at how to increase capacity in the grid in some areas of the country, so farmers can play a real role in producing energy and supporting national decarbonisation,” said Professor Manning.

Ms Reader, farmer and deputy president at NFU Cymru, highlighted that of all the methods to achieve farm decarbonisation, sequestering carbon is the strategy she finds most difficult to grasp. In Wales the new farm support payments are being developed, which will potentially include the condition that all farms in Wales receiving the payment will have to have trees on 10% of land. 

“As a farmer I’m looking at that and thinking how do we make this work? But we can grumble about it, or we can see if there’s an opportunity,” she said.

Ms Reader shared how she met a forester through social media, who assured her that trees should only be grown if they’re going to be useful and if they’re going to provide an income within five years. After coming to a consensus with her parents and uncle, who she farms in partnership with, she planned how to set up an agroforestry trial on a triangle shaped field with bedrock close to the surface.   

This has included planting strips of a selection of tree species in rows, as short rotation coppice, which can be harvested within two to five years. The wood from the harvesting can be used to produce various low carbon materials, such as concrete or plaster. 

Between the rows of trees Ms Reader shared that the plan is to grow another crop, Sita. “It’s like a cross between a sycamore sapling and a maize plant. It has massive leaves which are supposedly huge suckers of carbon and rhizome roots. It’s also a high protein crop which could potentially displace soya,” she added. 

Stephen Briggs, arable farmer and head of technical development at Innovation for Agriculture, also spoke about agroforesty. He shared how he has introduced trees to the arable system on Bluebell Farms in Cambridgeshire, which has helped the farm make best use of the most extensive free resource available, sunlight. 

“A wheat crop only uses 65-68% of the available solar radiation, if we used 100% there wouldn’t be any weeds,” he said.  

“Nature worked this out a long time ago – it’s about different species, different times, different places to catch as much of the sunlight as possible. In our farming system we’ve chosen to stack enterprises. We’ve stacked productive fruit trees, pollen and nectar areas and crop production all in the same field.”

He shared that they are sequestering about 4.5 tonnes per hectare from having trees in the system. 

“The system is running at about 20% more productive than a monoculture, because we’re stacking those enterprises, but it is more complex to manage,” he said.

“Change is constant in our industry. We’re pretty good at adapting to change, but we need to be driving that change and controlling it, rather than it being done to us. 

“Part of that is benchmarking to measure where you’re starting from and moving to, also stack enterprises for resilience, harvest the opportunities available to you and only do things you enjoy,” concluded Mr Briggs.

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