09 November 2021
Alice Midmer of CHAP shares her insights
CHAP, a UK Agri-Tech Centre funded by Innovate UK, brings together leading scientists, farmers, advisors, innovators and businesses to understand industry challenges, drive research and innovation and develop and trial solutions that transform crop systems. The organisation works with partners to translate and promote these solutions for market adoption and improved crop productivity, and it aims to increase crop productivity for future generations through the uptake of new technologies. In a recent blog, Alice Midmer took an in-depth look at soil and crop health systems, looking at regenerative agriculture and how this can lead to a more resilient farm business. We share her insights here ...
I love working with farmers. Especially those looking to develop, change, improve and seek new solutions and innovation to the ever-changing challenges. Many are looking to regenerative agriculture (regen ag) for techniques and inspiration to develop more resilient farm businesses. For me, the overall recipe for regen ag has to include four different aspects.
The first, of course is farm practice. Regenerative practices are hinged on soil and plant health systems – the decisions made regarding diversity of cropping, the use of livestock in rotations, the level of interventions made with metal or pesticides. It’s how we can use nature and work with her to help farming systems to improve efficiency, reduce inputs and, crucially, grow a viable crop.
The role of the market
Market has to be the next key ingredient. Can crops grown through improved soil and plant health systems be worth more, and is there a marketplace for them at all? In some cases, regenerative systems need to move away from traditional short rotations in order to work effectively. How can we match this to consumer demand? What new markets or marketing can be developed to better able farmers to grow what is good for the soil. For example, can new outlets for alternative crops such as pulses and heritage grains which help to diversify cropping rotations and improve biodiversity be promoted. Pockets of this are popping up, but can we accelerate this to the mainstream consumer and change demand?
The third ingredient in the regen ag recipe is metrics. Regen ag, and particularly the transition period, can be less predictable in its outcomes than conventional techniques. We therefore need to better use digital tools to manage this change and give farmers more information of what to expect. This will help de-risk decision making regarding plant health and soils. Our industry is quite comfortable with producing huge amounts of data, but what we need is information farmers can use to make decisions, or even start to make suggestions based on previous patterns and AI.
Of course, there will be easy wins that help to make obvious changes. Farm assessments and carbon measurements can identify the main ‘drains’ to know where to focus efforts. An example here could be thinking more strategically about fertiliser and fuel usage and setting tangible targets.
The final – and my favourite – component in the regen ag recipe is in fact, people. From the work I have done with farmers, as much as they tell you it is the figures or the facts that help make decisions, it’s actually the people that inspire change. Seeing something in action, hearing someone talk about their experiences, working with an inspiring soil advisor or getting involved in a farmer group with some healthy peer pressure is where the real innovation is at. Farming needs to be enjoyable and is all about having a business to be proud of.
An inspirational mix
Instead of creating complex rigid systems, and complicated terminology and definitions, regen ag should be about inspiring and encouraging people to work together towards a bigger picture.
Regen ag needs all of these things to succeed, but it all starts with mindset. You’ve got to be interested to learn, hungry for knowledge, happy to trial, and willing to fail. It doesn’t have to be badged up as ‘regen ag’ but making changes to leave the land better than you found it, and to develop a business that is resilient and ready for the future has never been a better idea.