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Winners of the Soil Farmer of the Year 2022 announced

PRESS RELEASE

Following the presentation of awards at Groundswell – Billy Lewis has been announced as the Mixed Soil Farmer of the Year and David Miller as the Arable Soil Farmer of the Year, with Andrew Rees as runner-up. The competition, now in its seventh year, is organised by the Farm Carbon Toolkit in conjunction with Innovation for Agriculture (IfA), and generously sponsored by Cotswold Seeds and Hutchinsons. The top three farmers will receive prizes of fertility building or green manure seed from one of our generous sponsors of the competition, Cotswold Seeds.

The competition aims to find farmers and growers who are engaged with, and passionate about managing their soils to create a highly sustainable, resilient and productive agricultural system. 

Billy farms 145 hectares in Herefordshire, producing a variety of arable crops alongside sheep and pedigree Hereford Cattle enterprises. Billy’s focus on the farm has been to regenerate tired soils which have previously been in a high-intensity arable system and implementing a rotational grazing system to create high quality forage for the livestock. Billy says: “We have introduced herbal leys which are managed through predominately mob grazing with additional cutting if needed. We started with a select group of animals and now graze everything in a mob system.” 

The arable rotation on the farm is fully integrated with herbal leys and diverse swards to ensure livestock are able to graze and improve soil health, “the arable rotation is no more than three years before going back into a ley and seeing the hooves of an animal once more”. In addition to the livestock, Billy also uses composted FYM to benefit soil health and plant nutrition, “spreading compost as soon as the bales are cleared from the field means we can generate really productive catch crops before the following cereal, benefiting our soil health and nutrient capture.” This has led to vast reductions in nitrogen use, “our main goal is to drive down fossil fuel use and inputs, we have halved the amount of nitrogen we use in 3 years and would look to half this quantity again over the next 3”.

Billy has been selected as the winner in the mixed farm category this year due to his passion and attention to detail for integrating livestock into the arable system and maximising his pasture productivity through diverse leys and a mob-grazing approach. He says, “our farm is coming to life and now functioning as a whole and healthy ecosystem.” speaking on his motivation Billy believes “if you don’t make mistakes you’re not learning, you’ve got to have faith and stick to your guns”.

David Miller

Our Arable Soil Farmer of the Year David Miller, manages 700 hectares of chalk/limestone in Hampshire.  David has designed a simplistic system whereby he has drastically reduced fuel consumption, crop protection inputs and fertiliser across a diverse arable system. Through the use of strategic cover and companion cropping within the rotation, David has reduced his need for bagged fertilisers, reducing nitrogen use by 25% and not applying phosphate or potassium for 7 years, instead using roots to harvest what is needed for the following crop, he explains:

“With all these benefits we are putting much less money at risk in each crop and therefore we are able to budget for lower yields. Yield is no longer our driver but margin is”. 

David mentions:

“We have seen vast improvements in our soil health, you now rarely walk across the field without standing on a worm midden per step, through testing we also know our mycorrhizal levels are increasing and our fungi to bacteria ratio is improving”.

Focussing on the soil through a ‘no-till’ approach, David has had his tramlines in the same place for 7 years – minimising compaction and maximising natural soil processes, he says “soils appear to repair faster and better after events like a wet harvest”. 

This system has resulted in vast emissions savings alongside benefits to the bottom line by minimising fixed and variable costs, he says “before we transitioned away from a traditional conventional system yields were static and costs were rising. The goal was to prove a system that would work for broadacre crop production which was simple and easy to look after”. 

David focuses on creating a profitable arable enterprise through creating a more resilient system with the soil at its heart. He advises,

“Treat each experience as a learning and you won’t go far wrong. Read plenty of books and temper the strategies to your own geography and challenges”.  

Andrew Rees

Our Runner-Up is Andrew Rees, a dairy farmer from Haverfordwest. Through implementing rotational grazing systems alongside diversifying leys with herb rich species and legumes, Andrew has reduced fertiliser rates, improved herd health and productivity, explaining:

“You can feel the life in the ley, compared to the monoculture of ryegrass. Where we’ve done good work, we’ve got good worms”. 

Managing a heavy soil type has been challenging, focussing on keeping soils covered with living roots and utilising the benefits of the trampling of residues back into the soil profile has seen great improvements in the structure, “we have a range of soil types on the farm which does help with grazing options under a rotational system – we now produce more milk whilst maintaining the quantity of forage grown with far less fertiliser”. Andrew says, “herbal leys cannot be managed like a ryegrass, it needs longer rests and more residual. Where we have existing herbal or clover leys we sow grasses directly in the autumn”. Additional benefits of reducing fertiliser requirements by 60% over the previous three years by using technology such as a Tow and Fert application system to apply inputs and conduct activities such as over-seeding and liming. 

The judges recognised Andrew’s dedication to maximising the potential of his soil to benefit the health and productivity of the dairy business. Andrew explains, “following the five main principles of regenerative farming has guided the transition on the farm, focussing on keeping ground covered with living roots of diverse species minimises the soil disturbance required and maximises the possibilities for grazing and cutting” adding, “you do however need to apply a sixth principle of context – the limitations or strengths of your own farm and the system you want to create”.

This year’s competition saw our highest number of entries yet, again demonstrating the excellence and knowledge of farmers in UK agriculture. All of the judges, sponsors and organisers would like to thank all of the farmers for their time to apply for the competition and the quality of the entries that were received. The top three farmers will also all be hosting farm walks that are open to anyone who is interested, where there will be a chance to see, understand and dig a bit deeper into what they are doing. Further details on these walks are available on the FCT website

Winners of the Soil Farmer of the Year 2022 Competition. From left to right: Andrew Rees (Runner-up), David Miller (Arable Soil Farmer of the Year) and Billy Lewis (Mixed Soil Farmer of the Year).

Further information

Contact: Emma Adams – Senior Farm Carbon and Soils Advisor,

emma.adams@farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk

Notes to editors

  • Established in 2009, the Farm Carbon Toolkit is an independent, farmer-led enterprise, supporting other farmers to measure, understand and act on their greenhouse gas emissions, while improving their business resilience for the future. www.farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk
  • The Farm Carbon Toolkit was established in 2009 to raise awareness of Greenhouse Gas emissions within the agricultural industry and also to provide practical responses that any farmer, whatever their farming system, could put into place on their farm.
  • Innovation for Agriculture is a consortium of English Agricultural Societies that delivers technical information and events for farmers. Soil organic matter and soil health is a key theme and the focus of much of our current activity. They have created a Soil Decision Tool which allows farmers to improve their soil knowledge and is accessible here, http://www.innovationforagriculture.org.uk/ifa-decision-support-tool/  
  • The competition is kindly being sponsored by Hutchinsons and Cotswold Seeds

For more information on the farm walks please visit the FCT website at www.farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk

Farm Carbon Toolkit names new Chief Executive Officer

Farm Carbon Toolkit is delighted to announce the appointment of Liz Bowles as its new Chief Executive Officer. 

Liz Bowles has been a Non-Executive Director at the Farm Carbon Toolkit since 2016, a role in which she has shared highly valued knowledge and experiences from her distinguished career in agriculture.

Before joining the Farm Carbon Toolkit as CEO, Bowles was the Associate Director of Farming and Land Use at The Soil Association. Bowles also farms in the Exe Valley where she has one of the largest pedigree flocks of Shropshire sheep, this breed is in demand across Europe as they graze safely in tree plantations.

Bowles brings not only an extensive expertise in the UK food and farming markets, but she also has a deep and practical understanding of the importance of improving soil health, reducing environmental impacts and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and building resilience within the sector. She advocates that building economic resilience must occur alongside retaining product quality and animal welfare standards and building sustainable, regenerative practices on farm.

Bowles is a Nuffield Scholar, where her report on global cooperation in the red meat sector won the HSBC prize for the most relevant report to UK farms in 2004. She has also had management positions at ADAS and the English Food and Farming Partnerships, where she led on livestock marketing collaboration.

Liz Bowles, Chief Executive Officer of the Farm Carbon Toolkit says:

“I am thrilled to accept this position and the opportunity to lead and deliver Farm Carbon Toolkit’s strategy for growth and financial resilience, while cultivating a caring, professional, purpose-driven organisational culture. Working with the team, I believe we can position ourselves as the ‘go-to’ independent, trusted experts on farm and soil carbon.”

David Gardner, Chair of the Farm Carbon Toolkit says:

“We are absolutely delighted to have Liz taking the role of CEO at Farm Carbon Toolkit, where we can draw from her notable expertise and experience. Her guidance will be invaluable to everything we do.”

ENDS

Note for editors

  • Established in 2009, the Farm Carbon Toolkit is an independent, farmer-led enterprise, supporting other farmers to measure, understand and act on their greenhouse gas emissions, while improving their business resilience for the future.
  • Regarded by many as the most comprehensive, accurate and user-friendly carbon calculator available to farmers and growers, Farm Carbon Toolkit’s Farm Carbon Calculator, is one of just three tools recommended by the NFU to its members. Thousands of users already benefit from the free tool to calculate the carbon footprint of their business, identify ways to reduce their emissions – and increase farm profitability.
  • Alongside their Farm Carbon Calculator, the Farm Carbon Toolkit run the highly regarded annual Soil Farmer of the Year competition, as well as numerous practical projects and workshops that inspire and empower farmers and growers across the UK to act on their greenhouse gas emissions and improve soil health
  • The Farm Carbon Toolkit also works with companies and organisations such as First Milk and Yeo Valley and estates such as the Duchy of Cornwall.

2022 Soil Farmer of the Year competition: Shortlisted farms announced

Soil Farmer of the Year Winners 2021 at Groundswell

Press release: 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year competition: Shortlisted farms announced!

The Soil Farmer of the Year competition 2022 has selected seven farmers as finalists.

The 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year Shortlist:

  • Stuart Johnson, mixed farm – Northumberland
  • AV and N Lee and Partners, mixed farm – Devon
  • Billy Lewis, mixed farm – Herefordshire
  • David Miller, arable farm – Hampshire
  • Andrew Rees, grassland farm – Haverfordwest
  • Paul Temple, mixed farm – Yorkshire
  • Tim Williams, mixed farm – Cornwall

Now in its seventh year, the annual Soil Farmer of the Year competition is organised by the Farm Carbon Toolkit and Innovation for Agriculture and, this year, generously sponsored by Hutchinsons and Cotswold Seeds.

The competition aims to find farmers and growers who are engaged with, and passionate about managing their soils in a way which supports productive agriculture, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and builds soil health, organic matter and carbon.

As part of the competition, the top three farmers will host open farm walks that bring farmers together to share good practice and innovations that improve soil health. The competition is widely recognised by organisations working in soil management, with many promoting it to their networks to increase participation.

Emma Adams, Farm Carbon and Soil Advisor with Farm Carbon Toolkit, says 

“This year’s Soil Farmer of the Year competition saw the highest number of applications so far, and we’ve been blown away by the number and quality of the entries. Indeed, the sheer variety of entries highlights the fact that, despite the many differences in farming systems and locations, the soil connects us all. We’re very grateful to everyone who took the time and effort to enter.”

Deborah Crossan, Innovation for Agriculture, says 

“As the Soil Farmer of the Year competition gains momentum and the numbers of entries reach their highest level so far, the summer walks at the winning farms represent a not-to-be-missed opportunity for farmers to see first-hand the innovation and change that leads to excellent soil management.“

The judging process now involves visiting each of the seven finalists to learn more about their farming practices before selecting the winners.

The winners of the 2022 competition will be announced at the Groundswell: The Regenerative Agriculture Show and Conference, which runs from 22nd – 23rd June 2002 at Lannock Manor Farm, Hertfordshire. 

Open farm walks at the top three winning farms are scheduled to take place in July.

For further details about the 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year competition, contact Emma Adams, Senior Advisor with the Farm Carbon Toolkit, at emma.adams@farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk

For more information, visit farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk/soil-farmer-of-the-year

ENDS

New videos introducing our Farm Net Zero Demo Farmers

Our Farm Net Zero project in Cornwall includes three demonstration farms that act as hubs for training and inspiration for other farmers. Over the last few months we’ve hosted a range of events on these farms and are pleased to share these videos introducing our demo farmers:

Erth Barton Farm

At 300 acres, Erth Barton Farm has been a conventional arable farm for the past four decades, producing root crops, bulbs and cereals. As part of the wider Antony Estate in Cornwall, the farm will transition over the next five years into a healthy, biodiverse, fully functioning natural input farm with a key focus on soil health and the building of soil organic matter. Read more about Erth Barton here.

Blable Farm, Cornwall

Mike Roberts, his wife Alison and their son Sam manage a mix of beef and arable at Blable Farm near Wadebridge. They have 500 acres of grass, arable, scrub and wood with a herd of 150 stabiliser x and pedigree stabiliser suckler cows. This year with more of the arable ground seeded to herbal leys they hope to finish all of their growing cattle on the farm. Read more about Blable Farm here.

Ennis Barton Farm

Andrew Brewer farms 1,000 acres at Ennis Barton, Fraddon. He is a pasture-based dairy farmer and owns 500 Jersey cross cows. He finishes his beef calves on the grass system and also lets out some land for the production of potatoes and cabbages. Read more about Ennis Barton here.

The Farm Carbon Calculator just got even better

Calculator results

As part of our commitment to being the best carbon calculator for farmers and growers in the UK, we have just launched another upgrade. This comes hot on the heels of another major upgrade in November, and shows our commitment to the many thousands of users that value the Farm Carbon Calculator.

To ensure we are reflecting the latest science, this upgrade features major improvements to emissions factors and methodologies for the livestock, crops and fertiliser sections. Using the latest IPCC and UK Greenhouse Gas Inventory data, we always aim to provide users with the most up to date emissions and sequestration factors.

For users though the biggest changes will appear in the interface, which has received a major design overhaul. Focussing on how users can better understand results, what they need in terms of outputs, and how the data input process flows, we believe we’ve got the best version of the Farm Carbon Calculator yet.

Carbon balance is clear and easy to understand

A new feature is benchmarking, so farmers and growers can see where they are compared with other users, total emissions or carbon balance per tonne of product and per hectare. This applies to overall business emissions, and if working on a product basis, then against other similar products (e.g. wheat) also.

Understanding your carbon footprint (orange) against other users

Data entry has been improved to give a clearer layout, and useful information to help users understand what information is required and what it will be used to calculate.

Data entry, showing improved charts with understanding of proportions and amounts of carbon for each item

Useful information is in the ‘i’ buttons when you hover-over them

Emissions are now also shown in detail, by Scope (1,2 and 3), and Greenhouse Gas type (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) for each section.

Detailed emissions breakdown table

The Farm Details page is much more clearly laid out, also with helpful tips.

Farm details section

There is clearer navigation in the Reports section too, where you can Edit data, Download your report as a PDF or CSV, compare against other reports you’ve done, or Share your report with others. At any time you can go back to your reports.

The Nitrogen Module is clearer now and gives you a better understanding of the Nitrogen flows through your farm.

Nitrogen Balance

We hope you find the tool even more useful than before. There are lots of FAQs on the Calculator home page, and if you get stuck you can always contact us for more help.

Farming and the climate crisis

Roots of green manures fixing nitrogn

What can farming do for the climate crisis?

COP26 in Glasgow brought a sharp focus on human activities that create greenhouse gases. There were many welcome announcements on reducing methane from oil and gas, cutting coal, limiting deforestation, “keeping 1.5 alive”, and a whole other host of measures. While many campaigners and leaders agree that the pledges do not go far enough, progress  has been made, momentum must continue and these pledges must now be translated  into action on all scales from grassroots to governments, across the world.

Building carbon in soils is a win-win for farmers and society

But one major issue was not given adequate attention – food and farming. Representing around 21-37% of global carbon emissions and something so fundamental to our daily lives, the lack of discussion is baffling. Is it because farming is a knotty problem and governments think there aren’t easy solutions? There could be many reasons for this lack of discussion, but the net effect is a lack of  policy and action driving the collective carbon footprint of food and farming in the right direction.

At Farm Carbon Toolkit we’ve been working on the ground, encouraging, informing and enabling farmers and growers to cut their carbon and increase sequestration on their farms for more than 10 years. We enable them to measure their carbon footprint, using the Farm Carbon Calculator, and point them to tried and tested solutions, advice, inspirational events and other learnings through the Toolkit.

The level of interest in our work has increased hugely over the past 18 months and we see that as very encouraging. Many farmers and growers want to reduce their carbon footprint, and can see the benefits. Legislation might well demand it soon, and some supply chains are already requiring their farmers to start going on a path towards net zero carbon, many of which point towards 2030 as an end date. Eight years from now…that’s not long.

How can farms be net zero?

All farms have greenhouse gas (carbon) emissions, such as from fuels, fertilisers, livestock, bought in materials, and soils. These all have to be accounted for, and steps must be made to minimise these emissions. Reducing emissions is the first step and every effort must be made to go as low as possible.

However farms are one of just two main industries in the UK that can also sequester (absorb) carbon – the other being forestry. The soils, hedges and woodlands of our farms can, when managed in the right way, lock-up carbon over a long time and keep it there. In the case of soils, when farms build organic matter it not only sequesters carbon, but also improves soil fertility, crop growth, water management, and biodiversity.

When the carbon emissions and sequestration are added together – the carbon balance, it’s quite possible for farms to be net zero, or better still ‘sub zero’ where they absorb more carbon than they emit. Or should that be ‘carbon positive’?!

Farms that have already made it

Plenty of farms that are using the Farm Carbon Calculator are already net or sub zero, including livestock, arable and horticultural businesses. Through a combination of reducing emissions and maximising sequestration, these farms are showing that farms can produce quality food, run successful businesses, and be part of the solution to the climate crisis.

Farmers and growers have a wide range of actions open to them, such as generating excess renewable energy and exporting it, reducing cultivations (which both saves fuel and increases soil organic matter), planting and better maintaining hedgerows, building soil organic matter, reducing fertiliser use (which also saves money), and changing the way livestock are fed.

There are huge business advantages to being net or sub zero – reducing costs, access emerging market trends, being in line with future subsidy systems, and morally doing the ‘right thing’.

Farming to be part of the solution

When farms transition to sub zero they are actually becoming a part of the climate solution in a very active way. When farms absorb more carbon than they emit, carbon dioxide is sucked out of the atmosphere providing a mechanism of helping to reduce the climate crisis.

This is clearly a positive in environmental terms, but also socially because it provides an empowering connection with customers to say that your business is doing such a good thing for society and the planet. And for customers to have the opportunity to buy carbon negative (or positive – the terms can be confusing!) food.

The bigger picture

We believe that many more farms could and should transition to sub zero carbon as soon as possible. It is certainly possible, the benefits are clear, and the planet requires it. So what’s stopping it?

Part of it lies with farmers and growers themselves, in having the knowledge and drive to do so. Learning new techniques, knowledge-exchange with peers, and rethinking business models and practices. We have seen many forward thinking and dedicated farmers achieve fantastic transformations in the carbon performance of their businesses. 

Farmers learning about good soil management

But critically, there is also a policy context in how the environment in which businesses work can be tweaked to favour low carbon practices. Some change is happening but much more is needed, and faster. The legal framework for business is important, ensuring that environmentally damaging practices are outlawed , whilst assessing the equivalence of imported produce. The subsidy regime must support sub zero farming in the future. Supply chains need to require and support businesses to meet net (or sub) zero targets.

The whole food system needs reform, from the farmers and growers who produce food, through the packhouses, retailers and processors that sell us food, through to us all who eat the food we buy. A systemic shift towards a better food system that values low carbon, low impact, quality food over merely price and convenience. The same level of thinking that got us into this mess will not give us the solutions we need to fix the problems.

Perhaps what’s missing though is the big picture. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and maybe what’s needed is a movement. Going back to COP26, what was important was the political context. One success of Glasgow is that the need to act is not in dispute now, it’s the how. The same doesn’t feel true in the farming industry…yet.

Taking a lead

Leadership is crucial for the advancement of critical issues, and in the area of farming and the climate crisis leadership does not appear to be in abundance. Equally, leadership by businesses collectively can lead to huge change, and this is being shown to be true with the climate crisis in other industries. Farmers and growers could become that lead in this sector.

Improving the carbon performance of a farm can go hand in hand with a whole host of other benefits, including more biodiversity (above and below ground), water management, reduced inputs, better soil management, and better food quality. These qualities, and many more, are also key to improvements in the environmental and social impacts of our farming and at FCT we see these wider benefits as critically important too, and know that many farmers and growers care deeply about this also.

So why not build momentum for Zero Carbon Farming 2030 in the UK? Is it possible to achieve? Maybe. Should it be achieved? The moral argument is hard to refute. Sometimes a vision and target is what’s needed, then work out how you get there. No one is pretending it will be easy, painless or cheap. But the planet is facing a crisis and we in farming should be part of the solution, not the problem.

Our latest upgrade to the Farm Carbon Calculator

Today the Farm Carbon Calculator has gone live with a major upgrade. As part of our development cycle, every few months we deliver updates to ensure our calculator keeps up with the latest science, while also improving its features and usability. As the number of users continues to rise, we  regularly  update the tool to ensure it’s the best it can be and matches our users’ expectations.

The recent COP26 exemplified how carbon has shot up the agenda for everyone in societies across the world, and this fact is reflected in the number of farmers and growers we are engaging with at the Farm Carbon Toolkit. We have been advocating for over ten years that farmers and growers have a key role in cutting emissions and indeed in sequestering carbon in their biomass and soils, and we provide solutions for users to measure and manage carbon in their businesses. 

Farms are one of just two industrial sectors that can not just reduce emissions but also sequester carbon (the other being forestry). This means farming can play a positive role in the climate crisis by potentially drawing down atmospheric CO2 into its soils and biomass. Facing the climate crisis, we are here to support farmers and growers to make a positive contribution, as we all must do.

What’s changed

In this upgrade we have updated a wide range of emissions factors based on the latest research; including in Fuels, Livestock, Fertilisers, Crops, and Materials. This means up-to-date figures, more categories and therefore increased accuracy.

Major changes include a larger range of fertilisers, a huge range of branded sprays to choose from, a new way of recording livestock numbers – giving much more useful outputs, more animal feeds, new animal bedding section, a much greater range of bought in manures, and upgraded factors in fuels, electricity and travel.

There are new user features including an improved way of recording yields of crops, more FAQs to help you through the process, and videos to support you in filling in the Calculator.

On the Report Summary page, the emissions are now broken down into Scopes 1, 2 and 3, which makes Company Reporting easier and clearer. We’ve also separated results for carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, so users can understand which greenhouse gases make up their total carbon footprint. 

A brand new feature, and a great compliment to Carbon, is a way to measure Nitrogen. Thanks to funding from the WWF, and in conjunction with the Soil Association, our new ‘Nitrogen Module’ allows users to visualise the nitrogen flows in and out of their farm system. Nitrogen (N) inputs are built up from biological fixation, synthetic fertilisers and organic manures as well as purchased livestock and animal feeds. The N output is calculated from in-field N2O emissions as well as crops, milk and livestock sold and the N balance calculation provides an overview of the net change of Nitrogen over the year. 

The new Nitrogen Module shows overviews and details of the flows of N in and out of the farm

The process

It takes several months of work to prepare for an upgrade. We plan, prioritise, research, extract figures, build new functionality, review, then test, test and test again! 

The Calculator team is already planning the next update, which is scheduled for late February 2022. We will be working to update a raft of more emissions factors, reviewing the latest science (which is changing quite rapidly), and working on even more user features. Which all means that in another three months the Calculator will take an even bigger leap forward!

The Calculator can be used on all types of farms, including livestock, arable and horticulture

Working with consultants, larger companies and organisations

The Calculator will always be free for farmers and growers to use. But increasingly we have a new group of users who want to use the Calculator within their supply chains and as part of a consultancy service. 

For consultants advising farmers, we offer a licensing service, where they can receive training and access to the Calculator to calculate the carbon footprint of their clients, and deliver advice upon the results. For businesses and organisations managing groups of farmers and growers – such as buying groups, co-ops and larger food businesses, we offer a white label version of the Calculator. This is branded and tailored to the user, along with support from us, and a group admin function to manage and compare group users’ data.

Finding out more

We hope you find the Farm Carbon Calculator useful for your business, and take steps to reduce your carbon footprint. You can use the Toolkit for further help, advice and case studies https://farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk/toolkit

For help and advice on how to use the Calculator, visit our webpage https://calculator.farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk/ 

For information on commercial licenses and white label versions, please contact us calculator@farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk 

Launch of Guide on Monitoring Soil Carbon

We’re pleased to announce the launch of a new guide for monitoring soil carbon. This practical field, farm and lab guide aims to answer key questions for robust on-farm field monitoring of soil carbon and associated indicators of soil health.

This guide has been produced as part of the Soil Carbon project and written in collaboration with Duchy College, Plymouth University, Rothamsted Research and the Farm Carbon Toolkit. It is designed and printed with kind support from the Farm Net Zero project, funded by the National Lottery Climate Action Fund.

Who is it for?

This practical guide is relevant to farmers seeking to measure and understand their soil carbon stocks – as well as landowners, advisors and researchers.

Supply chains and organisations seeking to reward farmers for improving soil carbon stocks will also find this guide helpful. However it should be noted that it’s not written as a formal standard or detailed protocol. The guide will be accompanied with detailed supplementary materials stemming from the ERDF Agri-Tech Cornwall funded “Soil Carbon Project”(2018 to 2021).

Why is this important?

Robust estimates of soil carbon stocks can be complicated. Not least because soil carbon levels are constantly in-flux with in-field variation. Estimates are also heavily influenced by the way in which we collect, process and analyse soil samples. In the Soil Carbon project, we’ve been working with research partners to investigate how soil carbon estimates are influenced by variables such as when the samples are taken, how many samples are taken and at what pattern across the field.

What does the guide cover?

The guide consists of answers to the following core questions:

  1. When to conduct your soil carbon sampling?
  2. What fields to select on your farm?
  3. How to sample within those fields?
  4. At what depths should samples be taken?
  5. How often should you repeat your sampling?
  6. How to collect and prepare your samples?
  7. What are the options for the lab analyses?
  8. What are the main soil health indicators that should be monitored?
  9. What are the outputs and benefits?

Demystifying farm carbon offsetting: three watch-outs for farmers

There’s a rise in farmers and landowners interested in getting paid for carbon sequestration. Yet in the UK, an absence of robust guidance, protocols and industry experience makes this space feel like the “wild west”. Farmers are at risk of being misled, while NGOs and industry groups are struggling to form clear positions in what’s a fast-moving and confusing landscape.

Written by Samuel Smith

At the Farm Carbon Toolkit (FCT), we help farmers to measure, understand and act on their greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). It’s our mission, as a farmer-led organisation, to help farmers become knowledgeable and empowered on this topic, building profitable and resilient businesses that also help to restore our fragile and deteriorating ecosystems. Reducing GHG emissions from farms is a priority and all farmers can begin now. 

Therefore we take a close interest in the emerging opportunities for farmers and landowners to access payments for carbon sequestration and storage on their farms. Through our work, we are witnessing more carbon payment opportunities coming through supply chains, grant-funded projects, as well as future options within ELMs and in voluntary carbon offset markets. 

With our deep understanding of GHG emissions in agriculture, combined with on-the-ground experience of measuring farm and soil carbon, we are helping to inform various schemes and start-ups. What we witness is mixed. Some schemes are well-designed and robust in their approach to supporting farmers and having impact. While some are less carefully designed, with limited transparency and a possibility of unintended consequences. Farmers, landowners and organisations have limited guidance on best practice and a lack of standards make comparison between schemes challenging.

Context: how a Net Zero paradigm is renewing interest in offsets

As climate breakdown becomes ever more visible, many people and organisations are scrambling to make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of “net zero” carbon commitments from some of the world’s biggest companies and institutions. To meet these ambitious targets, organisations will need to use every tool at their disposal. This means not only reducing emissions as far as possible, but also investing in activities such as “nature-based solutions” to cover any residual emissions. 

Achieving net-zero across society means a gigantic shift in business practice; reinventing business models and shifting the products and services available to citizens. Culturally, industries are in different places on what this means. Some industry leaders are recognising and preparing to implement radical changes, yet can often be working alongside others who are constrained by a tendency towards business-as-usual. What many companies have in common though, is a desire to buy offsets in the short-term to help achieve net zero faster – and many are now turning to farm carbon. 

For example, Microsoft recently purchased $500,000 of soil carbon credits from Wilmot Cattle Company, who own an 11,000 acre farm in New South Wales. In the US, various brokers exist to pay farmers for carbon, many using an agreed protocol and a proposed Growing Climate Solutions Act may require the USDA to help farmers access these carbon markets in the future.

Why Offset Schemes Require A Special Scrutiny

There are various ways in which farmers can be supported to shift towards more regenerative agricultural practices. For example, via government subsidies, philanthropic projects, landowner initiatives and through supply chains taking an “insetting” approach. The selling of carbon or biodiversity offsets is another route, coming with a greater need for accurate, trusted measurement and verification.

There is currently a lot of excitement around farm and soil carbon offsets in the UK and various new schemes are launching. A recent farmers’ attitude survey we conducted suggested that 30% of farmers are “very keen and willing” to partake in offsetting schemes. Meanwhile, 27% of respondents were uncomfortable and suspicious about this topic.

Farmer survey results: interest in selling carbon or biodiversity offsets
FCT survey results from May 2021: farmers’ attitudes towards selling carbon or biodiversity offsets

We urge farmers to recognise the risks that exist around these schemes and ask tough questions to any organisation seeking to “buy” your carbon. To support a more credible and robust environment for farm and soil carbon payments, we are part of a consortium of organisations working towards a UK Farm and Soil Carbon Code. 

With carbon offsets – and any other mechanism to support change – there can be risks of driving unintended consequences, especially if we only focus on a narrow goal of carbon reduction. Instead, taking a “food systems” lens to the way we design projects can help us in building a healthier, more socially just food system.

3 Watch-Outs for Farmers Selling Carbon Offsets

To ensure farmers are empowered and clear on the terms in which their whole-farm or soil carbon credits are being sold, we believe farmers should demand the following from organisations seeking to pay them for carbon offsets:

1) What claims can you make in the future about your carbon footprint?

In a carbon offset, the sequestered carbon being sold is effectively taken off the farm or landowners carbon balance sheet and appears on the balance sheet of another business or individual: the “buyer”. This means that the buyer has an exclusive claim to the carbon reductions or removals made by the farm.

What is often overlooked or missing in the marketing materials of offset intermediaries, is that the farm may no longer be able to make claims about any associated produce being “low carbon”. While the farmer may be doing all sorts of positive practices, some or all of their sequestered carbon is on the balance book of the “buyer’ of carbon credits. A farm claiming it is low-carbon could be misleading, amounting to double claiming, propagating a false view of our overall progress against climate change.

For illustration, if all farmers in the UK sold their sequestered carbon via offsets to private companies (that often operate beyond national borders), then the NFU’s Net Zero farming ambition may become impossible to reach, as would the climate pledges of many food retailers and brands who have made Net Zero pledges covering their Scope 3 emissions.

This is a challenge and risk for farmers. Those selling direct-to-consumer may talk about their positive practices but may feel in a tricky position when explaining their carbon credentials, especially if their sequestered carbon has been purchased by an oil or airline company, who are some of the more prominent industry groups currently seeking offsets.

Farmers selling through their supply chains may also be in a weaker position. Retailers are increasingly wanting to buy low-carbon produce and cannot do this if the farm has sold much of it’s sequestered carbon via a private offset. If the farm carbon offset sector follows the recommended principles around double-counting and double-claiming, then farmers may find themselves less desirable to customers.

2) Does the scheme have a transparent, robust methodology on permanence, additionality, measurement and verification?

The credibility of a high quality offset can be tested through its approach to:

  1. Permanence:
    In the ideal offset project, reversals of carbon emissions are physically impossible or extremely unlikely. Standard convention in offset markets has been to guarantee that carbon is kept out of the atmosphere for 100 years. Yet, this is not practical for soil carbon, which is considered as “short-lived” storage carrying a higher risk of reversal. In the USA, Nori manage permanence by offering short-term credits that expire after 10 years. In Europe, Soil Capital has a 5 year crediting period, in which farmers can earn and generate credits, followed by a 10 year retention period. Carbon Farmers of Australia must choose between 25 and 100 year permanence guarantee.
  2. Additionality:
    This is about whether the payment the farmer receives plays a decisive role in helping remove carbon from the atmosphere. Additionality is essential for the quality and credibility of the carbon offset market. Yet, especially in farming, its determination is subjective and deceptively difficult. Is this payment providing the make-or-break difference?
  3. Measurement, verification and scope:
    This is a complex area. For example, what’s included in the scope of the carbon footprint? Is the scheme considering the whole-farm’s carbon balance, or is it based on a per-hectare field basis? For example, in the USA, White Oak Pastures received scrutiny last year as their claims about having carbon negative beef neglected their wider, whole-farm footprint and landuse.

    For measurement and verification, what protocols and tools are being used to measure and verify the sequestration? Is the payment based on actual field measurements (and if so, to what depth, to what lab test, resolution and frequency), or are they computer models of how carbon stocks are expected to change with different practices? How much of a buffer is in place for uncertainty? Can we trust those models, given how nascent our understanding is around soil carbon sequestration? Are they based on the UK context?

3) Demand transparency and having a choice in “the buyer

It’s a common principle that organisations seeking to offset through farm and soil carbon should prioritise cutting their own emissions: minimising the need for offsets in the first place. As outlined in the Oxford Offsetting Principles, buyers of offsets should also publicly disclose their current emissions, accounting practices, reduction strategies and targets to reach net zero. 

Furthermore, for the sake of the seller’s reputation, we believe farmers and landowners should also have some say or agreement to who’s buying the carbon offset. We believe geographically local carbon offsets are preferable, as it further assists with transparency and can provide an opportunity for the wider public to understand offsetting.

What next?

We are keen that farmers are incentivised and rewarded for farming sustainably. This may include payments for carbon reduction, building soil health and increasing sequestration. To this end, we’re aware our Farm Carbon Calculator is beginning to be used as a helpful tool to help guide such payments. 

We will continue to draw on our practical, on-the-ground experience and expertise to contribute to projects in this space – always keen to support and advocate for robust and credible projects, schemes and marketplaces. Looking ahead, we have various innovations and services in the pipeline to support better, more accurate and meaningful carbon assessment. We’re also keen to continue contributing to the science and understanding of GHG emissions in agriculture. There’s lots to crack on with!

Useful further reading

Soil Farmer of the Year Farm Walk with Antony Pearce

On a muggy evening, and in a COVID compliant way, a group of farmers gathered in Buckinghamshire to hear more about why Antony Pearce was awarded runner up in this year’s Soil Farmer of the Year competition.

Antony started the evening giving an introduction to his journey into regenerative agriculture, explaining that his first inspiration was from reading David Montgomery’s book. It was this book that helped to transition from a ‘safe and conventional system’ to a place where he was focused on advanced soil health. This provided a lot of food for thought and alternative ways of thinking about some of our traditional management practices. A key example of his questioning, he explained to the farmer attendees came from the nutrient availability and soil pH graph, that depicts the amount of a nutrient that is available depending on the soil’s pH. 

It just seemed counter intuitive,” Antony explained, “how could a plant growing in a soil of pH7 never manage to access sufficient quantities of iron?”.  He went onto share his experiences of attending Elaine Ingham’s soil health course which allowed him to satisfy his previous dissatisfaction.  Through learning undertaken within the course, he started to understand the importance of the plant root zone and the ability of plants to create the right environment around the root zone for accessing nutrients, through microbial activity.

Plants are able to secrete 30-40% of their energy through their roots to feed the bacteria and fungi in the soil, which is why I started to get concerned about the impact of fungicides. If we are relying on the soil fungi to feed the plants, what negative impact are the fungicides having to this relationship?”

As such, Antony started on a quest to remove fungicides from his crop protection programme, instead investigating the use of genetics and varietal choice to ensure that his crops has the best chance to ward off disease pressure. This started with a reduction in applications and now no fungicide is applied on the 150ha of the farm which is managed in a regenerative manner.  However he wasn’t planning on stopping there, the next aspiration was to drastically reduce (and eventually eliminate) Nitrogen fertiliser). Again he credits this decision to learning from the soil food web course – explaining that the application of Nitrogen requires a carbon source for the microbes, and the most readily available carbon source is the liquid carbon being pumped out of the root exudates. He has started dramatically reducing the amount of Nitrogen that he is applying.  

Antony has split the farm in half and manages 150ha of it in a regenerative, low input manner and 150 ha of it conventionally. This provides the opportunity for him to analyse the financial performance of each systems and also see whether there are visual differences in weed pressures, yields and soil health. Initially he was relying on organic manures to provide some nutrients, however it is proving an expensive method of importing nutrients and organic matter; as such, he is looking to move away from organic manures to including more cover crops.  

My original reason for looking at low input system was after some conversations that were showing the yields that organic farmers expect. My 10 year average from the conventional system is 9.1t. Comparing the numbers, I was spending £130 per tonne for every additional tonne over organic yields. This seemed like something to focus my attention on.”

At this point we left the barn and started to head towards some crops to see the philosophies in action!

The first field that we stopped in was a field of oilseed rape. Immediately the discussions turned to the amount of Nitrogen that had been applied. This field has had no soil applied bagged Nitrogen; it has received 30kg of Nitrogen from digestate and 15kg applied through a foliar application at flowering. The field has also had no fungicides or insecticides. Antony explained that last year he had grown some zero nitrogen wheat which had yielded 6.5t. Discussions soon moved onto blackgrass control, as there were some plants visible in the rape crop. The field has an understorey of clover that was blown into the standing rape crop.  Antony shared some thoughts about whether clover was a useful control measure for blackgrass as in his experience “they don’t seem to get on very well together.”   The clover covers the gaps and provides ground cover and weed suppression, and that is the main reason for it. He explains, “whether it helps my rape yield is immaterial, I don’t want a carpet of blackgrass!”

Antony is planning on utilising more cover crop and spring cropping options through stewardship, as such, is not massively worried about current blackgrass levels, as he feels there are options that allow his to deal with it. His clover understory was blown into the previous wheat crop in April, and when the wheat was harvested, the clover went from something that looked a bit poorly established to a thick mat of cover. In July a rape / fenugreek mix was blown into the standing wheat before it was combined.

Weeds wise we vary across the farm, but I seem to find there is a direct relationship between soil health and the length of time since the field has been in grass. The longer it has been out of grass the less vigorous the seeds establish.”

 The soil type across the farm is heavy clay. As Antony has transitioned to this farming system, he confesses to being ‘less scared of his land than he used to be’. He is also starting to see results, with last year being the first year that he didn’t find a crack across the farm. The heavy clay soils bring their own challenges, in terms of being able to get on the land and trafficability. He has been improving his soil in the past with the use of compost and is positive about the benefits that compost brings, not just in terms of organic matter, but also in terms of available nitrogen over the longer term. He has worked out that if he regularly applies compost over 5 years, then the following wheat crop will be able to access 200kg of Nitrogen, which provides an interesting experiment to see whether it persists to become available. Compost is made ideally from a 50 / 50 mix from woodchip (Antony runs a free tip service for local tree surgeons) and cow manure.

Ideally all the straw from the farm is chopped and returned, but occasionally there is a swap for some manure with a neighbouring beef farmer.

Being heavy land, (and still including rape in the rotation) the discussion inevitably moved onto slug control and the measures that were in place on the farm. Antony stubble rakes after the rape has been drilled potentially up to 5 times, starting at cotyledon stage. He admits that it is a challenge, which is exacerbated by his desire to get a cover crop in. “It’s a balancing act,” he explains, “ if you need to go for slug control, you need to rake, rake, rake, but you then forego your ability to have a cover crop. Sometimes we manage to get cover through the rape volunteers, and it fulfils the function at the same time.” 

Another aspiration for Antony is to start to be able to hold water across the farm. When he was visiting Gabe Brown in America a lasting memory was discussions about holding more water and providing cover – which gives the rain time to percolate into the soil. He has found a similar experience on his farm, “back in the winter we had a big crop of mustard, and there was a big rainfall event (around 100ml), the field walked beautifully – it managed to hold onto the water and  soak into the soil.” 

One of the other benefits of the transition has been the ability for the rotation to be more flexible. “Originally the risk factors for me to start to adopt spring cropping was the potential for a spring drought,” Antony explains, “if we can now start to develop a system where we can effectively capture water over the winter through the use of a cover crop which lets the rain work its way into the soil, then I don’t need to worry about spring droughts as the water reserves are there.” The ultimate aim is to transition 100% of the farm onto this system.

After the rape field, we crossed the road to go and visit some wheat which has been managed conventionally. The wheat was spring sown and drilled on the 15th March, and was used as a comparison. Across the farm, the aim is always to have a conventional versus low input to be able to scrutinise the results, and look at the costs. The reasoning behind the comparison, is so that Antony can assess the regenerative practices from a cost benefit perspective. The ultimate aspect of success is if these practices are then undertaken on the conventional land.  The field had a mustard cover crop that was spun on with a fertiliser spinner which was then grazed with sheep in early winter before the crop was drilled. The ability to conduct such large scale trials is brilliant in terms of the ability to provide the direct comparison across half the farm. Antony is doing it to show other people what is possible and what isn’t, and he documents his journey through his You Tube channel where he is keen to not just show the successes but also the times where it doesn’t go so well.

The benefits of livestock were then discussed and whether the benefits could be seen immediately. The wheat field had 1000 sheep on it over the winter that were moved regularly, and Antony was keen to point out that on the heavier land, there was a need to leave a rest period between the sheep leaving the field and drilling the subsequent crop. 

“I had a go with a range of options this year from drilling straight behind the sheep, to leaving it up to 2 months, and where the land was left, the crop came better. Without a doubt we need to leave at least a month between the sheep coming out and us drilling. The soil needs time to recover, the worms need to come up to grab the muck and reintroduce the air into the soil.

In the field that we were looking at, the sheep had come out on the 20th December and the wheat had been drilled in mid March. “We want the sheep to hit it hard and then move on,” Antony explains, “which sometimes can take some explaning. Its worked quite well and I worked together with the shepherd to explain what we wanted and to come up with a system which benefited everyone, and meant as few logistical challenges as possible.  We try and design it so the sheep are hitting the mustard stands earlier in the season and then move onto the vetches later.”

The final fields to look at were a comparison of two fields of oats, The first field has been in long term arable, and was direct drilled. It was visibly different compared to the following field which had been in arable for 3 years after grass. The oats are the Elianne variety and are grown on a gluten free contract for human consumption. Again the oats are managed using a low input system and had only had 15kg of foliar N. They had been stubble raked to liberate some Nitrogen.

Antony is experimenting with different Nitrogen products to see what the best format is for his system, and explains how he ensures that there is a control strip so that a direct comparison can always be made. He then summed up the importance of trialling things out.

There is a need to provide the evidence as to what works on your farm.”

This epitomises the system that Antony has developed; not just the visual differences in the crops, but the numbers to back it up and an ability to try new things and continue to innovate.

On the walk back to the farmyard, there was an opportunity to see some of the farm’s other diversification projects to ensure future resilience, including turkeys, sloe gin, and the creation of dog arenas.

A fantastic and thought provoking walk which provided lots of new ideas. Thank you so much to Antony for a brilliant evening. To follow Antony’s progress make sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel here.