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Backbone of Britain: 'We’re not just chasing yield, but the best return for the least amount of inputs' - Farming sustainably for the future

Arable farmer Martin Lines has a specific interest in farm conservation and management and is UK chairman of the Nature Friendly Farmer Network. Hannah Park reports.

Martin Lines
Martin Lines

Martin Lines is a third generation farmer from St Neots, Cambridgeshire, growing mainly arable crops over 165 hectares (408 acres) on the family farm, together with contract farming, taking the overall area to 540ha (1,334 acres).

Ground is predominately clay-type soils and the system has progressed from traditional cultivations and winter planting to a more diverse rotation.

Martin operates a no-till system and has a specific interest in farm conservation and management.

He first entered his farm into a countryside stewardship scheme 18 years ago, followed by Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship agreements eight years ago and, in the last three years, has begun running stewardship agreements on some of the rented blocks of land.

"It’s not just productivity of food, it is productivity of all the inputs as an asset manager of a landscape"

Martin Lines

Q: What steps have you taken within your own business to implement a nature friendly ethos?

 

We have taken out the unproductive corners, widened and straightened field edges out to incorporate pollinator margins and we are concentrating a lot on soil health and biology.

All our future production comes from our soil.

We haven’t used insecticides for seven years now and have stopped cultivations over a number of years.

We have introduced sheep to graze cover crops, alongside applications of horse and chicken manure to promote soil biology and fertility.

We’re moving into our fourth year of direct drilling cover crops and we have also started to include pollinator margins in the middle of some fields, in strips in every fourth width of the sprayer (every 120 metres) because of the positive effect we’re seeing these have for pollinating and predatory insects.

Q: What do you feel are some of the key benefits you take away as a farm business from adopting this approach?

 

We are using the sustainable productivity potential of the whole landscape and, as a result, have made our business a lot more resilient.

We have cut our overhead costs greatly, but crucially our soil quality has become healthier, which is evident especially during spells of increasingly extreme weather we have been experiencing.

We’re not seeing standing water where we once saw it 10 years ago on fields, and when we have dry periods, soil is retaining moisture more effectively.

We can also travel better over fields now.

Not only this, but our workload and stress have reduced.

It’s about being patient and building an understanding of the whole system, from soil health to pollinators to fertility, rather than focusing on one part of the landscape.

Q: How do you view productivity within this approach?

 

Productivity for me is making my business as sustainable as possible, using the landscape I have available.

It’s not just productivity of food, it is productivity of all the inputs as an asset manager of a landscape.

I can deliver other outputs, for example environmental, and get benefits over and above the commodity we used to focus on, from financial to the wider paybacks it delivers to the farmland.

The farm is becoming more profitable and has a more stable income.

Rather than looking at the overall yield as a measure, we’re looking for the best return per part of the field using data so we can tailor our inputs to the output per hectare of a field.

We’re not just chasing yield, but the best return for the least amount of inputs.

Q: To what extent do you feel agriculture as a whole has got on board with this ethos?

 

It’s the direction everyone is going to have to move in.

Businesses which choose to only focus on output while degrading soils and the environment will, over time, degrade their business, by way of losing the asset they need for future production.

As we see the policy direction in England move towards a public money for public goods model, and a likely similar direction for the rest of the UK, there is a growing focus on the global footprint of our food.

Many farmers are already starting to adjust their businesses and outlook, but the wider industry is only just starting on this journey.

Q: Are any changes in this area needed to move this up the agenda for grassroots farmers?

 

As farmers, we need a clear framework and timetable of policy decisions regarding environmental land management schemes.

In England, we know Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) money will be reduced from next year and the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme will replace BPS and Countryside Stewardship funding from 2024, but what about the gap in-between? Crucially, farmers need to understand what they can do within their own business.

We need to know what the registry baseline of environmental standards will look like, as well as rewards which could be received for going above and beyond this and how that transition for their business will work over the next five to 10 years.

These need to incorporate measures which recognise all the benefits Government deems we can get from a landscape.

I am hopeful we will see a sustainable farming payment coming soon to help farmers transition and be ready for the ELM scheme.

Q: Can more be done to engage farmers with this ethos, and what kind of messaging might be used?

 

There is a huge opportunity, but as an industry we have a lot of baggage.

Since the post-war period, the focus for farmers has mainly been an ‘increase in production only’ mindset, which has had little regard for our soil health and our environment.

There are many examples of this making businesses unviable and becoming overstretched.

We are seeing landscape degrade and soil lost; we’re in a climate crisis.

If we don’t tackle it, the UK’s food security will rapidly decline and it will be hard to reverse, therefore as a nation we may go hungry.

We need to shift thinking to focus more on how our landscapes can be used to get the best return for a business, where output and return is measured as more than just yield alone.

Q: Is public interest in farming and where food comes from growing?

 

There is a growing interest from the public to where and how their food is produced, along with the environmental and climate impact this has.

I believe whatever dietary choice people have, we should embrace this, and talk about where and how we can grow most of this food here in the UK, while at the same time, improving our environment, nature and climate.

Crucially, we need to explain to the public how UK taxpayers’ money is supporting farmers in delivering public goods, sustaining the UK’s environment and how the landscape is used to produce the food they purchase.

This responsibility falls to everybody, from the individual farmer to farming organisations and bodies to associated business.

We all need to be doing something to explain what we’re doing to produce food and improve our landscapes, but we need Government support to be able to do that though, and ultimately it falls back to fair trade policies.

There is recognition of UK farmers having high welfare standards, but we have a UK Government which isn’t supporting these by turning a blind eye to imported products that are produced at lower standards, then sold cheaper than UK-produced products.

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