East Anglia is blessed with acres of farmland. Yet farming is one of those professions that one knows exists but which I know so little about. So it’s delightful and informative to read a farmer’s perspective. With their role as important as it is to the stewardship of the environment and wildlife’s future, as so often, the political environment can unfairly vilify the farming sector. This article was first published on 2 December 2022.
Recently, the pollution of our waterways has come under close scrutiny from the public. Complaints are focused mainly on water companies. But the spotlight is also on farming practice that leads to leaching of chemicals from fertilisers and pesticides into the waterways, causing algae overgrowth which suffocates living river organisms.
Along with many East Anglia residents, I have protested about the hours of untreated sewage discharge from our local sewage works. I am a farmer in North Suffolk. My land borders and drains into the river Goldbrook, which leads into the river Dove that flows around Hoxne and into the river Waveney, just East of Diss. The purity of our waters is of paramount importance to me. I do not put raw untreated sewage into the Goldbrook. However, as a farmer, I am blamed for contributing unwanted nutrients.
So, what can farmers do about it?
I am one of 30,000 farmers, or 29% of farm businesses, covering 33% of arable land in the UK, who are currently taking part in countryside stewardship schemes. My farm has been in these schemes since their inception. In return for better environmental standards, I have been compensated for the lost agricultural production and increased costs for planning and executing the plan. Increasingly, over the years, these schemes have been amended to improve the biodiversity as well as the nutrient loss and erosion.
Going the extra mile
Over the past 20 years, I have planted 6m and 2m borders around the edges of our fields next to water courses. They are planted with grass, wildflower pollen and nectar mixtures to attract bees and predators of the pests that attack our main crops. These borders are additional areas to the mandatory 1m cross-compliance border to all fields. This practice helps reduce spray drift of pesticides and nutrient loss from applied fertilisers. All manure when used on the land has been stored and applied within the guidelines.
We have been steadily reducing the amount of cultivation, and we use the plough as rarely as possible. We don’t use cover crops before our main cash crops because all the crops on our heavy land are sown in the autumn. This means that the farm is green by Christmas, a condition of the new sustainable farming incentive scheme, which we will apply to join. We have already been doing everything required for this new scheme for many years.
Good farming practice
Autumn-sown crops reduce the nutrients left in the soil after the previous harvest, their roots stabilize the soil and improve water infiltration thus reducing erosion. Available phosphate and nitrogen are absorbed by the growing plants. In addition to the manure applied, perhaps once every six years, we also apply some sugar beet lime sludge. This helps to keep our Ph balanced and tops up the phosphate removed by the plants in the rotation. No other rock phosphate or potassium salts are applied. Regular soil analysis shows we are in a stable situation, with adequate levels of the essential nutrients and 3.0% soil organic matter.
Straw is chopped behind the combine and often left on the top as a mulch. Recently, we have only ploughed before planting winter beans. All this year’s crop was direct drilled through this mulch. Wherever possible, we have been reducing the amount of cultivation, not only to reduce cost, but also to stop the oxidation of organic matter to carbon dioxide (CO2). Less cultivation helps keep the natural soil biota (all the living organisms in the soil) working, and increases the deposition of stable soil organic carbon. Farmers have complained of increased slug problems, but we stopped using poisonous slug pellets seven years ago and have good control with pellets based on ferrous phosphate, which is non-toxic to other organisms.
Proof in a pond
In 2014, we dug out a farm pond. It is filled from drains under the land that we farm intensively, and it’s heartening to see completely clear water with no eutrophication. The water plants in the pond attract dragonflies and damselflies; newts, great diving beetles, whirly gig beetles, and water boatman swim in the water; and there is an oxygenating complex algae, stonewort, that only grows in ponds with a low level of nutrients and reasonably high Ph. Undoubtedly, our chalky boulder clay subsoil is its natural habitat , but it appeared spontaneously so we must be doing something well. The pond will need ongoing maintenance, but the stonewort is still there after 8 years.
Financial incentives to improve the environment and wildlife
Our latest mid-tier countryside stewardship scheme includes small plots of mixed crops to provide autumn and winter feed for farmland birds. We also scatter mixed grain alongside to feed the birds until May. This is working as we are seeing much bigger flocks of mixed finches, as well as yellowhammers, chaffinches, siskins and the odd reed bunting. Next on the list are some skylark plots to help the already present numbers increase. No wonder we are now seeing more predator hawks, including a magnificent peregrine falcon.
Farming responsibly and sustainably
Many farmers like me take our environmental management very seriously. Much of the grain I grow feeds pigs or chickens. I believe that provided the manure our animals make is stored sensibly, and applied within the rules, we farmers are doing our bit. Episodes of very high rainfall will cause some problems, but farmers are working hard to implement mitigating strategies. The Environment Agency is hopelessly underfunded and unable to monitor the rivers effectively. The Water Companies are putting in storm flow measuring devices, but that only indicates the size of the problem and is not a solution. Right now, my field drains are not running, so they won’t carry any water into the river. The drains may not run much at all before next harvest. This year was very dry, and our soil can absorb a lot of water, giving the newly sown crops more time to take more nutrients out of the ground before we calculate the amount of any artificial nitrogen fertiliser needed next march.