Food & Agriculture

2023 February Farming

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Better nitrogen management yields more than it costs

Better management on agricultural lands to reduce nitrogen losses to the environment costs only a fraction of what it provides. This could yield nearly $500 billion in societal benefits globally for both food supply and human health, ecosystems and the climate. And this at a net cost of nearly $20 billion. That’s according to a study published in the scientific journal Nature.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis), at the grassy edge of a small field. Cornwall, England. June. Credit: RSPB

Farmland bird populations rise with nature-friendly farming

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, researchers from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) say a more strategic approach to wildlife-friendly farming schemes is required to recover England’s farmland bird populations after monitoring their responses to different agri-environment scheme implementation levels. The U.K. government has recently introduced a legally binding target to halt species abundance declines in England by 2030. However, tiered environmental management schemes have been in place on UK farms sometime. Higher tiered schemes devote an average of 11% of the farmland to bird-friendly measures, while lower-tiered schemes set aside an average of less than 4% of their land. This 10-year study measured changes in the abundance of farmland birds on land managed under bird-focused lower- and higher-tier agri-environment schemes, as well as land no bird-friendly farming initiatives. The results showed that when approximately 10% of a farm was devoted to bird-friendly farming practices under the higher-tier scheme, this benefitted over half of the farmland bird species in two of the three study regions. Although lower-tier provision generally failed to increase bird numbers, it helped to sustain populations of some species, which continued to decline in the absence of agri-environment support elsewhere. The second part of the study asked what proportion of the farmed landscape would need to be placed into higher-tier agreements to recover farmland birds by 10% over ten years. The answer was similar in the two regions—26% in the pastoral West Midlands and 31% in arable East Anglia. However, by targeting higher-tier agreements to farms that already hold higher numbers of priority farmland birds, this requirement drops to 17% and 21% respectively, which represents a significant cost saving. This is the first study to shed light on the amount of nature friendly farming that might be required to recover farmland birds at a landscape scale.

Sheep grazing at the Arnprior Solar Project. Photo by Chris Moore

Solar panels and sheep get along just fine

Pippa Norman writes in The National Observer about how farming and clean energy production can work together. Like many farmers, Chris Moore once doubted the practicality of solar panels and agriculture co-existing on the same land. He couldn’t quite believe the land would be productive while shaded by these large, metallic shields. About 12 years ago, a 200-acre solar farm sprung up in Arnprior and he passed it by on his daily commute. The more he looked at the grass growing beside and beneath the solar panels, the more it started to seem an ideal spot for a sheep pasture. His skepticism began to fade. The Arnprior Solar Project is one of the largest solar electricity sites in Canada, generating enough energy to supply about 7,000 homes. And for the past five years, it has also doubled as a summer home for hundreds of the couples’ ewes. It took Moore a long time to picture his sheep grazing in the shade of those solar panels. Ontario environmental regulations, farmers associations and farmers have, historically, been resistant to allowing land to be used for both agricultural and solar power. But Joshua Pearce, Western University’s John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation, was convinced that without a crop or animals, the shade of those solar panels was a missed opportunity. Pearce is an advocate and expert in the field of agrivoltaics — the dual use of land for solar electricity and agriculture. Allowing animals to graze is the most basic version. More sophisticated versions tailor the solar panel installations to the crop that grows underneath. “You shade the plant that you’re growing with a partially transparent solar cell. It provides a little microclimate underneath it, so it conserves water, and then you get more growth,” Pearce explained. Vertical or movable solar panel options allow for plants like corn or wheat to grow high or for tractors to manoeuvre around crops, Pearce added. Outside of fields, solar panels can also be attached to greenhouses roofs or potentially even floated on bodies of water.

(Thanks to Erwin Dressler for sharing the link to this story.)

Guy Singh-Watson Riverford, pictured at Riverford organic farm in Devon, began experimenting with hazelnut and walnuts trees after feeling guilty about how much he ploughed his fields for vegetable crops. Photograph: Joanna Furniss/Riverford

English farmers turning to cultivating nuts as climate heats

Helena Horton writes in The Guardian UK about one way farmers are adapting to warmer temperatures. Nuts are being grown more than ever by English farmers as the climate heats, making the products more economically viable, growers have said. Nut trees are also helpful for biodiversity on farms, improving soil health as their roots improve the ability and capacity of soil to absorb water, reducing the risk of wind erosion. Guy Singh-Watson has enjoyed his recent foray into growing nuts on his 150-acre Devon farm. He said they were easy to grow: “You don’t have to do anything, I spent 40 years trying to coax vegetables into life and they just die all the time, but hazels grow so well. There doesn’t seem to be any problem growing walnuts in our climate.” He has had success grazing cattle in the orchards, and now plans to grow kale among some of his hazel trees. England’s climate is heating up, with last year the hottest on record, with a long, dry summer. This is making many crops difficult to grow, and many farmers reported crop failures during the drought. Though they sometimes need irrigation when first planted, nut trees do well in warm weather and can survive dry summers. Singh-Watson said he had recently visited Piedmont in Italy, where hazelnuts are a major crop – it is home to Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella. Despite the hot, dry summer in Italy, the nuts were flourishing. The article also reports on the promising nut-growing experiences of a couple of other English farmers.

A row of field maples (Acer campestre) trellis grape vines, and are pollarded to harvest ‘tree hay’ fodder for livestock. Maize grows beside the row. The grapes are harvested to make wine. Source. Found on Shelterwood Forest Farm website.

European farms mix things up to guard against food-supply shocks

The EU is increasingly promoting mixed farming as a hedge against climate change and food insecurity. In just over a minute, this video explains what that means.


Peat Ban

England’s gardeners to be banned from using peat-based compost: Sales of peat for use on private gardens and allotments will be banned in England from 2024, the government has announced.

Environmental campaigners have long called for stricter laws to restore peatlands. As well as carbon capture and storage, peatlands provide habitat to some of the UK’s most threatened wildlife, and also filter water and prevent flooding downstream. But a combination of draining them for agricultural use, burning to create the right habitat for game birds and harvesting for compost means just 13% are in a near-perfect state.

In 2011, the government agreed that the horticultural industry should voluntarily bring about an end to the use of peat, but by 2021 it still accounted for 29.8% of commercially sold compost. A public consultation, which received 5,000 responses, found 95% of people supported the ban and the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) admitted the voluntary approach had not succeeded.

Bagged peat sold by retailers accounts for 70% of the peat sold in the UK, according to Defra. At this stage, the ban will not apply to those working in the horticultural trade, and that a date for this would be decided after a discussion with industry bodies in September.

The chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, said: “This ban on the sale of peat-based compost and work to phase out use in other areas is an essential step toward protecting these valuable natural assets and allowing for the recovery of degraded areas.”