Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have been in the spotlight in recent years, with the UK Government committing to moving the country to net zero emissions by 2050 – and the National Farmers’ Union setting the agriculture industry the challenge of reaching the same goal by 2040.
Alongside the farming community, organisations contributing to deliver ‘Farm Net Zero’ include: the Duchy College Rural Business School, the Farm Carbon Toolkit, Westcountry Rivers Trust, Innovative Farmers, Innovation for Agriculture and Just Farmers. The project is managed by Cornwall College and funded by the National Lottery Community Fund from January 2021 for five years.
Projects and initiatives across the farms will include three demonstrator farms, acting as hubs for training and inspiration for other farmers. Each demonstration farmer has the challenge of reaching net zero by the end of the project in January 2026.
There are also 40 Monitor Farms that are taking part dig deeper into soil carbon assessment across this network of farms. It will help understand the potential for farms to provide a climate solution, and also understand what’s possible and the management practices that make a difference. The farms are all baselined in terms of their carbon footprint and their soil carbon levels, and then work with the project team to take on practices that aim to improve soil health and carbon sequestration.
Interest in soils has risen dramatically in recent years, with the prospect of farmers receiving payments for environmental goods and services becoming ever more likely. However, a great deal of uncertainty around measurement and management of soil health remains. This project worked to uncover what is happening beneath Cornish farms and develop practical solutions to valuing the hidden asset that puts Cornwall at the forefront of this emerging science.
The project had three main objectives: to understand the best methods for monitoring soil health (both in-field and in the lab); to assess the impact of management practice on soil health; to investigate the impact of soil carbon on the whole-farm carbon footprint.
The project involves a network of 85 farms, reflecting a range of soil types and enterprises. One of the primary aims was to work out a consistent set of metrics that can be used to identify and quantify changes in soil health and carbon levels, which could provide an evidence base to support future policy changes.
A Soil Carbon Field and Lab Guide has been produced to summarise the project’s main findings and offer some guidance on best practice to farmers and advisors. A particularly useful tool is the Farm Carbon Toolkit, which will help farmers see which practices can help them become more efficient at carbon sequestration.
“There has been such negative projection on the carbon produced by agriculture that a lot of farmers are frightened to engage with carbon foot printing, but everyone has to deal with soil, so it’s a practical way to start talking about it,” says Becky Willson, of the Farm Carbon Toolkit, one of the many businesses working closely with the Soil Carbon research team.
“Over three years we have conducted a range of tests looking at soil structure, infiltration, worm counts and aggregate stability – all things which farmers can do for free themselves,” says Ms Willson. “We want to tie those in with soil carbon levels, so farmers can understand if their soils are moving in the right direction.”
An important development has been a new field and laboratory guide written by the research team and aimed at farmers and advisors wanting to measure and monitor soil carbon changes over time. Using experiences from the field, the guide deals with issues related to when and how to take soil samples, as well as the options for lab analysis. “The guide has lots of practical tips including ensuring consistency, for example if you sample after harvest and before sowing in the first year of monitoring, then keep doing so and also stick to the same lab for analysis each time you sample” explained Dr Stephen Roderick, research manager at Duchy College.