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AgriCulture Live Podcast Transcript - Episode 5

AgriCulture Live - Episode 5 with special guest Amy Watkins from Agrii
“The Importance of Sustainability in Agriculture”

00:00:02 Rebekah

Hello and welcome to Agriculture Live. Today we're on Episode 5, and we'll be talking about the importance of sustainability in agriculture. It's a big word, that one. My name's Rebekah Shields. I'm from Agricultural Recruitment Specialists. If you've got any questions or comments on this, please post them in the chat and we'll come to them at the end. So, let’s start with introducing yourself? Amy, would you like to tell us about you, where you're from? What your company does?

00:00:37 Amy

Yeah. Morning, everyone. So, my name's Amy. I work at a company called Agrii. And Agrii specialised in providing services to farmers to help them essentially grow their crops through the seasons. So agronomy, as many people know it as, but we actually offer a lot of other services outside of traditional day-to-day agronomy. So, we've done a number of R&D, a lot of R&D work over the years. So, looking at new innovations that are coming through agriculture that we can start implementing onto farms and more recently that's looking at sustainable farming and also things like drone technology, things that’s maybe more future concepts but is actually coming into farming systems. So, the way the way I specialise in Agrii in particular is around sustainability and environmental services. So, we have a number of environmental advisors throughout the country that help farmers understand how they can balance food security, growing food and also deliver for the environment. So more recently - all the talks around the sustainable farming incentive in England and our team essentially help to advise farmers on applying for that scheme, making sure they're compliant but also delivering for biodiversity, soil and also to reduce emissions. But I also work on the sustainability side, which looks at, you know the products or the services that we provide on farm day-to-day, how we can make sure that they are sustainable. So that everything that we're doing from a manufacturing point of view, is we try to reduce emissions and to help ultimately the farmers make sure that they're in line with what the industry is demanding for. So net zero being the big topic at the moment. I'm from a farming background myself, so I've always been in agriculture, traditionally from an upland sheep and poultry farm in mid Wales, but I have diversified into arable - which is really, really interesting. But either sector that you're in, whether it's more livestock dominated or arable, it's a really, really exciting time to be in the industry.

00:02:36 Rebekah

Yeah and it's a big buzzword at the minute, isn't it?

00:02:39 Amy

Yeah, yeah, definitely.

00:02:41 Rebekah

Sustainability. So, what makes you guys stand out from your competitors would you say?

00:02:49 Amy

Well, like I mentioned earlier, so we do offer the traditional agronomy, but there are other companies out there that do offer this service Agrii have always held themselves against the fact that we test everything we sell on farm - has been through an R&D process. So, every product that is out in the marketplace, Agrii would traditionally put it in a set of trials to get their own data to demonstrate that it works out on farm. And that is something that I guess we stand out against a number of our competitors there, more recently that is looking at sustainable farming systems. So how do we improve soil health, what's the best sort of cultivation techniques to be undertaking on farm, what impacts they have on things like yield, the environment and long-term resilience to the farming system. So, I think R&D is our big standout point. The technology is a new area that we have invested in quite significantly recently working with other companies out there in the industry. That's probably something in the future that we will be standing out on as well, looking at new drone technology that can help make farming systems more efficient.

00:03:50 Rebekah

Fantastic. It all sounds really exciting. So let's get to the basics. Because there will be people you know, viewing or listening who don't know what sustainable agriculture is. So can you just explain it to us?

00:04:05 Amy

Yeah, it's a big, it's a big buzzword and everybody defines it slightly differently or uses it in different ways. So, it's a really good place to start. I try and keep it really simple and essentially everybody thinks sustainability is around the environment. But actually, there's a lot more to it than that. And it essentially has three pillars, the first one being the environment, which we all talk about. So that's our greenhouse gas emissions, that's looking after our soils, making sure we're providing habitats for biodiversity, reducing waste. The second one is around people. So, making sure, for example, we're bringing the right people into the industry to make sure that we can be innovative and pioneering in the future and retaining the right people in the industry. Health and safety is a big pillar under that at the moment. I know there's a lot of talk around that and also mental health and well-being. And in the third pillar, which is ultimately why we're doing the first two, is profitability. And I try and point this out as the main reason why we're doing sustainability, talking about sustainable farming. We're looking after the planet and we're looking after the people to make sure we are profitable in 10/20 years time and that our business is still competitive and still producing food and producing for the environment. So those are the three key areas that I think covers sustainable agriculture, the people, the planet and the profit.

00:05:23 Rebekah

So why is sustainable agriculture important?

00:05:29 Amy

So, the common thing that we all know it as, is to make sure that we are providing for the next generation. And I think in farming that is a big topic of conversation with people taking over farms and making sure with all the changes we're seeing, with BPS for example and the new income streams, that we want to be able to hand our farms down to the next generation to take them on. And I think that's for farming and for farmers in particular - that is why sustainability is important - to make sure that in 10/20 years time, that your business is still viable and it is still resilient, all of those changes that it's had to adapt to. So, by looking after those other areas you are still in business - incentive, it's time to hand over and sell.

00:06:15 Rebekah

Fantastic. So, what does it mean for the future? You know, sustainable farming, what is the impact would you say, Amy?

00:06:24 Amy

It's an interesting one and I think it's being shaped massively at the moment by financial incentives to drive sustainability. I mean this year is a classic example. We've seen the wettest autumn probably on record since 2012 and that has put some huge pressures on farming systems. I mean, I think last I heard we had about, you know, 70% of crops drilled in the autumn and how many of them will actually go through to harvest? We've had issues with spring seed supplies and everything across the country this year. And that is a classic example of why it's important for us to be doing something and what's been driving it. So, weather it is a huge point that has massive impact on farming systems and the incentives around, you know, the new governments, sustainable farming incentive, farmers are going to have to start applying for that to replace their BPS. So traditionally farmers were paid obviously on a per hectare basis. So, the more hectares there are, the more money they are earn going each year. That is changing. Now we've left Europe, and it is now being driven by something called the Sustainable Farming Incentive and that is basically incentivising farmers to look at sustainability. So, looking at ways of improving soil health, looking at ways of maximising biodiversity on farm, and farmers are getting paid for that sort of work. So, it is being driven by public funding, also private funding. So, biodiversity net gain is something that is kind of topical in England at the moment because it became compulsory for any large developments in England last week, that any large developments happening, had to offset all of their biodiversity by 110%. So, we knew housing developments, for example, that were being built. If they're taking down any wildlife meadows or trees, they would have to offset that somewhere else. And that's a huge incentive for some farmers to start putting those biodiversity areas onto their farm. And income from those developments that are happening. So, there is a massive incentive drive from both the public and private sector funding. But the day-to-day lives of whether that, we really just cannot predict and cannot control, is probably the main thing that's driving a lot of changes in from farm at the moment.

00:08:36 Rebekah

So how is it measured, you know, in terms of if somebody's improved their soil health, how do they prove that to the government to get the incentives and so on?

00:08:46 Amy

So, at the moment, under the Sustainable Farming Incentive, and I mean soil health to start with, is a massively complicated beast and nobody actually knows what soil health means or what metric defines soil health. Ultimately, the aim is to have a number of different areas and metrics to financial health, but under the sustainable farming incentive, the things that you need to do are testing soil organic matter levels. That's something that has always been available to farmers but probably not adopted massively and it is quite a good metric of soil health because it tells us a bit about, you know, how able is your soil to cope with all of the weather that we've had? The wet or the dry. The other areas that farmers need to do to get that incentive is a soil management plan. So, they have to go out and dig a hole in the field. Look at if there's any layer of compaction, for example, if you've been ploughing every single year and you've got a really hard layer in the soil, the crops roots just can't go beyond. And that's something you'd identify in the field and write in your management plan how you'd alleviate that in the next year, in the next growing season. So, this whole management plan and the organic matter testing is the bare minimum that you need to do, to get onto the first layer. And the other layers include things like cover cropping. So, cover cropping is a big topic in conversation as to, improving soil health. So, if you're putting spring crops in the ground you're drilling for the March, April time, then you'd be putting something in over the winter period. And the main reason you put a cover crop in, is of course to help make sure that if you get wet weather, no soil is lost off the field and eroded. So, if you've got a crop in the ground over winter, helping to keep that stable, but it also helps to bring carbon out the atmosphere into the soil. So, it is a good thing to help boost soil health and in a short period as well. It does take a number of years to improve but that it is something that will help over that winter period rather than leaving it there. And you can earn money from that under the new Sustainable Farming Incentive as a farmer.

00:10:50 Rebekah

Fantastic. How much money can they earn if they're adopting the sustainable farming incentive?

00:10:58 Amy

So, if they're doing the bare minimum, which I said was an organic matter test and a soil management plan, and it's £6 a hectare at the moment and most farmers will be doing that across the whole farm because it doesn't require any changes to be made to their current system. If you want to go that step further and do the cover cropping for example, that is requiring some change because you have to move spring cropping. So that is paying you £129 a hectare and you can rotate that around the farms, which is 3 year scheme and you can say in one year I'm going to put it on this field and the next year I’ll put it on another field. It just depends where you're growing spring crops, essentially.

00:11:32 Rebekah

Understood. Great stuff. So are there any drawbacks to sustainable farming, Amy?

00:11:39 Amy

There are a few. I think the main challenge we have in the industry at the moment, is the knowledge and knowledge transfer and research. Because I mean the big topic of conversation around sustainable farming, is a step forward which is called - regenerative farming - and that is looking at similar principles of improving soil health. It's going the extra mile by defining what a system looks like, whereas sustainable farming is very, very mixed depending on what type of farm you own, what type of system you want to adopt. This tricky thing about sustainable farming is that there isn't a one size fits all and trying to figure out what size it is for your farm is really, really tricky. What's happening 5 miles down the road might not be applicable to you. It might not be sensible for you to stop. So, it really is down to you know what soil type you have on the farm, what organic matter levels you have on the farm, what kit you have available to you - to what system you adopt. And actually knowing what that is, as a farmer, you can imagine it's very, very tricky. And that is where sometimes the agronomist comes in. So, they can look at some of the research that we're doing in Agrii and say we found on some of our sites similar soil types that's worked, but it is really trial and error. It's not like you're going to be successful from year one. It is trying different approaches to seeing what fits, what is profitable, what isn't, what works, what doesn't work and going from there really.

00:13:03 Rebekah

So, you know, in terms of, why is soil health important, what would you say, you know, for people that don't really understand or have much knowledge on it, just tell our viewers and listeners about soil health.

00:13:17 Amy

Yeah, it is a good one - when you look at a lot of what the end markets are talking about at the moment. So, when I say end markets, I mean people like Nestle, Unilever, those large companies that produce, put food on the shelves essentially and manufacture food, Those guys are all talking about soil health. Farmers are all talking about soil health. Consumers actually are starting to talk about and understand a bit more about soils, probably not to the same depth, but there is a massive talking point around soil health. What it means is very varied and from my perspective how I how I'd see it, it's making sure that it is efficient enough to be producing food but also support biodiversity, which is what sustainable farming is. Now the main focus around soil recently has been the component that it is a carbon support. So, as we talk about trees in the UK and globally planting trees, sequesters carbon. Similar things happen with soil. So, where you've got soil covering the whole of the UK, pretty much that is sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. It is a biological thing, it does respire, so it's got biology in it. Just like us humans breathe in oxygen, we breathe out carbon dioxide, soil biology does as well. So, it is also going to be releasing carbon, but it actually sequesters more carbon than it releases. Now. What is the interesting talking point is how you manage that soil to make sure you're not losing any carbon and you're maximising how much you can take in. We talked about soil organic matter earlier being the kind of metric that you would use to measure soil health and that's really similar to what we define as soil carbon and it has a huge amount of good qualities for a farmer. So, if you've got good soil carbon in the system, it's helping to improve your drainage. So, the weather that we've had this autumn, it would help to drain some of that water, it also helps to retain water. So, the drought that we had a few years ago each summer is going to help retain water when you really need it for the crop, when it's doing this last bit of growth, it's also helping support biodiversity. So, I think they say something like a teaspoon of soil just has a huge amount of biodiversity and different species in it. So, it's helping to support the biodiversity by improving carbon as well because it's a food source for that biodiversity and that biology. So, there's a number of different things that we define as soil health. But ultimately, you need a healthy soil to produce a healthy crop. And if you've completely depleted your soil, if you've ploughed it every single year, if you've not added anything back into the system like organic manures or cover crops or added anything back in nutritionally, then you're not going to be having a good crop growing from it. So that's an important factor for farmers, for profitability, but also environmentally for sequestered carbon and support biodiversity.

00:16:11 Rebekah

So outside of these big things, then, what are some simple things that farms can do to be more sustainable, would you say?

00:16:20 Amy

I think the biggest easy win, that costs absolutely nothing on a farm, is using a spade more. It's the most important piece of kit that you can have on a farm is a spade. We all talk about this great new shiny kit. Some people would have gone to Lamma at the start of this year and looked at all the new kit coming out. But actually, a spade is the most important thing and the first thing that should go into a field before anything else. Particularly this spring when you're looking to do spring cultivations and when you're looking to drill spring seed, taking a spade out into the field, looking at - is it OK for me to travel on this field? Because if it's not, then it could cost you a lot of money. It could not be worth it because the crop might not get off to the best start and you could be causing a lot of damage to the soil. So, going and simply digging a hole in the field, looking at is it completely waterlogged? I shouldn't go in there at all. Is the soil structure good? Have I got any compaction that I should try and remove so I can give the crop routes the best chance to get through the profile? I think that is the cheapest and easiest win for every farmer to be doing. It's a really interesting topic as well. When you start reading into it, there's so much you could be looking at just from having a spade in the field or with your agronomist as well. Having that conversation is really, really good.

00:17:31 Rebekah

It's great because you don't have to do massive things. There are just simple things that you can do to help, aren't there? So where does Net Zero come into all of this, Amy?

00:17:41 Amy

So net zero is a massive talking point and the government has said that in all industries, they’re aiming to be net zero by 2050. The NFU of course come across even more sudden. So they said that we're going to be net zero by 2040 and that sets a massive precedent for UK agriculture to achieve that goal. The difference we have in agriculture to any other industry in the UK is we can actually sequester carbon. So, because we've got soil on all of our land, we can take carbon in as well as admitting it. So simply net zero means not just reducing carbon, it's actually looking at how much you were missing? So how much fertiliser you were putting on the field, how much fuel are you using to plant that crop, for example, how much you're emitting and then minus how much you're sequesting. So, how much you're taking into the ground, into your soils, into any hedgerows that you've got around the field or into any trees if you've got woodland on the farm. And that is essentially is your net of where you would be emissions wise. Most farmers would be probably be emitting more than they're sequestering purely because it's really hard to measure soil carbon sequestration and because we have to grow a crop every year. So, you have to use fuel to put that crop in the ground. You have to use fertiliser to get the best yield of that crop and make sure we've got food security as well. So net zero is about trying to balance the two together. This is why improving soil health is so topical at the moment, because by doing that you're helping to increase how much you're sequesting, so you've got more room to play with, with reducing emissions.

00:19:15 Rebekah

Absolutely. So do you think farms get bad press for pollution or would you say it's well justified?

00:19:24 Amy

Yeah, we do get uptight about this sometimes I think in the agricultural industry. But every industry is the same. Every industry will have their bad areas that they need to focus on more. I think agriculture's area is around nitrous oxide emissions. So, for any of you that don't know about nitrous oxide, it's essentially a greenhouse gas and we have 3 greenhouse gases. We have carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, and nitrous oxide is about 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, so it's the worst greenhouse gas out there. And agriculture is by far the largest emitter of nitrous oxide emissions. They emit about 78% of nitrous oxide emissions in the UK. So that's why we are getting a lot of press, bad press around net zero, because we emit the biggest greenhouse gases available out there. The main sources of that nitrous oxide is things like our soils. If we've got really wet soils, they will naturally release nitrous oxide. That's just how the nitrogen cycle works, but also using nitrogen fertilisers. So putting nitrogen fertilisers onto soils will also naturally respire nitrous oxide and give off nitrous oxides. So there is stuff that we can do around trying to keep that system or that loop closed better, but that is why I think we're getting the bad press is because of our nitrous oxide emission.

00:20:50 Rebekah

OK. So let's talk about farms themselves. I mean, at the end of the day, there's a lot of talk about, you know, farmers aren't making much money, you know, and all of that stuff. But how do you think farms can be more economically sustainable?

00:21:08 Amy

And I think firstly, step one is understanding what you currently have in and out of your system. So, a classic example here is we put nitrogen on a crop every single year to grow a crop. But very few farmers will understand how much of that nitrogen is taken up by the crop. So we'll just put a flat rate on what the RB209 suggests every single year, just put it on the crop. But how much is actually being used? Or how much is being lost as much as oxide? That's a really simple thing for us to try and start understanding. By doing more grain testing for example. So, understanding firstly what how much money you're putting in and how much is efficiently used is a good starting point and actually targeting that better would be a good way forward from a farming system point of view. The other area is the whole Sustainable Farming Incentive route. So, I think every farmer will be looking to adopt this in the future. There's some really, really easy wins in there. Some of them do require you to change your farming system like the cover crops, like I mentioned earlier. Some of the payments out there, for like doing a nutrient management plan or doing a soil management plan that we talked about earlier. That's something that you sometimes have to do if you're in certain areas of the country, you have to do a nutrient management plan. So it's an easy payment that you're getting paid to do something you've already had to do. And it's a no brainer really. So, there are some schemes out there that people should really be adopting for that, thinking about it.

00:22:39 Rebekah

Just on that, do you think the government do enough to support this industry?

00:22:46 Amy

So, I think the change that we've seen since we've moved to the Sustainable Farming Incentive. Farmers have always asked off the back of countryside stewardship, which used to be the system that we had to when we had VPS and still is a system. They always said we want more flexible schemes. We want something that's not so red tape. We have to do XY and Z, we want to be more flexible and the government have delivered on that. To be fair, they have given us a scheme that is really flexible. You could do it however you wish as long as you could justify the speed of the aims. And the issue we now have is exploiting that. So we've got really careful that we don't take the mickey with that, because the risk is that that could get taken away from us and we will get that red tape back in. So, I do think they're trying to do as much as they can and the new Sustainable Farming Incentive has demonstrated that, to try and support us and listen to our thoughts. But what we've got to do is kind of get to a middle ground somewhere and respect what they're giving us and not take the mickey with it. And so, yeah, I think the support is there. There's always more that can be done. Everybody will say that, but they are listening. They are reacting to what we're saying.

00:23:52 Rebekah

Well, that's what we want, isn't it? So, you know, I was reading eliminating food waste can reduce global carbon emissions by 8 to 10%. Like, food waste is a big buzzword as well at the minute, isn't it? What are some ways that people could consume food more sustainably, would you say?

00:24:13 Amy

Consuming it day-to-day, and I think if you're if you're just simply at home and buying food from the supermarket or the farmers market, whatever that might be, being really strict with your planning is a really good idea. So, planning your meals in a week can help make sure that you only buy what you need. You have a list when you go out to the shop because obviously if you don't do that then you could be wasting food quite quickly. Cooking from fresh is a good idea as well. I know sometimes some people say it's wastage there, but that's a good way to make sure that you're using food effectively and planning around that too.

00:24:49 Rebekah

Excellent. So, is AI (we were talking about AI last week), is that the answer to sustainable farming would you say?

00:24:59 Amy

I think the AI could be an answer to a number of things and we're seeing some of it come out already where it can help us produce things that sometimes are quite time consuming. But I do think there will still be a need for people on the ground. The thing we have noticed over the past couple of years is that, that trust element between the farmer and their agronomist. So although a farmer might be able to get some answers from AI, still having that conversation with an agronomist is going to be really, really important. So ultimately, yes, you know, AI will support and maybe will help us be more efficient with how we do things, but I do still think that personal element on farm will be important going forward.

00:25:39 Rebekah

And do most farms want to be more sustainable, would you say?

00:25:44 Amy

I would say so. I mean I think every farmer wants to be a business in 10/20 years time, pretty much. What's the best use out of their land? If they don't want that, then I don't know where they'd be. So if they're looking to be here in 10 to 20 years time and they want to be sustainable, that's just looking at the best way to make sure they are here basically.

00:26:03 Rebekah

And what does all of this, you know, sustainable agriculture, sustainable farming. What does it all mean for recruitment, would you say?

00:26:11 Amy

That's a really interesting question. I actually went on a on a conference a few months back and it was talking exactly about this, about attracting new talent into businesses and it said something quite shocking for me which was the amount of people. I think it was near 50% of people in the age bracket of 18 to 24 now looking at sustainability seriously in the company that they're going to work for. So, I think when you starting to see people and new talent coming out of university or younger people, it is a topic of conversation, it is something that they're considering. So, I think for a companies looking to recruit more people and new talent, sustainability is vital for you to make sure that you're doing so. From the other end of the stick, for people wanting to work in sustainable agriculture, work in the environment, I think there'll be huge job opportunities there in the future and farmers are asking about this more than ever. I've certainly over the four years of my career seeing it just surge more and more every single year. There's more around carbon, there's more mental health and looking for the answers around that. So, I think there's a huge career opportunity there for people looking to go into this sector.

00:27:21 Rebekah

Fantastic. And how do we attract more people into this sector, would you say, Amy?

00:27:27 Amy

I think the fact that we're addressing sustainability and also new innovation and technology should hopefully attract new people. And technology is a big one because you know we have to move with the times and I know we are statistically, you know, the average age of the farmer. I'm not, I'm not too sure, but it will be in the 60s sort of area, we have to move forward. I know that might be a barrier, but when we see new people coming, younger generations coming onto the farm, this is going to help make us more efficient. This is going to help speed up the process, yeah. Bringing new ideas, bringing new ways of doing things will be helping people in this sector.

00:28:05 Rebekah

Definitely. So, what do you think? You know, we talked a lot about this topic. What other issues do you think are going to be the biggest issues for agriculture going forward?

00:28:16 Amy

Umm, I think nitrogen will be a big popular conversation. Nitrogen usage, mainly because the emissions associated with that. I think whilst carbon and earning money from carbon will be a topic of conversation. The challenge we have with that at the moment is how you measure it, because you know there's so many calculators out there that will provide you with different figures, different scores. How we measure that is going to be a challenge. So, I do think greenhouse gas emissions is going to be huge. Waste as well is probably another big topic that we're seeing, talking about on farm and looking to reduce how much waste we put on the farm that the farmer has to then deal with that side as well.

00:28:58 Rebekah

Amy you're a wealth of knowledge. Thank you so much for joining us today. You've certainly taught me a lot, so thanks everyone for watching or listening. Thank you again Amy. if you've got an interesting topic in agriculture that you would like to talk about, please get in contact with me at Agricultural Recruitment Specialists, which is

So all that's left to say is thanks everyone for joining us and goodbye from me and Amy.

00:29:32 Amy

Thank you.

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