Soil discussion group drives sustainable change

A discussion group set up in the east of Scotland is aiming to farm for a better climate. Not unsimiliar to BASE (Biodiversity, Agriculture, Soil and Environment) Ireland, but on a smaller scale, the group of five farmers are focused on how to revitalise soil health to achieve more sustainable farming and profit.

The Soil Regenerative Group is part of a Farming for a Better Climate (FFBC) project facilitated by SAC Consulting which is part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

The group is exploring which management techniques, treatments, crops and rotations best establish resilient farm soils and how these techniques can be integrated into a profitable business.

The group has regular discussions on WhatsApp, which the farmers use to post photos and video updates and very importantly what has and hasn’t worked on their farms.

The project is now at the end of the first year of a three-year initiative and facilitator Zach Reilly of SAC Consulting described it as a great example of peer-to-peer learning.

“The open conversations and diverse activity and experiences of these five farmers are the heart of its success. They are all trying very different and interesting methods and, although across a mix of farming enterprises, there is overlap and the real value is that they are all learning from each other.

“They all have a shared ambition to rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded biodiversity and to make it financially feasible. It’s a brilliant process to watch develop and to see how much working together can move farming businesses forward.”

The farms vary from mixed farms, to arable and there is one potato grower, but the farmers all have common goals – to minimise soil disturbance, maximise crop diversity, keep the soil covered and a living root in the system and to bring livestock back into the rotation.

Very importantly, the group is supported by researchers and other industry specialists to explore different methods and the science behind them.

Among some of the techniques being trialed are broadcasting seed on the day of harvest, grazing sheep on oilseed rape, direct drilling and planting linseed. All of the farmers are at different stages of adopting regenerative or conservation farming techniques.

Douglas Ruxton has focused on regenerative farming since 2012 and said: “Many of the processes we are looking at were the norm in the past, but in an industrial era we have become reliant on heavy machinery and chemical inputs.

“It’s becoming clear that these have their downfalls and if the next generation is going to profit from the soil as well, we need to rebuild it.

Soil is our greatest asset and we need to get the basics right before we go high tech.

“This group is great for sharing ideas, problems and solutions with other like-minded farmers and importantly from those on the ground actually speaking from experience.”

The five key principles that the group is following are:

  • Minimise soil disturbance – help support a healthy soil food web;
  • Maximise crop diversity – different crops bring different rooting depths and attributes, supporting a range of biodiversity both above and below ground;
  • Provide constant soil cover – protect soils from wind and water erosion; reduces water loss;
  • Keep a living root in the system – root exudates benefit microbial populations, supporting soil health;
  • Integration of livestock – promoting species diversity from microbes to mammals and putting dung back into the system.

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