23 August 2002

LEAF HELPS FARMERS PROVE

THEY ARE DOING JOB RIGHT

If you are conscientious and honest with yourself, a

Linking Farming & Environment audit is one of the

best ways of proving to others that you are doing

an increasingly good job, according to several

farmers. Andrew Blake reports

THE past decade has seen a wealth of schemes introduced to reassure people outside farming that its practices are safe and environmentally sustainable.

LEAF, through its self-assessment audits, was one of the first to do so.

Introduced in 1993 in paper format after a pilot run in 1992, and since converted to a CD version for use on computer, the audit and its returns have allowed LEAF staff to be objective about improvements in farm practices (see panel).

"LEAF has been giving a clear steer on best practices for nearly 10 years," says chief executive Caroline Drummond. "We have an established record in developing integrated farming management standards and promoting its key messages to farmers and non-farmers."


Management aspect % meeting criteria %

1994 2001 change

Communication modes (eg, e-mail) 26 60 +34

Emergency procedures 53 76 +23

Identifying pollution risk areas 74 88 +14

Pesticides store stock taking 75 87 +12

Incorporation of slurry & FYM 70 80 +10

Waste management plans 37 47 +10

Energy efficiency monitoring 65 75 +10

Codes of practice familiarity 86 96 +10

Fertiliser record keeping 92 98 +6

Commitment to markets & consumers 84 90 +6

Managing wildlife habitats 75 80 +5

Source LEAF: Based on audit returns 1994-2001.

FOR Robert Lawton at North Farm, Aldbourne, Wilts, the first LEAF demonstration farm, the value of having completed the audit was dramatically illustrated recently when he was visited by a surveyor about an AMC loan.

"I completely floored him in response to a clause that states that the applicant will not jeopardise the value of the farm by polluting it", he says.

"I showed him the audit and he was amazed. It took the wind completely out of his sails."

By carrying out the audit and recording progress over the years Mr Lawton could prove that matters such as waste management and controlling pollution were already high on the farms agenda.

"It clearly showed that we had thought about them first."

On another occasion he was speaking at an environmental course on the farm attended by about 40 people. "I said I was going to tell them exactly where the business was at fault and where we still had problems. They were astonished at how minor they were."

Only by having done the audit was the information readily to hand in an easily presented format.

Self-satisfaction is another rewarding feature of conducting the audit, he says. "The brilliant thing about it is that I can now tick a lot of the boxes. It means I can now stand up and say I am clearly not quite as bad as I am being told.

"It is also improving my business and putting long-term order into it. Until I did it I did not realise, for example, how important it is to separate our livestock and arable storage buildings to keep on top of vermin. It is the sort of thing you never really sit down and think about." &#42

AUDIT SMOOTHS PATH TO SECURING AN AMC LOAN

LEAF pioneer Robert Lawton found his audit particularly useful when applying for a loan to develop his Wilts farm.

ACTION PLANS A GUIDE TO HEALTH AND SAFETY

JAMES Moldon inherited a full set of LEAF audits and action plans when he took over as manager at Stanaway Farm at Otley, Suffolk, four years ago.

They have been a useful guide to developing the Felix Thornley Cobbold Agricultural Trusts 315ha (780-acre) all-arable unit to meet health and safety requirements, he says.

Much of what he does on the farm does not require the direct spur of an audit, he admits. But the need to install a wash-down area to satisfy the HSE and Environment Agency was a direct result of an action plan arising from the latest one.

"We simply didnt have anywhere to wash the sprayer down properly. So we put in sumps and tanks and a holding area.

"We have also just bunded our liquid fertiliser tank. In both cases the cost of a pollution accident could be far greater."

Energy consumption on the farm is a prime area of investigation, although not directly as a result of the audit, he adds. "We have done a lot of cultivation and establishment trials looking at ways to cut costs.

"The audits also show that we are a lot more selective with our chemicals use than previously and that we are fine-tuning rates more."

Mr Moldon believes visitors should be impressed by the extent of the environmental work encouraged over the years via the audits. At the last count the RSPB had identified 57 bird species on the farm. His only criticism is that without being able to compare results on similar farms it is hard to tell whether improvements are entirely due to the efforts of the Otley staff. &#42

It was auditing that spurred James Moldon to install proper sprayer wash down facilities to satisfy the HSE and Environmental Agency.

GOOD DEMONSTRATION OF INCREASING BIODIVERSITY

KENT-BASED Doug Wanstall is a relative newcomer to the LEAF audit.

He believes it will prove increasingly valuable in showing customers that his farming methods are acceptable and that wildlife is encouraged.

He farms about 1800ha (4500 acres) from Bank Farm, Aldington, with his father, Richard, and uncle Geoff. The main enterprises are arable and free-range eggs.

"Nearly all our eggs go to London hotels, and I wanted tangible evidence to show how our biodiversity is increasing. It should help with marketing, and we also want to be able to hold our heads up high about what we are doing.

"I see the audit as a starting point to ensure we are heading in the right direction. I needed to benchmark ourselves against other like-minded farmers to prove that we are on the right track with things like environmental awareness, fuel consumption and animal health."

Two key changes have already sprung from auditing the unit, which became a LEAF demonstration farm last autumn, says Mr Wanstall. "We have only done two audits in three years, but they are definitely thought-provoking. We have already altered our cultivation practices as a result and significantly reduced our fuel bills – by about £10/ha.

"We used to plough everything. Now it is only 10%. For the rest we use flexible rather than minimum tillage to suit the very wide range of soils which we have." Careful use of integrated methods, including rotation and appropriate herbicide use, should ensure grass weeds remain under control, he says.

In three years under stewardship several new wildlife habitats have been created. But it required the spur of the audits to start to prove that they were beneficial, he says.

"You cant manage without information." Consequently, he called in the RSPB to carry out bird counts to provide base-line information on numbers now. "Two amateur enthusiasts are doing the same thing for small mammals. The idea is that they will all come back in other years to measure the results of any changes in our farm practices."

Mr Wanstall is particularly looking forward to showing his assessments to Friends of the Earth representatives at an open day on Sept 21. "I shall be interested to see how they view our practices and hope our audit will impress them." &#42

Doug Wanstall uses the audit to show his customers that his Kent arable and free-range egg-producing farms biodiversity is increasing.

MEASURED PROGRESS IN A WHOLE RANGE OF AREAS

THE real benefit of LEAF audits for Clive Wood, Yorks area manager for JSR Farming Group, is that they allow progress in a wide range of areas to be measured, not least in terms of improving the environment.

He has been doing them for five years.

The company has over 40 years of commitment to conservation, latterly managing set-aside specifically with wildlife in mind, he says.

"Before the audits we knew we were doing pretty well, but we did not know how well. Now we are making a start on measuring our performance, although it will take a few years to tell the full story."

That message, which from RSPB and other surveys is showing increased populations of barn owls, field mice, skylarks and other key farmland species, can then be relayed to farm visitors, he says.

In its first year as a LEAF demonstration unit Southburn Farm on the edge of the Yorks wolds near Driffield has welcomed over 170 guests in 15 groups of both farmers and non-farmers, notes technical director, Philip Huxtable.

"If you cant measure it, how are you going to manage it?" is a key question for farms trying to manage without some sort of audit, he says.

"The audit is mainly for our own benefit," says Mr Wood. "But for some companies, like Birds Eye, it is seen as an essential part of our involvement with them.

"The really important point is that it allows us to highlight particular areas where we should be paying increasing attention, for example on environmental pollution and waste management.

"It also makes you consider things you might not otherwise have done. For example, we have started monitoring earthworm populations."

To help relay the audits messages beyond the farm office, each years version is laminated and placed on the farms notice boards so that everyone can see the challenges and action plans, says Mr Wood. "It is important that all the staff are involved."

But for the self-assessment scheme to have value and credibility it must be conducted honestly, he stresses. "You have to be truthful with yourself to get anything out of it." &#42

Regular LEAF audits are essential to ensure access to certain markets, says JSRs Clive Wood surveys show wildlife is already benefitting.