Agronomist on journey to reduce clients’ carbon footprint

Ceres Rural agronomist Jock Willmott is taking his arable farming clients on a journey to reduce their carbon emissions while ensuring they stay profitable growing quality crops.

Winning the 2022 Arable Adviser of the Year Award in October was “incredibly humbling”, says Jock, a partner and agronomist at Ceres Rural, based in Cambridgeshire.

He has received dozens of text messages and emails to congratulate him. “You don’t realise how connected people are to Farmers Weekly and via social media. I was quite surprised,” he says.

See also: Farmers Weekly Awards 2022: Arable Adviser of the Year

The award has boosted his own profile in the industry and that of his company. “Ceres Rural is a new firm and it helps in that regard.”

Jock has a large agronomy portfolio; he provides 5,100ha of strategic agronomy advice to Basis-qualified farm managers and owners and full regular weekly crop walking on a further 7,500ha. 

He also manages a 650ha arable farm in Hertfordshire and administers a 1,300ha joint venture of three farming businesses.

Farming is going through huge change with the transition to the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme and falling Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments, so getting the right message out to clients is crucial, Jock says.

But there are far more layers of advice to consider as an arable adviser than just arable production.

In the short term, cashflow is a major consideration for his clients and he is looking at ways to help them stay profitable.

“We want to get all clients into a position of surviving as a business without the BPS,” Jock says.

Longer term, Jock is focused on tackling the wider soil organic matter/low-carbon farming issue and is working with his arable farming clients on ways to reduce their carbon emissions while staying profitable.

This involves tackling the twin challenges of helping his clients stay abreast of emerging legislation in Defra’s new agri-environment schemes – and helping them produce crops efficiently and in a more carbon-friendly way.

“I like people to produce high-margin crops and be proud of what they do. If I can help them to do that, that’s what it’s all about. I like the idea of using science to produce food that benefits the UK,” Jock says.

Nitrogen calculations

At farm level, Jock says he is working with clients to get a better handle on their carbon footprint by carrying out carbon auditing with support from Defra’s Future Farming Resilience Fund.

“We are using calculators for the utilisation of nitrogen uptake. Is the response they are getting in terms of yield and quality relevant to the amount of nitrogen they are putting on?” he explains.

The calculations are helping growers understand why in some field areas they may be achieving better yields and crop quality than in others. 

This involves weighing up several variables, including whether growers are “overcooking” their nitrogen applications, while balancing the impact of last year’s drought on crops.

“It is not just leaving the spreader on the same settings or going from one end of the wheat crop to the other without considering what you’re trying to achieve with that product,” Jock says.

“I think, especially with the high price of fertiliser, that is where people have been a bit more conscious than where they were before.”

Farming is always going from one crisis or another, with extreme weather events becoming more frequent, so ensuring the land stays productive is key.

“It’s about dealing with the challenges and relaying that to the people on the ground to be successful in their businesses,” Jock says. “There is always something different, always something new. 

“We are trying to take clients on a journey to a net-zero position or to being more carbon-responsible,” he adds.

Soil and carbon farming underpin the Sustainable Farming Incentive

Less intensive cultivation to minimise soil-carbon loss, or organic matter loss, is a crucial factor in Jock’s machinery choices and cropping techniques. But it is about finding the balance, he says.

Farmers have experienced the different extremes of climate with the summer drought and now the wetter than usual rainfall periods in between. 

“It is coming up with low-carbon farming systems that cope with that and yet maintain a level of performance that keeps the farm profitable,” he says.

Jock tends to pick different cropping and cultivation techniques according to his knowledge of different crops, fields, farms and regions.

“We feel like if we are within an appropriate system, rather than just one system, we are making progress,” he says.

Amid soaring input prices and falling crop prices, businesses “can’t stand” not having the output to justify the input, Jock notes.

“Sometimes it spirals and your output isn’t there, or the quality is not there,” he says.

“We understand that we have got to spend less while at the same time maintain a level of output that’s going to be profitable, without the cushion of £230/ha in terms of the BPS.”

Meanwhile, Jock is working with his clients to decipher what Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive is going to bring to their businesses – and how it overlaps with stewardship schemes.

The Farmers Weekly 2023 Arable Adviser of the Year Award is sponsored by FMC

FMCFarmers Weekly 2023 Arable Adviser of the Year is sponsored by FMC.

Enter yourself or nominate someone now on our Awards website.

Need a contractor?

Find one now
See more