How a Sussex arable farmer is preparing for the ELM scheme

Taking 16% of his arable land out of production and introducing measures which will improve the farm’s natural capital are how West Sussex grower Mark Chandler is preparing his arable business for the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme.

Instead of extending an existing Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement for another 12 months, he has opted to use Mid Tier Countryside Stewardship to fund the landscape scale changes that he is making at Moor Farm, near Petworth.

These include creating linear habitat by establishing in-field flowering strips to encourage beneficial insects, using overwinter cover crops ahead of spring cropping, making the best use of two-year legume fallows on unproductive ground, and creating areas of wild bird cover.

See also: Why yield mapping is first step in bridging BPS income gap

In the process, he’s had to move away from a 50% winter wheat mentality. But it is also allowing him to eliminate insecticide use, improve his soils, solve grassweed issues and prepare for the removal of Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) funding with confidence. 

Farm facts

G Chandler Farming, Moor Farm, New Petworth,  West Sussex

Mark Chandler

Mark Chandler © David Parker

  • Farming in partnership with his father, Richard
  • 1,260ha of combinable cropping
  • 60% tenanted and 40% in contract farming agreements across six other farms                

Starting point   

Having seen the writing on the wall back in harvest 2018, he and his father, Richard, realised that it was time to consider changes.

Pest and weed problems were getting worse as agrochemicals were lost, extreme weather was creating difficulties with soils and Brexit’s financial impact was looming.

“At that stage, we asked ourselves whether it was just a bad year or if we needed to change,” recalls Mr Chandler.

Analysis showed that there were too many weaknesses in his system – from the cultivations strategy and four-course rotation, to the farm’s rising machinery costs, resistance build-up and exposure to climate change.

“Even our HLS scheme, which was providing us with funding, was holding us back by stopping us from doing something different.”

But the detailed analysis also showed him that the key components of natural capital – soil, air and water – were things that he could have an effect on. And these were the likely components of a “public money for public goods” system, that Defra was proposing.

“It was clear that doing nothing was not an option. We had to find solutions.”

In-field strips

In autumn 2019, Mr Chandler’s participation in the Achieving Sustainable Agricultural Systems (Assist) project involved establishing in-field flowering strips in a 10ha field of winter wheat, in order to create habitat for beneficial insects.

Having already had control difficulties with resistant cabbage stem flea beetle in oilseed rape, he was committed to not using insecticides anymore and hoped to get some biological control from natural predators.

The strips were established 100m apart, accounting for 6% of the field area and creating habitat in a productive arable field, rather than round the edge.

“We quickly learnt that it doesn’t look wrong. The strips were located just beyond the sprayer area, which allowed us to be accurate with fertiliser and minimise any spray drift.”

Otherwise, autumn 2019 was disastrous. The farm team managed to establish some oilseed rape, but wet conditions prevented any further autumn cropping. The decision on extending the HLS scheme had to be made by the end of the year.

“That’s when we looked at the Assist project and realised that we could take the concept across the farm through a Mid Tier scheme, as well as make other changes. But rejecting the HLS extension for a Mid Tier application in July 2020 left the business with an 18-month funding gap.”

Early indications

Harvest 2020 was a testing time. Mr Chandler stuck to his principles and fallowed 440ha for a year, establishing a summer cover crop for soil health purposes.

“We were then looking at how we could use two-year legume-based fallows and make them fit in the rotation. It was clear that you have to look at a system like this across five years and not one year in isolation – the hardest thing with the two-year options is getting them to fit.”

At this point, he also purchased a Horsch Avatar direct drill and lost one full-time member of staff, as he started a planned move to regenerative agriculture.

He admits to wondering whether a whole farm restructure would be a financial disaster. “We thought it would ruin us. But when you park it all up, you don’t spend anything on growing crops. Taking a step back has shown us that it will be possible to farm without BPS.”

He has also received encouraging early signs – soil organic matter, earthworm numbers, soil health (carbon dioxide burst) are all on the rise. The network of spiders webs visible on dewy mornings is proof that insect life is also thriving.

“We’ve had to believe in what we are doing. This is not about chasing the grants – it’s about doing it for the right reasons. We’re not using chemistry in the same way.”

The challenges

Problem    Solution
Alleviate blackgrass pressure  → Reduce soil disturbance/diverse rotation
Reduce fixed costs → Less soil disturbance
Eliminate insecticides → Create habitat for beneficials
Grow oilseed rape   → Widen rotation
Rotational constraints/problems → Change rotation
Make Mid Tier/ELM scheme work → Leave HLS in preparation
Improve soil health    → Less soil movement/cover crops
Get integrated pest management working   → Use ELM scheme funding
Replace BPS → Reduce fixed costs/ELM scheme
Improve or maintain yields   → Farm the best bits
Improve or maintain margins  → Restructure fixed costs to farmed area

How Mark Chandler is making it work

Mr Chandler had four main priorities when it came to using Mid Tier to achieve his integrated pest management objectives and prepare for the ELM scheme.

  1. Create linear habitat to encourage beneficials by using AB8 (flower-rich margins) across the whole farm, establishing 32 in-field strips (two-thirds done, the remainder to go in this year).
  2. Bring blackgrass under control by using SW6 (overwinter cover crops) ahead of spring cropping, making use of a phacelia/black oat mix which allows the blackgrass to germinate.
  3. Use AB15 (two-year legume fallows) as a low-risk oilseed rape replacement and to improve soil health, putting it on the poorest land.
  4. Establish areas of AB9 (wild bird cover) on unproductive ground to balance the scheme.

The acid test: Does it pay?

Mark Chandler has committed 440ha to the Mid Tier agreement. Of that 52ha is in the two-year legume fallow (payment £652/ha), 57ha in flower margins (payment £539/ha), 10ha in winter bird food (£640/ha) and 101ha in winter cover crops (£114/ha).

His annual funding through Mid Tier is £76,000, or £173/ha. The changes made see 16% of his arable land being taken out of conventional cropping, which means he is now looking closely at reducing his fixed costs.

“They need to come down by £50/ha if we’re going to maintain our labour and machinery costs of £319/ha. I think that’s achievable.”

Looking at the margins, he is quick to point out that none of them come close to winter wheat at over £500/ha. But the Mid Tier options are second, coming in at around £400/ha, ahead of spring crops, winter barley and oilseed rape.

There are costs associated with establishing in-field strips and they do need managing, with regular topping taking place in the first year and cutting and baling in the second, he points out.

“You have to give habitat as much attention as you give your wheat crop initially, and get it to fit – both practically and physically – into your farming system.”

Winter cover crops, which don’t affect the amount of cropped area, have increased his spring cropping margins by £60/ha. “We would be doing those anyway, but now they are funded.”

Margin comparison at Moor Farm (£/ha)

  Income     Net margin
Winter wheat  1,350   513
Winter barley     1,080  279
Oilseed rape 560 -205
Spring barley  756 140*
Soya 750 234*
Spring beans 620 134*
*Includes SW6 payment of £114/ha        

Mark Chandler spoke to Farmers Weekly as part of the AHDB’s Monitor Farm Mondays series. He is the host of the Petworth Monitor Farm, a participant in the Assist research project and a member of the Rother Valley Farmer Cluster Group.  

Need a contractor?

Find one now

Explore more / Transition

This article forms part of Farmers Weekly’s Transition series, which looks at how farmers can make their businesses more financially and environmentally sustainable.

During the series we follow our group of 16 Transition Farmers through the challenges and opportunities as they seek to improve their farm businesses.

Transition is an independent editorial initiative supported by our UK-wide network of partners, who have made it possible to bring you this series.

Visit the Transition content hub to find out more.