Opinion: Monitoring environmental performance can reap dividends

In 2012, I was asked to produce a wildlife and landscape plan on a big Kent arable farm for the Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf) Marque environmental assurance scheme.

Being used to doing these for smaller-scale fruit and veg growers, this was quite a surprise – not to mention the practicalities of getting around a whopping 2,000ha.

The reason for the call was that oilseed crusher ADM was offering a £15/ha premium on Leaf Marque rapeseed to go into Hellman’s mayonnaise.

See also: Delivering for the environment has its complications

The ADM tie-up wedged a foot in the door of broadacre farming for Leaf Marque and raised the tantalising prospect of an extension to other crops. But it fell victim to a shift in corporate strategy, and after the first five years, no more contracts were offered with the premium.

Negligible cost

There is a cost to the Leaf Marque process, and to the bits that need external input, such as my wildlife and landscape plan.

Viewed on a “per hectare, per year” basis, though, it’s peanuts, and if you’re an arable farmer who’s done environmental stewardship and is in the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme, you’ll be on well the way.

You probably have much of what you need stuck away in various filing cabinets; it’s just a question of bringing it together and ordering it.

This is probably puzzling to anyone in the fresh produce sector, used to assurance schemes and major multiples asking for compliance with their own audits, and rarely offering a premium as such.

But Leaf Marque rounds up all these requirements, and once you’ve done it, you should certainly fit anyone else’s scheme. It’s just a pity that growers still have to go through multiple inspections, with auditors following each other up the farm drive.

Currently, Jersey’s dairy and arable farmers are being asked to become Leaf Marque certified as part of the island’s new Rural Economy Strategy.

While I have reservations about what effectively then becomes a compulsory scheme, getting that kind of engagement across a whole sector or geographical area makes a massive statement by the farming industry.  

Huge potential gains

There are huge gains to be had from examining your environmental processes and procedures; a recent independent report on Leaf Marque shows the benefits, for example, to soil and biodiversity.

Farms can also make real financial gains through energy efficiency and improved water use, and there is improved market opportunity and access to premiums, if that’s your driver.

The loss of the ADM premium is a blow, but it’s not just about price premium or market access.

For example, the AHDB is going to use Leaf’s Sustainable Farming Review online management tool, (which enables members to monitor their own performance), as part of measuring its strategic farms’ economic, environmental and social performance.

At an AHDB monitor farm meeting I went to recently, it was made clear that this kind of rigorous benchmarking of the farm business and increased environmental performance are going to be key to future farm business survival.

How can you not want to measure yourself against the best, in every aspect of your business?

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