Organic techniques can help conventional growers boost margins

Conventional farmers are being urged to adopt organic farming techniques to cut input costs and boost margins.

A new online resource, called Agricology, which translates scientific research into practical farming advice to help farmers increase food production while maintaining biodiversity has been launched.

The website-based project aims to bring together key agricultural research and turn it into practical advice, which is easy for busy farmers to understand.

Founded by three independent charitable organisations – the Daylesford Foundation, the Organic Research Centre and the Allerton Project – Agricology will offer practical information on ecological farming techniques via its website, on social media and on-farm events.

See also: Defra launches £4.5m sustainable intensification project

The Daylesford Foundation is actively involved in developing Agricology and has pledged nearly £500,000 to the project over the next five years.

Agricology was officially launched on Friday (27 November) to an audience of some 60 farmers, scientists and farming experts at Daylesford Organic Farm in Gloucestershire.

Challenge lies ahead

Speaking at the launch, Alastair Leake, head of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT) Allerton Project, said balancing the needs of food production while conserving the environment – known as “sustainable intensification” – was one of the key challenges of our times.

“We have a real challenge ahead of us,” said Dr Leake.

“In the past 50 years, the amount of land to feed each one of us has dropped from 0.8ha to 0.2ha – and it’s still going down.

“In the UK in the mid-1980s we were 86% self-sufficient in indigenous foods. That is now less than 60% and we’re getting to the situation where every other meal we eat has potentially been grown somewhere else on the planet.

“Over the past 40-50 years, while we have managed to quadruple our wheat yields, at the same time, our Farmland Bird Index and a lot of other important bio-indicators have gone down.

“Agricology seeks to address these conundrums of maintaining good and efficient farm practices, but at the same time engineering biodiversity and the environment.”

Dr Leake gave two examples of farming practices the Allerton Project had developed that were “at the core” of what Agricology seeks to achieve – “beetle banks” and increasing earthworm numbers to improve soils.

Nature’s help

These projects do not involve investing in more chemicals and more machinery, but investing more in what nature can deliver for farmers. 

Taking the example of earthworms, Dr Leake said research had shown an earthworm presence in soils of 400/sq m can increase crop yields by up to 25%.

And the strategy at the Allerton Project of providing more food for earthworms through cover crops has seen some fields reach nearly 800 earthworms per square metre.

“Those worms are turning over about 80t of soil each year without me spending a penny on diesel,” said Dr Leake.

Agricology will also feature farmer and grower profiles, which are designed to stimulate farmer-led innovation.

An important aspect of the project will include farmers sharing practical advice on conventional, integrated and organic farming techniques.

Topics covered by Agricology’s resources will include:

  • Improving soil structure, quality and health
  • Minimising pressure on pests, diseases and weeds
  • Using grassland and homegrown feeds for livestock
  • Reducing antibiotic use
  • Encouraging biodiversity, notably pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Richard Smith, senior farms manager at Daylesford and chairman of the Agricology Steering Group, said: “Each farm has its own environment, yet often advice is too generic or can be driven by a particular agenda.

“By following Agricology, a farmer has access to the best available information, which may be the latest agritech advancement or a traditional skill. Most importantly, it is honest, practical and user-friendly.”

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