Sustainable ways to feed a growing population
The Duchy Future Farming programme gives farmers the opportunity to undertake agricultural research, then share it with their peers.
Under the initiative, which is funded by The Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation and supported by Waitrose through sales of Duchy products, 28 field labs have been set up involving 620 farmers. These practical on-farm trials seek to improve sustainability and environmental resilience, and to identify gaps where academic research can make a difference.
But rather than look for a one-size-fits all solution, they are seeking different answers to a slew of local problems.
‘Imagine you are sitting on a train or driving along in your car and looking out the window,’ says Tom MacMillan, director of innovation at the Soil Association charity, which runs the programme. ‘You see that incredible changing patchwork of our countryside and you can imagine how, for farmers in different places, the most efficient, environmentally friendly and cost-effective way of farming might actually look quite different in each place.
‘Those farmers are the ones who are best placed to find the answers that really work for them,’ MacMillan says. This means that the issues tackled are ones raised by farmers themselves.
Among the topics they’ve put forward for trial are exploring natural ways to treat parasites and infection, assessing peatfree compost and looking at ways of extending the egg-laying lives of hens. But although they take the lead in research, farmers are not left to go it alone.
‘We find a scientist who is interested and able to advise farmers on the problem they are trying to solve,’ MacMillan says. ‘The difference is that in a normal research project the scientist is in charge and the farmer might be hosting trials. In this case, the farmers are in charge.
‘What is exciting is that scientists as well as farmers are enthusiastic and can see the potential for it to bring new ideas into their work and help make sure they’re having a real impact on the ground.’
So far results appear positive, with workable solutions being found that are not only environmentally friendly, they are improving efficiency and productivity.
‘Business as usual is just not an option. It just doesn’t add up if we keep going down this route,’ MacMillan says. ‘So the debate is about how to find a different way of doing things and what that looks like. It’s not about whether we need to do anything. ‘Everybody who is at all interested in future challenges facing agriculture is alert to the fact that it cannot continue as it is for very long.'
Duchy Originals Future Farming field labs
Testing herbal repellent on sheep parasites
Manor Farm, Wool, Dorset
Fly strike is a parasitic attack suffered by sheep when flies lay eggs in their wool where the larvae then thrive. Conventional methods of parasite control have relied on synthetic insecticides. However, insects have developed resistance to these chemicals and some insecticides have been found to have negative impacts on human health as well as the environment. This lab examines whether a product derived from the natural plant extracts geraniol and eucalyptus citriodora (right) is effective against fly strike.
Reducing reliance on supplementary pig feeds for better
Peelham Farm, Foulden, Berwickshire
Ancestors of our modern pigs met much of their nutritional requirements from vegetation and invertebrates in their environment – food sources that are relatively high in omega-3 fatty acids. Today’s pigs, however, are fed with grain and, to some extent, imported soya and other oilseed meals. It is thought this modern diet is responsible for high levels of the less healthy omega-6
fats in pork today. There is some evidence that if pigs are encouraged to forage, it is possible to reduce the need for costly feeds and enhance food quality at the same time. This field lab tests this hypothesis by giving them less feed to see if they are able to root out their own food during the summer and live off silage during the winter.
Finding alternatives to peat for vegetable growers
Tolhurst Organic Produce, Hardwick, West Berkshire
Peat has been used very successfully by farmers and horticulturalists for centuries but it’s environmentally unsustainable. We’re using up peat 200 times faster that it is being generated and extracting it emits greenhouse gases. In this field lab, medium-scale vegetable growers grew seedlings in different peat-free composts to find a viable alternative. In some cases they didn’t germinate well but it was found that the peat-free seedlings popped out of the plastic trays easier. This represents a significant time saving when multiplied across the whole business and on balance was considered more valuable than the better germination rate of peat.
Sharing knowledge to reduce antibiotic use in dairy herds
Eastbrook Farm, Bishopston, Swindon
Dairy cows are often given antibiotics when ill, particularly when they suffer from mastitis, an infection of the udder. This is a problem for farmers because a cow on antibiotics can be taken out of production for days or weeks, thereby losing the farmer money. Antibiotics are also expensive and become less effective the more cows are exposed to them. In this field lab farmers shared knowledge and techniques to treat illness in their herds and were able to reduce antibiotic use across the group. As an alternative to antibiotics, they are also trialling a herbal liniment called Uddermint that is rubbed onto the udders.