Reward farmers for building soil fertility, says Andrew Blenkiron

Reward farmers for Natural Capital, says Andrew Blenkiron ahead of Agri-Tech East's REAP conference 2017“We need to go back to how my grandfather farmed, but using modern science,” says Andrew Blenkiron, Estate Director at Euston Estate, Suffolk. He is scheduled to speak at this year’s REAP conference on 7 November, which will focus on how best practice can be enhanced by emerging agri-tech.

“To run environmental schemes is quite a challenge to fit in with the farming side of things, so there should be a reward or enhanced compensation” says Andrew. “However, the complexity of how we are going to calculate that is quite a challenge.”

Natural Capital – which includes the Earth’s stock of water, land and air – applies economic thinking to the use of natural resources. Andrew believes it is critical to manage these assets effectively or lose the benefits they provide to the rural economy. Euston Estate has preserved its natural assets, such as woodland alongside its farming operations.

Andrew oversees all aspects of the 11,000 acre estate, including farming, let land, diverse enterprises, the historic house, shoot and woodland.

Approximately 6,260 acres are farmed, on which wheat, barley, oil seed rape, forage maize and sugar beet are grown. The land is also used for free-range pig and poultry farming, alongside potato, carrot and parsnip production by agreement with other producers.


Arguing the economic benefit

Andrew believes that it is important for long-term soil security to put organic material back on the land, taking the opportunity to build up fertility rather than remove it with the harvest. However, this can be difficult to justify from an economic perspective.

He says: “We need to enhance the utilisation of green manures, catch crops and the integration of more organic material. We are doing that through our various livestock enterprises. Also our anaerobic digestion plant produces a vast amount of organic material on an annual basis.

“I believe that over the last 40 to 50 years, we have become overly reliant on artificial inputs – it’s too easy to get a bag of fertiliser or a can of spray. We’ve got a lot more evidence to demonstrate that sustainable rotations, like my grandfather used to do, is a more sustainable way to boost fertility.

“The biggest challenge that Andrew faces at the moment, is working out the economic benefits of spreading 30,000 tonnes of organic material from the anaerobic digester, compared to the cost of artificial applications. There is maybe no economic gain if you look at it on a straight costings basis, but I know that the organic material will have the longer-term benefit on the soil health.”

Smarter use of water

Euston Estate is making the most of the latest technology to ensure that water is used economically. The irrigation reels have their own build-in sim card, so that they can be controlled remotely by mobile phone apps. Water is applied according to soil moisture probes and accurate weather forecasts. Looking to the future, Andrew already has some ideas of where he would like to see the agri-tech develop.

He says: “We could potentially have farmers’ extraction pumps linked to the Environment Agency controlled gauging stations. If the Environment Agency gauging station on our river had a telemetric link through to their central computers.

“These could tell our pumps when to switch on, when rivers go to a certain level. It could equally tell them when to switch off.

At the moment, somebody comes to the river gauging station and manually takes the information to their office. We then receive a phone call or an email, and we have to go down and switch our pumps on and off.

Sustainability criteria for food imports

“The days of cheap food are not over in the short to medium term,” says Andrew. “As the world population continues to increase, farmers are doing an incredible job, meeting and even exceeding demand.”

However, the Arab Spring of 2008 demonstrated that a rise in grain prices can lead to significant political instability; there is a realisation that there cannot always be a guarantee of cheap food. Andrew believes sustainability should be rewarded.

He says: “We need to have some criteria for the food imported into the UK; it should be measured for its sustainability versus how we can do it here. There are examples from around the world where they are moving vast amounts of water, in the form of fresh produce e.g. tomatoes around the world. In effect we’re moving water from climates that aren’t sustainable in terms of the abstraction of that water from their aquifers. It’s being moved across the world to countries that have enough water.

“The opportunity is here, but the political will isn’t – if we want to continue to provide cheap food. This has either to be through subsidised production in the UK, or through continuing to harvest the natural resources of other countries.

“It can be argued that we may as well take advantage, if other countries wish to destroy their environment and harvest their natural resource – we will still have a vast natural capital that we can call on when we desperately need to feed our nation.”

For further details on the REAP conference, please click here.

Agri-Tech East REAP Conference 2017