A five-year collaboration between utility company Yorkshire Water and a group of innovative county farmers has begun.
The Sustainable Landscapes Wolds Programme includes 17 agricultural businesses covering 10,000 hectares in and around Kilham, near Driffield, East Yorkshire, and is aimed at improving soil health and water quality in the area - with added carbon capture and flood prevention benefits
The programme involves each farmer growing a minimum of 10 hectares of cover crops – dubbed ‘pop up rain forests’ – annually between food crop rotations.
As well as sequestering atmospheric carbon, increasing soil organic matter, and improving the land’s capacity to hold water, they retain nitrogen from fertiliser in fields.
It prevents the leaching off into aquifers and water courses, which then requires removal through costly treatments by the utility provider.
The project is being funded by Yorkshire Water and has been organised by Holme on Spalding Moor-based sustainable supply chain consultancy Future Food Solutions.
It builds on the Sustainable Landscapes Humber Project which last year saw the pair collaborate with a cohort of farmers around the estuary, backed by Birds Eye.
Andrew Walker, asset strategy manager at Yorkshire Water, said: “Soil and water are inextricably linked, and healthy soils are the start of the water purification processes. Tackling the causes of a problem rather than treating the symptoms makes good sense and is likely to be more sustainable.
“Through our work with Future Food Solutions, it has become very clear that activities to improve water quality also have wider environment and societal benefits but are also more profitable for the farmer against more traditional farming techniques.
“By moving away from farming with chemicals and horsepower and embracing techniques that improve the biological functionality of soils, we can deliver more resilient, nutritious and sustainable food; improved biodiversity and pollinators; flood mitigation as well as improved water quality.”
Europe’s first accredited arable soil carbon credit has been developed and piloted by the team this year, and is described as having the potential to revolutionise farming in a way that recognises that regenerative techniques can be the solution to climate issues rather than the cause.
“This latest Sustainable Landscapes initiative shows that there is an appetite within the farming community to embrace collaborative change, but also has the support of some of the largest food and drink companies in the world, as they look to improve environmental performance and implement more holistic and sustainable ways of reducing their carbon footprint,” Mr Walker said. “There is no reason why this approach could not be rolled out more widely.”
The cover crops are made up of a diverse range of plant species chosen for their ability to capture huge amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere and, via their roots, nutrients from previous crops.
The programme is being led by farming couple Liz Sellers and Jeremy Harrison who run Harrison Farms (Kilham) Ltd, a 4,000-acre arable enterprise spread across three farms in Kilham and nearby Sledmere, grow malting barley, wheat, oil seed rape, seed potatoes and vining peas.
The couple have opted for a post-pea cover crop as this best suits their harvest schedule.
Liz said: “Farmers have always worked with sustainability in mind because we have to look after our soils. But there is more impetus now than ever to take part in this trial.
“With basic payments tailing off and a drive to be more efficient, we need to reconsider everything – soil health, water, the nutrients we apply, machinery use – and how these fit into running a sustainable, profitable farming enterprise.
“The great thing about this trial is everything is measurable. We can measure the improvement in soil health and how that improves yield and Yorkshire Water can measure the improvement in the water. If we get this right, everyone wins.”
Previous trials also funded by Yorkshire Water show that growing them can increase above ground biomass by up to 40 tonnes per hectare and that just a one per cent rise in soil organic matter (SOM) enables a hectare of land to absorb an extra 240 tonnes of water.
As the trials achieved significantly more than this – doubling SOM from three per cent to six per cent over five years – the Sustainable Landscapes Wolds Programme has the potential to significantly improve local soil and water quality.
Future Food Solutions director Steve Cann added the collaboration with Yorkshire Water was generating environmental solutions with a global impact.
He said: “By devising practical solutions to the environmental issues the world is facing while at the same time facilitating sustainable food production, Yorkshire Water, ourselves and the farmers we work with are pioneering some truly profound environmental solutions.
“We know we can significantly increase organic matter in soil by growing cover crops, our trials prove that, and what our data tells us is if we could increase SOM by just one per cent in global soils, that would take enough carbon out of the atmosphere to return it to pre-industrial levels.
“What has started out as farm trials in Yorkshire is offering a genuine solution to the issue of climate change around the world.”