Following on from the successful Field to Fork webinar, Tevi and Agri-Tech collaborated on this webinar: improving soil health in Cornwall for landowners and farmers. This event aimed to demonstrate current technological advancements and innovation in Cornwall, by showcasing three brilliant projects run by organisations directly tackling the decline in soil health occurring within the county.

Firstly, Becky Wilson introduced the progress Duchy College has made within agricultural innovation and technological advancement. Duchy College is currently investigating the role of technology and innovation in advancing agricultural processes to increase efficiency, sustainability and profitability. Duchy College is conducting a range of research projects alongside offering grant assistance and graduate training schemes for organisations and businesses developing new technology around sustainable agriculture. Becky illustrated the critical importance of soil health and quoted Paul Harvey’s ‘So God made a Farmer’ speech – “Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains.” Healthy soil underpins our very existence by providing the food we eat, purifying the water we drink, stabilising the land we walk on and stores the excess carbon we produce. Did you know that it can take 400 years to grow just 1cm of soil?

Becky explained that soil health is dependent on four main factors (as illustrated by the Venn diagram below). Firstly, physics – the space and structure of the soil, compactness and aggregate formation. Secondly, chemistry – the soil’s pH levels and nutrient levels which determine what can be grown. Thirdly, biology – the living organisms within the soil that form communities and harness biology to run effective systems. Finally, soil organic carbon (SOC) – the concentration of carbon stored within the soil. SOC is pivotal in driving biological processes, creating soil structure and space and providing chemical balance. All four factors must be managed to ensure soil health, but arguably SOC is the most important aspect to maintain as it affects all other factors. Becky also explained how increased concentration of SOC improves crop yield by increasing infiltration rates, adding porosity, conserving soil aggregation, enhancing nutrient retention and generating more efficient water use. In order to preserve sequestered soil carbon, the aggregated soil must be maintained.

Due to the criticality of soil health, building soil resilience has been placed at the heart of the UK’s emerging policy and as such, soil is now considered natural capital, part of the UK’s asset base. Soil health has finally been recognised as a public good and asset by the UK Government due to the multitude of ecosystem services it provides, meaning that soil service work can be paid for and work improving soil health may be able to receive government subsidies in the future. The ability for soil to sequester and lock in carbon from the atmosphere is key to reducing our emissions  alongside other carbon capture systems.

The recognition of soil as natural capital allows for payments of soil carbon through potential government schemes and companies looking to offset their carbon. Additionally, the higher quantity and quality of yields produced in soil with high concentrations of organic carbon and the reduced costs associated with soil erosion and chemical enhancers mean greater profits for landowners. Becky presented several different methods of increasing soil carbon including land use change, reduced soil erosion, organic amendments – use of manure and bio solids, reduced tillage and use of deep roots in deep soil horizons.

She went on to present her team’s work on the Soil Carbon Project, a collaboration between a farmer-led organisation, Duchy College, Rothamsted Research North Wyke and the University of Plymouth, funded by Agri-tech Cornwall. The Soil Carbon Project aims to help Cornish farmers to manage soil in more sustainable and profitable ways by developing scientifically robust and practical protocols for measuring and valuing soil health and carbon sequestration. The project is focused on three main aims: a) developing methodology to test SOC; b) understanding the impacts of farming management practices on soil health; and c) undertaking financial modelling to determine how a government payment system might work. So far, the project has identified that aggregate stability is the best test for SOC as soil with good physical structure is typically associated with higher levels of carbon and a consistent supply of carbon is required for aggregate formation and soil stability. By identifying this measure of SOC, the project has discovered a cost effective and reliable means of testing SOC and can prove soil health improvement. The project is now working on developing a payment system for landowners and farmers to undertake measures to improve soil health and to increase carbon stocks.

Jim Foote from Bennamann Ltd then presented his impressive and innovate work to harvest emissions by converting bio-methane into Biologically Enhanced Digestase (BED) that improves soil health and reduces waste in an entirely circular system. Jim is a farmer who installed this innovative system at Chynoweth farm with funding from the European Regional Development fund.

The ‘Bennamann Cycle’ system utilises renewable energy with animal waste to supply energy for the farm, making it net zero and taking off the grid, and produces BED that improves soil health and carbon capacity. One product generated from the system is digestase that can be used on fields to replace traditional fertiliser. An aerobic processing plant transforms the digestase into BED that introduces a community of soil-loving organisms, reduces the volume of digestase needed, and creates more dynamic communities of organisms via food chain development and bacterial feeders. BED reduces the pollution potential of applied digestase by locking soluble nutrients within beneficial organisms, reducing spreading volume and can be tailored as a seeding medium.

Jim impressed the importance of the agricultural sector joining the technological revolution and innovating to improve both the sustainability and profitability of their systems. However, he did acknowledge the financial difficulties facing farmers to invest in expensive technology whilst working “on a shoe-string” and argued that the ability for farmers and landowners to invest in research & development is critical in transforming the agricultural sector. The pioneering research taking place on Chynoweth farm demonstrates the potential for technology and circular systems to address many challenges simultaneously, providing an income and benefiting the environment.

Finally, we heard from Steve Evans, from Tree Investment Ltd, who highlighted the benefits of planting and establishing trees in healthy, productive and resilient soils. Tree investment Ltd is focused on promoting and demonstrating the “environmental and economic benefits of a strategic, investment-based approach to tree planting, establishment and management”. Trees provide many benefits to soil including reducing compaction, preventing wind and rain erosion, promoting nutrient cycling, supporting biodiversity and increasing carbon sequestration.

The use of tree products can also improve soil health, for instance wood chippings support fungal populations, which in turn form symbiotic relationships with plants by promoting health, growth and resilience. Additionally, wood chippings boost microbial activity and directly increase soil carbon concentration. Wood chippings can also be inoculated with antiseptic and disease resistant properties to increase crop resilience. Steve explained how the use of salicylic acid from willow trees can be used as a natural disease control. Willow woodchip mulch containing natural plant hormones can directly increase SOC and overall soil health. Steve strongly advocates the planting of willow trees as shelterbelts along field boundaries or in unused water-logged sites as they are fast growing and high yielding species that provide many benefits and can deliver sustainable supplies of woodchip mulch.

The event was concluded with a short question and answer session to directly engage the audience. The main topic discussed was the governmental target of carbon net zero in agriculture by 2040. All speakers recognised the significant challenge in achieving this goal but identified that increased collaboration between scientists and landowners is vital to identify knowledge gaps and drive innovation. Jim also argued the need for acceptance of responsibility along the entire supply chain, from field to fork. If farmers are struggling to make a living due to price squeezes, how can they invest in new technology and progress towards net-zero systems?

To summarise, the speakers expressed their hope that COVID-19’s  impact of people seeking local food stock will force them to re-evaluate their relationship with food and result in increased price points, thus enabling farmers to invest in essential tech and innovation.

As always, a huge thanks you to our speakers for their time supporting this event, and to the audience for their enthusiasm engaging with the speakers through the event and with their questions.

Tevi has many more upcoming webinars exploring the key economic and environmental challenges facing Cornwall. Take a look at our future events here.

Watch the full webinar here: