Many people think that ‘sustainable’ farming just means that farmers must protect the environment and encourage biodiversity on their farms. However, an attractive farm may look appealing, but its beauty cannot be sold or eaten at a market. Therefore, the decision as to what takes precedence can be difficult. The truth is that genuinely sustainable farming can only be achieved by looking after the environment whilst producing lots of high quality food, and making a profit.
Why do farmers need help?
There was a time when all farmers really had to worry about was their crop and the weather, but today’s farmers have many more skills and roles. Besides having to understand biology, genetics, engineering and technology, they also have to bear in mind finance, accountancy, public relations and all of the regulations that govern how our food is produced. Of course they can’t be experts in all of these, so they turn to others for advice. That’s also true when it comes to protecting biodiversity and the environment – farmers need practical advice and expert guidance. That’s why industry associations, Government departments and nature organisations support practical research projects like SAFFIE.
What is SAFFIE?
SAFFIE stands for Sustainable Arable Farming For an Improved Environment. With 20 partner organisations, including Syngenta, it ran over 5 years. The aim was to scientifically investigate ways to promote biodiversity in fields of winter cereal crops (such as winter wheat), without affecting crop yield or efficiency, and then provide practical advice to farmers.
What was involved?
Over 5 years, scientists ran experiments on a number of trial farms across the UK. The project tried to promote farmland biodiversity by testing new agricultural practices in two areas on the farms:
- In the crop: by allowing more of certain types of weedy plants to survive there
- In the field margins: by sowing special mixtures of grasses and wildflowers and then managing them appropriately for wildlife.
In both cases the aim was to provide more of the ‘food plants’ that insects eat, so that their total numbers would increase. Farmland birds and animals would then also benefit from increased insect and seed populations.
A further part of the research was to encourage farmland birds, particularly the Skylark (a species whose population has dropped 60% in the last 40 years), to breed more successfully in winter. One technique was to provide ‘skylark scrapes’, which are small ‘uncropped’ areas in the centre of the wheat crop. These 4m x 4m squares become areas of soil and low vegetation where skylarks can land, find food and find access to nesting sites in the summer, as during this time the wheat crop is too tall for them.
In the final phase of the project, the scientists tested the field margin and skylark plot techniques together on farms, and studied how these would interact for the benefit of wildlife.
What were the results?
In the crop techniques: Allowing more weeds to grow in a crop is not sustainable if the weeds as they are still fighting the crops for nutrients. Finding conditions that would let some ‘friendly’ weeds grow - whilst keeping the problem weeds out - was extremely difficult. So while there might be some benefits for biodiversity, this just wouldn’t work for farmers.
Field Margin Techniques: The different wildflower and grass mixtures the scientists tried had real benefits for insects and other wildlife. Some beneficial insect populations increased by up to 80% and birds benefited from this too.
Skylark plots: Over the period of the study, fields with skylark plots saw a 50% increase in the number of chicks reared. Other birds such as buntings and finches also benefited. There is a cost to farmers in creating skylark plots, but it is manageable with the right support.
What was the outcome?
A full report and advisory booklet was publshed at the end of the project. This booklet provides clear examples and practical guidance on how to use the SAFFIE techniques on farms, including the expected costs for the farmer. Some of the recommendations in the booklet, such as introducing skylark plots, are now part of the Entry Level Scheme (ELS) by which farmers in the UK can be subsidised for introducing biodiversity-friendly features on their farms.