Soil Association conference highlights grassroots innovation in farming, growing and land use
‘Giving it Welly’, day two of the Soil Association’s annual conference called for farmers to be at the heart of agricultural research and innovation. Chaired by BBC Radio 4 Farming Today’s Charlotte Smith, the conference explored farmer led innovation in developing countries and learning from other sectors including health, the arts and education. The winner of the Soil Association’s new Innovation Award, voted by conference delegates was also announced.
Professor Nic Lampkin, Director of the Organic Research Centre, set out the research priorities for organic farming, which he argued could be game-changing for the wider farming sector. He reminded delegates that innovations and technologies that have changed farming throughout history have been led by farmers themselves, citing the plough as an example. ‘Sometimes we have to stop and ask ourselves who research is for,’ he said.
Practical examples were shared from the Soil Association’s Duchy Original’s Future Farming Programme, which brings farmers together to learn from each other through ‘field labs’ – matching experimenting farmers with skilled researchers. This approach was strongly endorsed by the NFU Vice President Adam Quinney and Professor Tim Benton, UK Champion for Global Food Security. In his conference address, Tim Benton highlighted the importance of diversity for sustainability and resilience to the changing world – emphasising that more focus should be on the quality and kind of food we produce, asking “Should we be thinking about sustainable nutrition not sustainable agriculture?”
Speaking about the conference Helen Browning, Soil Association chief executive said; “the conference has helped me understand how innovation happens in farming, why some ideas fly and become the norm, and why others struggle. ‘Small is beautiful’ was also a heartening lesson; that most social innovation comes from smaller businesses and organisations, which don’t have the baggage or bureaucracy. Applying more creative thinking to farming and food systems is a challenge we are up for and I know a lot of our farmers are too!”
Following three rounds of very lively debate and voting from conference delegates, Ezee Tree won the 2013 Soil Association Innovation award for their biodegradable tree guards. With the rise in agro-forestry as a farming system that has positive ecological and economic benefits, Ezee Tree looks set for a great future. Aquagronomy (who developed a wheel track roller to reduce soil compaction helping with water run off) and Farm Drop (a new system for connecting people with local producers) were runners up. The Innovation Award rewards excellence in innovative approaches to sustainable, low impact farming and growing. The winner received a cash prize of £3,000, with two runner-up prizes of £1,000 each.
Natalie Davies, Managing Director, Ezee Tree Limited said; “Team Ezee Tree are delighted to have won the Soil Association’s Innovation Award, it’s great to be recognised for all the hard work and dedication our family team has put in, it’s such a simple idea but did take a considerable amount of research, design and time to be able to launch the Ezee Tree Guard. Plastic has an impact on all of us and we believe everyone is realising this like we did when we first came across plastic guards five and a half years ago when planting some trees. We are proud to have developed and now can offer a true, cost effective alternative!”
Conference speakers highlighted how much organic and non-organic farmers can learn from each other and how organic farmers drive innovation relevant to the farming industry as a whole. Tina Barsby, Director, National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) gave examples of how regulations restricting agro-chemicals, herbicide resistance and rising prices are driving non-organic farmers to look to the weed/pest management practices of their organic neighbours for ‘new’ solutions. She also confirmed that there is a place at the table for organic and ecological agriculture in the Government’s new agri-tech strategy.
Reflecting on the evidence showing that organic farming systems are both dynamic and innovative, the conference called for more research funding to be opened up to farmers to drive practical solutions and change, and for the research and innovation that so many farmers across the UK already carry out on a daily basis, to be recognized, backed and celebrated.