Farmers that have ‘redesigned’ their farming systems utilising natural resources, such as clover grass leys in the crop rotation, can help lead the way to securing a healthier future for the environment and their businesses finds a new report.

The report was written by the Organic Research Centre (ORC) and the GWCT’s Allerton Project for the Land Use Policy Group (LUPG). The aim was to investigate how the science of agroecology can play a central role in the way land is managed in the future.

Analysing the practical experiences of a group of farmers from Scotland, England and Wales the report aims to unravel farmer expectations, risks and opportunities to help form future policy in the UK based on agroecological farming practices.

The group of fourteen farmers involved in the study were wide ranging, from small scale to large commercial enterprises with on-farm approaches covering agroforestry, pasture-fed livestock systems, organic and integrated farming with direct drilling and/or integration of livestock in arable operations.

Dr Susanne Padel from the ORC and a co-author of the study said, “This is a time of great change and worry for farmers in the UK. Government is discussing how we rethink the way the countryside is managed to make sure we have a sustainable, profitable, farming industry post Brexit. Our report is therefore extremely timely and provides further insight on the experiences of a wide group of farmers. It adds to the debate on the practical implications of transitioning to agroecology and importantly, how this can be a potential way forward for other farmers.”

The case studies of those farmers involved in the research showed that transition is an active learning process. Generally, the farmers were seeking a long-term economic perspective on future-proofing their farms, for example through investment in the natural capital of soil and soil fertility as well as through premium prices from quality labels (such as organic farming or pasture-fed), direct marketing or engagement with supply chains as well as seeking cost-savings on inputs.

They also reported shifts in their understanding of farming (“change in mind-set, “weeds as forage” and “accepting mess”). Having started with some agroecological practices and seeing positive outcomes, the farmers then considered adopting others to ‘redesign’ their farming systems.

Dr Padel added, “Farmers who are environmentally aware, skilled and knowledgeable have much to offer. Transition to agroecology is a learning process for any farmer which can take time. Various personal, farm specific and external events can trigger farms into thinking about such change and the farmers that participated in our report illustrate quite clearly the benefits to the environment, the productivity achievements as well as the challenges and risks.”

The report concludes that farming systems that work with nature can be profitable and productive while providing both environmental, social and personal benefits. Meeting inspirational people in the UK and abroad, valuing peer to peer exchange of information with like-minded people rather than top-down knowledge transfer were crucial factors.

The report was funded by Scottish Natural Heritage.