A five-year collaboration is underway between Yorkshire Water and a group of innovative farmers, who are making a bid to improve water and soil quality on the Yorkshire Wolds.
The Sustainable Landscapes Wolds Programme includes 17 farm businesses covering 10,000 hectares in and around Kilham, near Driffield, East Yorkshire.
The programme involves each farmer growing a minimum of 10 hectares of cover crops – dubbed ‘pop up rain forests’ – which hold nitrates in the soil and prevent them leaching into aquafers and watercourses before needing to be removed at Yorkshire Water’s treatment works.
Pop up rain forests planted each year between food crop rotations also sequester atmospheric carbon, increase soil organic matter (SOM), and improve the land’s capacity to hold water.
The project is being funded by Yorkshire Water and has been organised by Future Food Solutions, a consultancy specialising in making food supply chains more sustainable, from farmer through to consumer.
It builds on the Sustainable Landscapes Humber Project which last year saw Yorkshire Water and Future Food Solutions collaborate with another cohort of farmers to improve soil health and water quality around the Humber estuary.
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 vs 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. More recently we have been able to demonstrate that growing cover crops and ensuring there is always something growing in our fields, we can sequester significant volumes of carbon at the same time.
“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. 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.
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 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 3.0 per cent to 6.0 per cent over five years – the Sustainable Landscapes Wolds Programme is the potential to significantly improve local soil and water quality.
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.
A small amount of their land is contract farmed, but the rest is managed by the Harrison family who grow malting barley, wheat, OSR, 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.”
Liz added that Yorkshire Water had been flexible, allowing each farmer in the group to drill the cover crops when they wanted as long as they met the 10-hectare target.
“For this to work, it needs to fit into our harvest schedule, and that is the same for all the farmers in the group,” she said.
“For us, the best time to drill is post pea, but for others it will be different. The point is, we have to remain a profitable business and this needs to be a part of that. Sustainability is about the environment, of course, but it is also about the long-term future of farming as well. That too, must be sustainable.
“Yorkshire Water see that and with the help of Future Food Solutions, are helping devise strategies which deliver for farming and the environment.”
Paul Rhodes, director of Future Food Solutions, said growing cover crops delivers a host of other valued-added ecological benefits.
He said: “We have supported farmers in growing many thousands of hectares of cover crops and one thing we always say is that you hear them before you see them. The amount of insect and pollinator life they support is phenomenal and that is an increasingly important issue to address.
“The plants’ root structure also holds the topsoil in place reducing erosion, which is another incredibly valuable effect of growing them in scale.”
Fellow 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.”