Category Archives: The Bigger Picture Blog

The Bigger Picture Blog will endeavour to keep you up to date with the big issues in agriculture, specifically relating to IFM and sustainable agriculture and reports on meeting with government bodies.

Bats and Owls at Balruddery

Euan at Potatoes In Practice 1

Euan Caldwell, Head of Farms, Field and Glasshouse Facilities at the James Hutton Institute

The James Hutton Institute is a LEAF Innovation Centre that is committed to promoting and developing Integrated Farm Management at their sites in Scotland. Euan Caldwell is Head of Farms, Field and Glasshouse Facilities and here he tells us a bit more about the bats and owls that have taken up residence at the Balruddery Site near Perth.

Here at Balruddery we installed a number of bat boxes in 2009 as mitigation for the lost bat roosts in the old byre (the old stone steading at Balruddery was knocked down in 2009). Originally 20 boxes were installed – 5 each of four types. We lost one last winter when it was blown down and destroyed. Last year we moved three boxes to the gully near Balruddery Den – these were ones which had never been used in their original locations.


Bat boxes are checked twice a day

The bat boxes are checked twice annually by David Dodd from David Dodds Associated who is licensed to do so. David checks the boxes to try to identify droppings to establish whether the boxes are in use and clear them of any debris: droppings, old birds’ nests etc. so that the boxes remain usable. To date we have found both Common and Soprano Pipistrelle bats in the boxes. The byre was also used by a shyer species: Natterer’s Bats and I’m hopeful they may move into the boxes eventually.

Bats at Balruddery

Both Common and Soprano Pipistrelle bats have taken up residence at the James Hutton Institute’s Balruddery Site near Perth

The boxes are usually used through the summer by individual male bats, waiting for the autumn breeding season. The females spend the summer in large maternity groups, rearing their young. In the autumn the males set up territories around small roosts and call females, gathering a “harem” of females. We often find these groups in the boxes in autumn. Last autumn there was evidence of a lot of activity in one of the boxes and David suggested it may have been used as a maternity roost, though it’s hard to be sure.

The Tawny Owl is one of bats’ main predators and is capable of taking one in flight in complete darkness. We have had Tawny Owls nesting for the last three years at Balruddery Farm in a nest box we put up ourselves on the eastern fringes of the farm. In years one and two there were two owlets and it was very entertaining to watch them “branch” at dusk, a term used to describe their early attempts at using their wings (jumping from branch to branch) and being fed by the adults who could be seen roosting in a nearby tree during the day.

Euan blog 3

This year there was only one owlet who was particularly adventurous!

This year there was only one owlet who was particularly adventurous! Owlets regularly fall / glide out of their trees during the “branching” stage but they usually manage quite easily to clamber back up into the tree and I have seen this happen several times. However, as this year’s baby was an only child, it seemed to have no incentive to return to the same tree it started from and I struggled to keep up with its movements. I became very familiar with the little squeaks that it made as dusk approached and found it in random trees, in a hedge row, crouching on top of a dyke and once on the main road! But I lost track of it before it properly fledged. It was well attended by the parents and was well fed. It grew at a faster rate than the owlets from previous years and I have no doubt that it made it to adult hood

Our Owls are very entertaining to watch but their presence is also a healthy sign that the habitats we have helped to create, our hedge rows, field margins and beetle banks are sustaining a healthy and productive food chain that enables a top predator like a Tawny Owl to make its home at Balruddery.

Farming: Public Health Benefits

In this post, LEAF Chairman, Stephen Fell, shares his views on farming and public health following a recent Green City Conference.

Part of my own farming business is growing turf, wildflower turf and vegetation mats for green roofs. I have long had an interest in greening urban spaces and have developed a range of products to make that possible. We as farmers who take green space for granted, perhaps forget that over 90% of our population live in urban areas and don’t have ready access to healthy places.

I recently attended a Green City Conference where delegates from around the world debated the benefits of urban green spaces and the issues surrounding the implementation of green infrastructure plans.

What was really interesting was the synergy of thought between what we do in LEAF, in particular through the Let Nature Feed Your Senses programme, and those in the medical and landscape professions speaking at the conference.

Broughton Grounds Farm - Aylesbury College June 2010

A Let Nature Feed Your Senses project visit at Broughton Grounds Farm

Sir Richard Thompson, physician to HM the Queen, concentrated on the health benefits of green spaces. Green gardens in hospitals improve the mood of patients and staff alike “There is a gym outside your window!”. He went through much of the well documented evidence that recovery times are faster and that physical and mental well being is significantly enhanced by access to green, living landscapes. There are huge savings to be made to the NHS budget and architects and builders of hospitals must be made aware of the green benefits. This chimed absolutely with the paper given at LEAF’s recent President’s Event by Gregor Henderson, Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England.

The Landscape Institute represents professional landscape architects. Dr Val Kirby produced their outstanding document ‘Public Health and Landscape‘. It is well worth reading, remembering that we as farmers are landscape architects on a grand scale. The Institute believes that much greater priority needs to be given to prevention of ill health in public and social care. Their challenge was to answer the question: can landscape help create healthy places?

Dr Kirby’s report has an evidence based approach to 5 principles of healthy places. In outlining some of them you will start to see the synergies I mentioned earlier:

Healthy places…

  1. Improve air, water and soil quality, incorporating measures that help us adapt to, and where possible mitigate, climate change.
  2. Help overcome health inequalities and can promote healthy lifestyles
  3. Make people feel comfortable and at ease, increasing social interaction and reducing anti-social behaviour, isolation and stress
  4. Optimise opportunities for working, learning and development
  5. Are restorative, uplifting and healing for both physical and mental health conditions

See what I mean? Integrated Farm Management and Let Nature Feed Your Senses. Town and Country, City and Farmland. Our urban cousins are realising what we have long known – that being out in a green landscape is good for you. It’s much more challenging to create and maintain that green space in the middle of a city, but we as the large scale ‘landscape architects’ have a wonderful opportunity to improve the health of the nation.

By opening our farms, encouraging disadvantaged or convalescing people to experience, see, feel and smell what we can take for granted is a precious gift – perhaps we should all think more about the links between public health and landscape.

stephen-fellStephen Fell is LEAF’s Chairman and Managing Director of the family farming business HR Fell and Sons Ltd, running a flock of 1000 sheep and growing root crops at Thorganby in the Vale of York. He is also Managing Director of Lindum Turf, a business growing and marketing a range of turf and specialist grass and wildflower products.

Notes from an Agricultural Tour of Kenya

Andrew being interviewed for local radio on day one

Andrew being interviewed for local radio on day one

Where in the world are the best examples of Integrated Farm Management (IFM)?  Following Susie Emmett’s post about why Kenya has lots to inspire us, Andrew Burgess, LEAF Trustee and Director of Agriculture at Produce World, shares with us his notes on the same tour. This is the second post in a short series of posts on IFM in Kenya, subscribe to receive them straight to your inbox!

Day 1

Every day’s a School Day
Set off to the airport to meet 3 other farmers at Birmingham, hadn’t a clue what they looked like.

Didn’t take long to spot the ‘Farmer on Tour Hat’ and we all met up. Then off to Amsterdam to meet the other 6 farmers in the team.  Sat next to Tony on the plane to Nairobi, we got chatting about each other’s farms and business, and the learning began.

The farmers on the trip are all of the ‘learned’ types, Nuffield scholars etc., so a pretty good bunch to bounce theories and ideas around, should lead to a stimulating and useful trip.

After a rough night on the plane and the rigours of Nairobi airport we were determined to stay awake so we went to the Elephant Orphanage and then onto the Nairobi branch of the Farmers Club for a good old fashioned colonial Sunday lunch.

Now arrived at the hotel to meet 2 local radio journalists, it’s a great time to be interviewed having now been up for 36 hours! Team building tonight!

Over and Out

Farmer Andrew

Day 2

Life after Pesticides

Real IPM with Real IPM
Wow, what a day, I thought my head would explode with new knowledge overload, I’ve seen some fantastic things today which give me great hope that there will be life after pesticides.

We met a fantastic and philanthropic couple (look it up) who hailed from Norfolk and have now made their lives in Kenya, both from an academic research background they have created 2 magnificent but intertwined organisations.

Firstly Real IPM Ltd
They have developed a menu of products to tackle nutrition, pests and diseases using beneficial insects and fungi. I won’t go into massive technical detail other than to say that I left the place hugely inspired and motivated to test these ideas on a field scale in the UK. I think they have the potential to be a big part of pest control in brassica growing and very interesting for Potato Cyst Nematode reduction. Henry and Louise Wainwright had huge credibility the way they explained the research, production and use of these products, which are used on outdoor field scale here in Kenya.

Secondly REAL Impact
Which is a charity, they have developed a range of simple and very low cost solutions to help small Kenyan farmers produce more food, highly nutritious, especially in Vitamin A & Selenium. 1m square vertical gardens, worm farms to recycle food waste back into fertilizers, mini AD plant to run your cooker and hot water, water harvesting & they are training people how to use these things alongside there very affordable bio solutions. (See pictures) This all fits in with their big purpose, which is based on the fact that Aids viral treatments don’t work unless the user has a good diet. To put that into perspective 30% of students at the local university are HIV positive.

There big issue is what to do next, they need capital to role out this fantastic work but they don’t want to sell out to un-ethical corporate business, how about an ethically based crowd funding campaign.

After a fantastic lunch on the veranda we travelled to an Avacodo farm, producing fruit for UK retail, it was out of season but still interesting.

We then crossed the equator en route to our overnight stop, in case you’ve always wandered the water goes clockwise around the hole 20m North and anti-clockwise 20m South and yes, straight down if you’re on the line itself.

I am staying in a tent in the bush 200m from the very remote lodge where the rest of the team is staying, it might be an interesting night!!

Over and Out

Farmer Andrew

Day 3

Farming in the Wild West
A very different day today, not so mind expanding but much more into farming on the edge.

We met Apollo who is Director of Agriculture and CSR for KHE, Kenyan Horticulture Exports. A very impressive man who was very passionate about his farm, his community and all things Kenyan; he never stopped smiling and laughing all day.

They grow Fine and Runner beans, tender stem broccoli, mange tout, baby corn and will shortly be into year round asparagus production. They export 95% of their crops mostly to UK.

We visited his plant nursery to start, all hand done, compost into trays, seeding etc., They make their own steam sterilised compost with only 30% peat added, so it can be done! Although the plants had a few unhealthy specimens among them.

Then to the fields, again hand planting and weeding, crops were good and it seems performance is improving on the back of new investment after 7 years of lean; it is biblical here!

photo[3]The highlight of the day for me was seeing the new Waitrose foundation maternity hospital, built in the middle of nowhere and servicing a community seemingly forgotten by its own government. They have also built a five classroom sized school and funded the teachers.

The Waitrose Foundation channels money from retail sales and distributors directly back to projects that the communities growing crops for them want. It seemed to me to be a very efficient way of doing good in Africa, little beaurocacy and little chance of people to fiddle a bit of cash for themselves.

We had a great debate about the rights and wrongs of exporting food from Kenya where 4 million people needed food aid last year, I’ll cover this on its own later in the week because I need to put both sides of the debate so you can decide.

Over and Out

Farmer Andrew

Day 4

Farming on Mount Kenya
Today we visited Finlay’s farm on the slopes of mount Kenya, although we were virtually on the equator we were also at 2300m altitude so the weather was fresher and suited to UK style cropping. The farm is managed by Marcus Rayner, who worked for Produce World before he moved here 2 years ago.

There has been a lot of investment in reservoirs, the Packhouse and covered growing. The farm felt like a happy place, lots of smiles and waves from the local workers, Marcus travels around the farm every day on a motorbike and is clearly connected to his workforce. He has also improved yields and productivity.

They grow Tender stem broccoli, sugar snap peas, mange tout, fine beans and runner beans, which have supplementary lighting to simulate UK Sumer day length.

Also a fast developing fresh herbs business, mostly in tunnels with bio pest control, the crops looked & tasted wonderful, especially the aniseed flavoured Thai Basil mmmm!

photo 1But it was also had a pioneer feel about it, triumph, (great looking crops) and disaster  (120 mm hail storm in 3 hours) are close cousins in African farming. We then set out on a long drive down a very rough track through some wild grazing country to our overnight stop, we heard a clunking noise so stopped to check and the wheel nuts were all loose, close shave!

Over and Out

Farmer Andrew

Day 5

Ladies like Orange Roses
A long day today, up at 5am for our first bit of R&R, we went on a short drive around a game reserve, saw rhino, giraffe, buffalo, Jackal and various bok. The scary bit was a big male baboon actually getting inside the van whilst some of the boys were still in it, we’re laughing now but could’ve been nasty.

We visited Ravine Roses today, a very impressive company, owned by a local family with a very philanthropic approach, we learned about rose production using tunnels (on the equator very hot) integrated pest management, producing their own predator bugs, Swahili name dudu.

We also learnt about Fairtrade, I now I finally get it. 10% of the ex farm price is put straight into the farms FT fund, this is administered and spent through a transparent and democratic process run by the workers and community.

To quote Khaled the CEO, it is equally as good as the Waitrose Foundation but run in a different way; in fact we then went to visit a couple of projects where Waitrose Foundation and FT had worked in a joined up way. We visited the nursery funded by the Waitrose Foundation (for infants to 3 years), which is due to be opened next week and the Kindergarten school next door (3-6 years) was funded by FT. We also visited the community centre with library, computer room, doctors and pharmacy, bank and relaxing room.

The business itself is nicely integrated and is LEAF Marque certified, they are rainwater harvesting and have a wetlands reed bed style water purification plant to recycle water from the pack house.

They have a new dairy herd, which to my eye looked very good. Simon our dairy farmer was impressed with the quality of the milking routine and the animal welfare.Ravine roses, dairy 30 cows > AD plant> power fridges & fertility for rose beds!

The muck from the dairy and the green waste from the pack house will be going into an AD plant (under construction) and the gas generated will power the refrigeration unit in the flower pack house, these guys know what they’re doing!

photo[6]I was also very impressed with the team that showed us around, all local and extremely well educated and trained, Peter for instance, as well as being a fantastic communicator, he has a degree in Horticulture, Masters in Agronomy & an MBA, that leaves me for dust!

Anyway folks what you’ve always wandered; Janice (the owner and marketing Director) took us through some UK market research on Roses; did you know that Ladies prefer Orange roses? Before you go rushing out to impress, they still want men to buy them red ones (passion), we suggested a mixed orange and red bunch to cover all bases!

Over and Out

Farmer Andrew

[Many thanks to Andrew for sharing his notes with us!]

Join Agri-Tour Kenya 2014: nine UK farmers wanted

If you would like to be considered for a place for the next tour of good agricultural practice in Kenya then contact Susie Emmett for details of how to apply for the next AgriTour Kenya ( in March 2014.

Agri-Tour Kenya is organised by Green Shoots for Smiths Gore with financial support from RDPE.

Integrated Farm Management: seeking the best examples in the world

Susie Emmett, Green Shoots Productions

Susie Emmett, Green Shoots Productions

Where in the world are the best examples of Integrated Farm Management (IFM)?  Susie Emmett, just back from guiding a group of UK farmers on a study tour of Kenya, blogs about why Kenya has lots to inspire us. This is the first post in a short series of posts on IFM in Kenya, subscribe to receive them straight to your inbox!

Nine UK farmers, two buses, six days, 1,500 kilometres of ground-travel, tours of seven farming businesses, eight crossings of the equator and hours and hours of stimulating in-depth discussions. The result: so many sights and stories to share with farmers, family and friends at home.

Agritour Kenya Farmers on one of eight equator crossings

Kenya Farmers on one of eight equator crossings

Agricultural Tour of Kenya with Green Shoots

Equatorial Africa may not spring to mind for a tour of exceptionally good agricultural practice. But, as I have often seen on and near the Equator in central Kenya, the day length of about 12 hours, the average temperature and availability of water make growing conditions perfect for a wide range of crops from coffee to cabbages. The fantastic conditions do not just bring out the best in the crops, they bring out the best in certain farmers and scientists too. And it’s why I chose Kenya as the destination for a group of UK farmers to see excellent IFM in action.

Biopesticides: can’t beat them

Amidst rolling hills covered with fragrant, blossom-heavy coffee near Thika is the Kenyan business, RealIPM, leading a global agricultural revolution. Owners Dr Henry Wainwright and Louise Labuschagne are wedded to biological pest control, as well as to each other.

With an eye glass we can see the miniscule predatory insects, Phytoseiulus. RealIPM breeds these for sale and shipping in their billions to flower farmers in Kenya, Ethiopia and beyond to eat spider mite, enabling dramatic reductions in chemical pesticide use.

Charles Bracey looks for pest predators

Charles Bracey looks for pest predators

Their field-scale products are impressive too, evident in the magnificent cabbages and carrots knee high around us. Dosed with a beneficial soil microbe, Trichoderma asperellum, they grow bigger, faster – and fight off pests for themselves.

AgriTour Kenya Learning more IFM with every step at RealIPM, Kenya

Learning more IFM with every step at RealIPM, Kenya

RealIPM have pioneered the use of another soil fungus to kill adult insect pests in banana plants. Using bee power to deliver this bio-pesticide to where it’s needed to kill thrips.

Europe lags behind latest IPM techniques

Africa and the Americas are catching on and adopting these new techniques to control pests effectively and boost crop health and yields, but according to Louise Labuschagne, Europe, with the exception of Denmark is lagging far, far behind. And to her frustration, Louise tells us how she hears leading researchers say the only route to boost food production is with genetic modification. “It’s not. I’m sorry if I sound angry. I am.”, she tells us, “What African agriculture is doing with bio-pesticides and other tools is so exciting. We’re just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with these solutions.”

Seeing all this was “mind expanding” for the farmers on the tour, leaving them full of respect for these trail blazers and buzzing with thoughts of how such innovations can become part of IFM back home. Andrew Burgess of Produce World used his blog ( on tour to share his impressions and is offering to host the first UK trials of some of the techniques seen.

Saying it with flowers: Blooming marvellous IFM

In the quiet Kenyan hill town of Eldema Ravine, a rose farm producing 80 million blooms a year nestles in the patchwork of homesteads of the 1,200 workers employed in the fastidious business of growing perfection. It’s a LEAF Marque certified farm. General Manager Peter Kamuren describes the rigorous and smooth-running quality standards system oiled by the high morale of staff and highest standards of management. The display board at the intake to the pack house displaying the day’s statistics of above 95% perfection in over 18,000 blooms picked for packing that day is much admired.

AgriTour Brothers in LEAF

Brothers in LEAF

IFM with community at its heart

The Ravine Roses team consistently supply excellent fresh flowers to four continents: fair dues to their agronomic, ergonomic, and economic skills and the high environmental performance with bio-bed waste water treatment, AD energy generation plant and so on. But it is fair trade and how the farm integrates business ambition with the improvement of quality of life for the surrounding community that is truly awe inspiring. Over half the flowers they sell are fairtrade. The 10% Fairtrade premium, combined with proceeds from Waitrose Foundation, goes not into the farm, but to the community-elected board to invest in facilities such as school classrooms and a community centre with a bank, clinic, IT centre, snooker room and library.

Jamie Gwatkin hands over books from the farmers to the Ravine Rose Community Centre Library

Jamie Gwatkin hands over books from the farmers to the Ravine Rose Community Centre Library

Yes, Kenyan agriculture has problems. Serious problems, I agree. But what the Kenyan farming businesses I describe here demonstrate, is the true essence of ‘smart farming’ or ‘sustainable intensification’ or ‘Integrated Farm Management’ in perfect practice.

The farmers who came on tour agree with me. It’s inspiring. It’s amazing. It’s humbling. See their blogs, and subscribe to this blog for more updates. We’re left buzzing with ideas about what a truly integrated farming business really is. It’s also a jolt and a wake-up call. In the UK more of us need to get the highest level of IFM in principle and then we need to get it into action in our fields, in our food supply chain and in our society.

One key trait in the very best of IFM practitioners is an enthusiasm for helping others to achieve the same high standard. I think it’s great that these Kenyan businesses are prepared to share and show us the way ahead.

Join Agri-Tour Kenya 2014: nine UK farmers wanted

If you would like to be considered for a place for the next tour of good agricultural practice in Kenya then contact Susie Emmett for details of how to apply for the next AgriTour Kenya ( in March 2014.

Agri-Tour Kenya is organised by Green Shoots for Smiths Gore with financial support from RDPE.

Green Shoots Productions is a specialist communication and production company helping farmers and others to to inform, influence and inspire.

Sustainable Agriculture: Show me the money

Next week (it’s come around quickly!), we will be holding our annual President’s Event in London. As always, the response has been tremendous and we’re now fully booked. However, for the first time this year, you can follow the event live on our website! Commentating on the event live will be LEAF Trustee, Cedric Porter – click here to go to the live event page.

The theme of this year’s event is ‘Sustainable Agriculture: Show me the money’. Valuing the outputs of sustainable agriculture is an incredibly difficult task, the public goods farming delivers are vast and often difficult to quantify. This conference will explore the three pillars of sustainability, debate new ideas on how money can be made from each of them and examine LEAF’s role in making this happen.

We interviewed LEAF’s Chief Executive, Caroline Drummond about the theme of this year’s event, you can see the video below. Caroline spoke about the increasing demands society is placing on what it expects from agriculture – ranging from a plentiful supply of affordable food, traceability, a thriving environment and access to a well-managed landscape, bringing with it a host of health and wellbeing benefits.  She explained that new ways of thinking need to be explored to ensure farmers are able to deliver on all these levels, whilst also looking after their own bottom line.   Ultimately, she said, profitability has to lie at the very heart of sustainability.

Get involved in the event by tweeting with the hashtag #LPE13 and follow the event live here!  To keep up to date with our President’s Event, please subscribe to LEAF’s EBrief here.

Changing Perceptions

What a sea change we have seen over recent years in the consuming public’s perception of agriculture. True, the same weary suspects still trot out their mantras about intensive farming ruining the environment, hedgerows ripped out and farmland bird populations reaching dangerous levels, but the reality, I believe, is that many people now have a much greater appreciation of agriculture’s role in producing safe, wholesome food, and that they care about the land that they are custodians of.

The horse meat scandal, the effects of atrocious weather with repercussions affecting two harvests, the plight of some farmers in less favoured areas, and the real hardship of farmers coping with bovine TB, have been regular features in the media.  More people have taken holidays in the UK this year and have discovered how truly beautiful our countryside is.  Here in Yorkshire where I farm, we are spoilt for choice with the unique landscape of the Dales, the purple majesty of the North York Moors, and the rolling splendour of the fertile Wolds.  The barren wastes and the ‘silent spring’ don’t seem to exist as the London based left-wing intelligentsia would have us believe.

LEAF has played a major part in this, with its role in improving communications and engaging local communities. Over a million people have visited farms during Open Farm Sunday since it started seven years ago.  Others visit LEAF Demonstration Farms throughout the year. The NFU has also played a huge role in calmly putting farming’s case in the face of scares and media hysteria.

608The recent “Harvest” series of three programmes on prime time BBC2 shows how far we have come. Andrew Burgess, a LEAF trustee and LEAF Marque producer demonstrated in a most genuine way his passion for growing a range of wholesome vegetables to the highest standard, on a large scale to high environmental standards.  What was noticeable was that the presenters were so enthusiastic about this modern, technology driven harvest, and there was no carping about industrial farming and reliance on poisonous pesticides and fertilisers. Andrew, and his fellow farmers on subsequent nights, have made us a lot of friends out there.

stephen-fellStephen Fell is LEAF’s Chairman and Managing Director of the family farming business HR Fell and Sons Ltd, running a flock of 1000 sheep and growing root crops at Thorganby in the Vale of York. He is also Managing Director of Lindum Turf, a business growing and marketing a range of turf and specialist grass and wildflower products.

GM is not an alternative to good husbandry practices

Good practice and Integrated Farm Management are important regardless of GM technology

Good practice and Integrated Farm Management are important regardless of GM technology

This morning, UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, gave a keynote speech on the subject of GM (Genetic Modification) at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.  Mr Paterson said, “GM has already been used to make crops that can resist attack from specific insect pests or plant diseases.  Other traits are being developed, including using scientific expertise here in the UK.

“We cannot expect to feed tomorrow’s population with yesterday’s agriculture.  We have to use every tool at our disposal.”

At LEAF, we recognise the importance of innovation and technology, including modern biotechnology and developments such as GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). The potential benefits to farmers and consumers need to be clearly identified and weighed against the possible risks.  Risk management is paramount to the decisions being made and as the jury is still out; LEAF will continue to monitor developments.  However, there are several areas that cannot be neglected.

One of these is the need for more research into GM technology.  We need to be able to establish the development of plants that have greater resistance to pests and diseases, more resilience to adverse environments and develop the nutrition value of crops.

Added to this is the importance of beneficial husbandry practices and Integrated Farm Management.  Rotations, safe use of inputs, cultivation choice, variety choice, good record keeping and management systems such as those advocated by LEAF are essential.  GM will never be an alternative to these practices, it has the potential to be one of the tools in the box.

There is a need for rational debate on GM, bringing together researchers, farmers and consumers. At our annual President’s Event in 2011, we brought together Prof Sir David Baulcombe, FRS and Andrew Burgess, Agricultural Director of Produce World, to openly discuss plant genetics and opportunities in agriculture. You can see this discussion in the video below.

Our full position on GMO’s can be found on our website here.

What are your thoughts on GM technology? What are the big questions yet to be answered? Please give us your views in the comments section below.

Bees, neonicotinoids and pollination: moving forward

So three neonicotinoid products are to be banned across Europe for two years from December 1st 2013.  It is evident that there are a range of possible reasons for a decline in bee populations, including diseases such as Varroa, issues surrounding breeding and sufficient food and habitat availability. In two years’ time there will be a review of the ban, but is that long enough to prove anything? I think we’ll just have to wait and see. There are some interesting views on the topic here.

Bee on knapweed

One thing the whole debate has stirred up is the need to do more for bees and other pollinators, and it has given much needed publicity to the importance of bees in the environment.

I spoke to Andrew Hughes, Farm Manager at Trinley Estates, where they’ve done a lot of work to help bees and other pollinating insects thrive on the farm. “I’m a strong believer that if you provide bees with a good variety of plants, populations will be maintained and healthy. We always want to improve the amount and variety of nectar sources with pollen and nectar mixes, wild bird seed mixes, grass strips and we also have a wild flower meadow.  By producing greater plant diversity then we can produce stronger and broader food chains that will rescue some of our most endangered insect and bird species.”

Through some good woodland management, with coppicing and maintaining the flora, there is also a thriving wild bee population in the woodland found on the farm.

Arable reversion meadow at Trinley estates

Arable reversion meadow at Trinley estates

Andrew has also been working with local natural beekeepers, “The aim is to keep bees in as near natural conditions as possible to promote health and vigour and the ability to cope with pests and pathogens”.  And it seems to be working, “Our beekeepers have mentioned that many of the hives around us haven’t been doing so well recently, but where we haven’t taken any honey from the hives in the last few years, they’re doing really well.”

Andrew has been recording the fauna and flora on the farm through photography on its own dedicated website. “Ultimately, I am interested in monitoring population changes from one year to the next. But what it’s really doing is making me much more aware of the species we do have on the farm”. I urge you to take a look – it’s great to see the diversity of wildlife and there are some cracking photos too, my favourites being the hare shots!

Perhaps we hear about this kind of wonderful work disproportionately at LEAF, because of the nature of our members.  At LEAF, we promote Integrated Farm Management, which is an approach delivering sustainable farming.  One part of this is landscape and nature conservation, which sits alongside other areas like crop health and protection. The point is that everything needs to be integrated on the farm, and lots of our members have that approach.

Bees are vital to farming. Integrating positive steps to provide food and habitat for pollinators into commercial farming is something we fully endorse.

What do you think of the neonicotiniod ban? Is there more we can do for pollinating insects or do you think we’re doing enough already? I’d like to hear your views – please comment below.

Further links:

LEDs: Lighting the future of sustainable horticulture?

For many years High Pressure Sodium (HPS) lamps have been the horticultural industry standard for lighting glasshouse production.  However, there has been steady growth in the uptake of LED lighting systems, with many growers now investigating the new opportunities they present.

LED lighting trials in an open glasshouse environment

LED lighting trials in an open glasshouse environment

One application of LED lighting is being investigated by researchers at Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC), a LEAF Innovation Centre in North Yorkshire, UK.  They have been looking at moving horticulture units into highly insulated enclosed warehouses lit by LED lighting systems, often called Urban Farms.

The benefits of production in this way all relate to control – control of the temperature, lighting, water and even to some extent, control of pests and pathogens due to the closed system.  Large savings can be made in heating costs in heavily insulated buildings, compared to glasshouses, and these savings are expected to outweigh lighting costs, especially as each decade LED prices have fallen by a factor of 10 while performance has grown by a factor of 20 (this phenomenon is known as Haitz’ Law).

However, LEDs don’t just have benefits in an Urban Farm system.  Lincolnshire Herbs and Swedeponic have been trialling LEDs extensively during the 2012/13 winter in Sweden and the Czech Republic on their herb crops in glasshouses.  They found that when LEDs were used at the same intensity as their conventional HPS lighting, they could make energy savings of 48%. This is a really significant saving so I was keen to ask Patrick Bastow, who ran the trials, whether there were any downsides to the system:

“No we didn’t see any downsides. Nor did we see the need to increase the heating in the LED crops to cope with the loss of infrared heat that you normally get with HPS.  However, this could be different for different crops.”

A current problem with LED lighting systems is the cost of the installation, although this is expected to fall in the coming years.  With energy savings of 48%, Patrick thinks it could still be several years before an investment would start to pay off.

“It’s looking at around 8 years before we get payback where we run lamps at 3,000 hours per annum such as in Sweden. When we run lamps for less, in the region of 2,000 hours such as in the UK, then payback will be higher. At this level of payback the technology is still a little away from commercialisation – but affordable for trials.”

There are benefits aside from the financial ones, however.  Light pollution is a major issue in planning permission and with local complaints. LED lighting is more directional, which means there will be less light spillage.  Although this hasn’t been proved on a commercial scale, in theory it makes perfect sense.  Of course, any light spillage means that light is not getting to the plants and is lost, so being more targeted could have benefits in efficiency too.

part of the LED4CROPS facility at STC showing the multi-tier growing racks illuminated with Philips Greenpower LED lights.

Part of the LED4CROPS facility at STC showing the multi-tier growing racks illuminated
with Philips Greenpower LED lights.

There are three colours of light (red, blue and far red) which efficiently drive photosynthesis and stimulate the plant to control morphology and flowering time.  LEDs used for horticultural applications emit these colours, but the amount of each colour and how many hours the lights operate can be varied according to ‘light recipes’.  Specific recipes for different crops are being identified in research at STC. Work already carried out in the facility has shown that plant morphology can be greatly altered by changing the ‘light recipe’.  However, controlling the ‘light recipe’ in an open glasshouse environment will need more work.  In Patrick’s trials they achieved almost the same results using three different ‘light recipes’.

So are LED lighting systems a sustainable solution? Patrick certainly thinks so, “Yes they will be. We also found that by using 16% more energy than we use with our current HPS system, we could get up to 250 µmols more light and grow the crop faster.  This will mean more production in less space and remove the need to build more production area.  This is still work in progress but it is another strong financial argument for LEDs on top of payback from energy savings.”

“I would recommend that all glasshouse growers buy a few LED lamps and run some trials, it’s an exciting new tool and growers need to start seeing what it can do for them.”

If you’re thinking of making the transition to LEDs in existing glasshouses or to Urban Farming systems, Stockbridge Technology Centre will provide UK growers with the expertise and knowledge needed to assess the potential benefits, contact Phillip Davis for more details.

What do you think? Do LEDs represent the future for sustainable horticulture? Let us know in the comments section below.

With thanks to Patrick Bastow and Stockbridge Technology Centre.

Measuring what matters

This post also features on the 2degrees network here. 2degrees is the world’s leading community for sustainable business.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure” goes the old management adage. Over the 21 years of LEAF’s existence we’ve gathered a lot of data on farming practices. We’re now taking the next step towards effective measuring of sustainable farming, with our initial results in our new report ‘LEAF – Driving Sustainability’ (launched 19th March 2013).

Sustainability report front coverMuch of the data in the report was from the LEAF Audit. This is one of the tools we offer our farming members. It is a self-assessment farm management tool, which helps farmers take a look at their farm and guides them towards more sustainable practices. The flip side of this is that we can then use this information to monitor trends and assess the progress of our members towards delivering more sustainable agriculture.

We developed 24 objectives for sustainable farming and scored progress towards the objectives using data submitted by LEAF Audit users. Doing this has allowed us to spot trends over time and to assess performance under each of the three pillars of sustainability – economic performance, environmental quality and social health.

We found that farmers who complete the LEAF Audit have an impressive average sustainability index rating of 2.50 out of 3, indicating that the majority of LEAF Audit users’ businesses are economically, environmentally and socially robust. LEAF farmers are strongest when it comes to Environmental Quality with an average score of 2.57, followed closely by Economic Performance at 2.53 and Social Health at 2.13. Although Social Health, which includes engagement with the community, has a lower rating, it is in this area that the greatest gains have been made over the last three years.

Sustainability dashboard

We’ve presented this information in much more detail in our report ‘LEAF – Driving Sustainability’. We set out to do this as transparently as possible; the source of much of the data in the report comes from LEAF Audit responses over the last three years. We also ran two surveys, one with a group of LEAF farmers and another targeted at the food industry to gather views on sustainable food and farming. Richard Perkins, Food, Agriculture and Land Use Specialist at WWF UK, spoke at our seminar at the International Food and Drink Event when we launched the report. He shared his views and advice on developing sustainable farming indicators, “Sustainable farming indicators need to be simple and few. LEAF needs to develop robust and innovative ways of measuring how farmers are progressing towards sustainability targets. They have made a brave start. Moving forward, it is critical that they engage with the wider food and farming sector to ensure that measurement systems are applicable to all farms, not just LEAF farms.”

We wanted to have a few simple indicators and we’ve ended with 24 objectives, which could be simplified. I think this is quite indicative of a first attempt but we’re not hiding from that, we’ve put it out there for the industry and we want your views.

The report is available to download here. Please feel free to share your views with us as comments here, on twitter or via email.