Tot up the challenges facing British farming at the moment and you can draw up a pretty long list. From coping with the threats posed by a changing climate to meeting the demands of consumers who increasingly want quality, value and environmental benefits from their food and you are asking a lot of farmers.
Add in the fact that they have to make a living in a competitive global market and the challenges stack up.
So step forward the 47 members of staff at North Wyke, the grassland research centre set on 250 hectares of mainly poorly drained heavy clay soils, near Okehampton.
They are putting in the work, with the help of taxpayers’ funding, to come up with the answers that agriculture needs if it is to feed the growing world population in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet.
Central to North Wyke’s work is measuring things. Whether it is the volume of water running off the land in times of high rainfall or the amount of nitrous oxide given off by a measured area of pasture, the scientists in the laboratories and on the land at North Wyke have got it covered.
Robert Orr, principal research scientist and Jennifer Dungait, senior research scientist, are currently focused on a five-year project that is doing everything that farmers would probably want to do themselves by way of on-farm research, if money was no object and they didn’t have to concentrate on making a living.
The North Wyke Farm Platform takes as its starting point forecasts from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation that global food production will need to increase by more than 40% by 2030 and 70% by 2050. That must happen against a background of scarcer water, (though it might not seem like it at the moment) competition for land, changing weather patterns and increased pressure from pests and diseases.
“The North Wyke Farm Platform has been designed to address this challenge in a grassland context,” said Robert. “The overall premise is that grassland systems can be designed and managed to optimise production, whilst minimising negative impact on other ecosystem services.”
The scientists have established three “farmlets” at North Wyke where they are comparing three different systems for grassland management – permanent pasture, pasture with increased planting of legumes, to fix nitrogen and reduce the need for fertiliser and, thirdly, grassland managed under a planned re-seeding system.
Each farmlet, which consists of five fields spread across 20 hectares, is minutely monitored in a way that would be almost impossible on the average family farm. The landscape, 30cm topsoil over a layer of impermeable clay – a feature of many grasslands of northern Devon – is what makes the area ideal for such a project. It means all the water passes through the topsoil and then drains away, hugely assisting the research. That water is captured using nine kilometres of French drains laid around each farmlet, making each area hydrologically isolated.
The water that runs off the land is gathered in a total of 15 flumes and can be analysed for a range of chemicals. Its flow rate can be measured and the amount of sediment it carries carefully assessed. In addition gas measuring equipment placed over areas of pasture find out the volume and type of greenhouse gasses given off. And by grazing sheep and cattle and taking silage cuts, the nutritional quality of the different swards can be worked out. “The scale of all this and opportunity to try new managements is what gives it a globally unique quality,” says Robert. “This is work that is simply not being carried out at this level anywhere else.”
The amount of data that is being gathered is staggering. From truly terrifying rainfall figures for winter 2013-2014, showing 330,000 tonnes of water fell on the 65 hectares of the three farmlets between December 15 and February 15 to examining different varieties of grass – developed in an area outside the Farm Platform – that can be compared for their ability to slow the rate of water run off and potentially reduce the flooding risk.
By the end of the five-year period the scientists believe they will have gathered a unique database of information that can be of use to ordinary farmers, particularly in the Westcountry but also around the world. Robert said: “Farm Platform is about beef and sheep production on soils that most farmers in the South West would recognise. It is also about economic and environmental impacts linked to the way we farm.”
If they were a commercial organisation the information they produce at North Wyke, utilising some of the finest agricultural science brains in the business, might be worth millions. However as a national capability it is made freely available and they even provide training and technical information for visiting farmers and students, from Britain and the rest of the world as part of the deal. But it is, as both Robert and Jennifer acknowledge, their responsibility to disseminate information as quickly and widely as possible to justify their funding, from taxpayers pounds.
There is great pride in the rigour and detail the scientists bring to the work.
“It’s what we are here to do,” said Robert.
“We do it because we think we can make a difference.”
Jennifer adds: “Everybody here feels the same; it’s an incredible team.”
Far from being remote, lab-coated boffins, the scientists at North Wyke know that they are there to serve the needs of real working farmers and all those with an interest in the rural environment.
They are not slavish followers of the “green” agenda, there to show up farming as guilty of causing environmental ills. And they regard it as their duty to challenge some of the accepted prejudices.
Robert says: “A key feature of what we are and who we are is that we are willing to challenge and be challenged.
“I hope we can find ways that farming and agriculture are providing solutions to problems that we have, rather than being a big part of the problem, as they are sometimes perceived now.
“We may find that farming practices are not as problematic as they have been made out in some circles.”
Plenty of farmers will say Amen to that. Scientists at North Wyke are not there to cover up for the damage that farming can do to the environment, but to acknowledge that we all have to eat and to try to help farmers produce food and make a living in as sustainable way as possible.
Those are worthwhile aims. Continued funding, in times of tight public spending settlements, is by no means assured but if ministers are looking to prioritise spending and get value for money in one of the most important areas facing humankind, they could, in the view of the staff at North Wyke, do a lot worse than continue to underwrite this vital work.