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Soil, trees and water

Mark Machin, business development manager at Soil Association Certification, explores the connection between organic farming and World Environment Day 2024
Aerial view of the agroforestry system at Wakelyns, Suffolk

This article first appeared in our World Environment Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 05 June 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Main image: Aerial view of the agroforestry system at Wakelyns, Suffolk

Both founded in 1973, the timeline of World Environment Day is synonymous with that of Soil Association Certification.

This year’s World Environment Day theme – land restoration, desertification and drought resilience – got me thinking about the way we farm and its impact on soil health, and in turn the ability of soil to respond to water security issues.

While we have experienced periods of drought in our own climate, our island remains predominantly a wet one; after a particularly long and wet spring, there is a flip side to water resilience.

Changes of land use can help slow the movement of water on our uplands; this means that spreading the burden of high rainfall and improved soil health can help agricultural land hold more water before it becomes a problem.

Waterlogged fields are not great places for the heavy machinery needed at the beginning of a growing season. In fact, many growers have had to delay planting this year, reducing the overall productivity of some farms and putting certain farming business models at risk.

Agroforestry in action

One approach farmers are adopting to mitigate water issues is agroforestry – the practice of planting trees as an integral part of the farm in order to boost the land’s productivity.

Agroforestry is a good example of farmers thinking about diversity and using trees to improve water flow across the land.

A recent visit to one of our organic farmers, who is experimenting with agroforestry, showed water management in the soil in action.

The soil on a piece of farmland there had previously been degraded by a more intensive approach. It had become waterlogged to such an extent it was not going to be suitable for a horticultural enterprise.

The farmer has introduced a mixed tree crop and small poultry activity, which has turned the future of this piece of land around.

A few years into the project, the soil is building fertility thanks to a more varied root system, and draining better than before thanks to improved soil health.

In the early ears, the chickens helped to control competing plants around the young trees and made the land more profitable for the farmer during the early period, when the trees were not cropping or bringing in an income.

What was a problem field for the farmer has become a case study for how we might produce food for a changing world.

Farming and waterways

With only 3% of total agricultural land practising agroforestry, this approach is still in a minority and there is a steep learning curve for farmers transitioning to producing food in this way.

It is perhaps reassuring to read in the news that water companies have an increasing awareness about the impact of farming on our waterways.

Reading in Farmers Weekly, I see a number of water companies creating financial packages for farmers to manage the land regeneratively.

Severn and Trent Water believes that for every £1 it invests in such schemes, it saves up to £20 in water treatment costs, plus a further £4 in wider environmental benefits – not to mention reducing flood risk in vulnerable areas.

Land use and the SDGs

Turning back to the UN’s World Environment Day, carbon sequestration in farming and better forest management are among the most cost-effective ways to reduce net emissions and deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In fact, after energy production and use, farming and land use is the biggest mitigating factor we have in our sustainability armoury.

While finance may encourage farmers to make changes in how they look after our food system, we all have a part to play in sustaining that change.

Using our consumer choices to back a different approach to agriculture is one of the singular things we can do to maintain a market for pioneering farmers who are transitioning our food system.

An individual consumer’s purchasing may seem insignificant when facing global threats, but – perhaps like the water companies – small purchases can amplify to bigger returns for nature and water resilience for society.

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