Building back better has to mean building back greener, says Suffolk farmer Glenn Buckingham. Judith Tooth reports
Glenn Buckingham sees a stark future for farmers without urgent and comprehensive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But he also sees a much brighter picture, where farms can flourish, if that action is taken.
Farm manager of the Helmingham estate’s home farm for the past 30 years, and NFU county chair for the past three, Glenn set out two very different imaginary news updates in the year 2055 in his recent monthly columns for the regional NFU members’ magazine. He wanted to show what a difference acting ambitiously on the climate crisis could make.
The first reported another poor cereal harvest because of extreme summer drought and a mild wet winter. Temperatures hadn’t fallen below 10°C, affecting vernalisation of winter-sown crops.
Fossil fuel consumption was beginning to decline but was still at 60 million barrels a day, and renewable energy schemes had faltered due to continued negative lobbying by fossil fuel companies.
The second scenario described an excellent harvest, with food security up to 87 per cent. The carbon footprint of food had dropped by 90% in the past 30 years, home-grown fruit and vegetable production continued to rise year on year and food waste was negligible. Global fossil fuel consumption, now at just four million barrels a day, continued to fall, and the carbon cost of electricity now averaged 27 grammes per kilowatt, compared to 260g/kw in 2020.
“I think we lack vision at the moment, but the pandemic has given us an example of how we can react, and helped us understand the need to redirect our efforts. We need to galvanise our farming unions globally.”
Hill Farm, Framsden, is one of six tenanted farms on the estate – which has been home to the Tollemache family since the Hall was completed in 1510. Glenn farms 800ha, 525ha of which is combinable crops – wheat, winter and spring barley and oilseed rape.
Red and fallow deer, and sheep, graze in the parkland surrounding Helmingham Hall, and 50 meadows averaging 2ha a piece are used for grazing or hay. It’s a rolling landscape with around 67km of hedgerows.
Glenn describes his approach to farming as “realistic, pragmatic and mindful of resource consumption”. Cultivations are a case in point: while the farm’s former plough-based system used more than 110 litres of diesel per hectare, it dropped to 47l/ha with direct drilling. But problems developed with the change in system, and a min till approach is now used, using around 62l/ha.
“We started direct drilling in 2000,” he says. “With staff retiring and grain prices under £75 a tonne, it made sense. I was part of a syndicate for a while, and then went down the Claydon route.”
But autumn 2012 was a very different season, and I think no till can have limitations in our climate: there are differences with the Continent and further afield. Glenn was seeing an increase in blackgrass, and, while we could use glyphosate, in-crop herbicides were running out of steam.
“We had to change: we introduced more spring cropping, waited for chitting in the autumn and moved to min till, with just one cultivation before drilling. That seems to be about right for the Beccles and Hanslope soils here, and it’s one system that works across the farm.”
Greater accuracy through GPS guidance on the farm’s main tractor and combine has also contributed to the reduction in diesel use, by 5-7%. Variable seed rate application has had less impact, perhaps because soils across the farm are quite uniform.
But nozzle controls have increased accuracy of fertiliser applications – which is just as well, because at least 3.5kg of carbon is lost for every one of inorganic nitrogen fertiliser applied, according to Glenn.
“About 40% of an arable farmer’s carbon footprint is down to fertiliser – so it’s one of the targets we must look at. I think we should be encouraged to analyse the nitrogen content of the grain we produce, because if it’s too high, it shows we’ve over-applied.”
Pesticides are responsible for probably another 40 per cent of carbon emissions, he says, and the more they’re used, the higher the footprint. Using resistant varieties, integrated pest management and companion crops are all part of the solution to a more sustainable farming system. Late insecticides haven’t been used on cereals for probably 20 years, and he’s stopped using pre-harvest glyphosate on them, too.
Glenn is trying companion cropping for the first time this autumn, growing buckwheat, berseem clover and fenugreek with oilseed rape. Last autumn, the oilseed rape crop was lost to cabbage stem flea beetle, while winter cereals were drilled without incident. This time around, the oilseed rape looks very healthy, but drilling cereals has been difficult.
Winter barley was all in by mid-October using the farm’s Vaderstad Rapid drill. But, with persistent rainfall, it was going to be too heavy to drill wheat on the wet clay soils. Anticipating the problem, Glenn went back to basics, and lined up two 1970s Nordsten Lift-o-Matic drills, one borrowed, one picked up second hand.
“They’re lightweight so I thought they’d be good in wet conditions. And drilling went well: we completed the job and the crops are up. We would not have done it with our other machines.”
Glenn would like to see the carbon footprint of farming given higher priority in education: “How much is taught in agricultural college syllabuses? I discussed this with Lord Deben, who chairs the independent committee on climate change, earlier this year, and he was keen to follow it up.
“We also need standardisation of a carbon footprinting tool.”
Six years ago every arable hectare on the farm was tested for soil organic matter levels to provide a base against which future tests can be compared. And cover crops are under consideration.
“We ought to be growing them – so what’s stopping us? I think it’s understanding their total value to the farm, fitting in another job, and cost. But I certainly should be moving the farm down the regenerative farming route, and having no bare soil would be the ambition.”
A broader hope is to see a change from the country’s centralised food system to a more localised one: “We need to engage, understand and buy local, and I think there should be an incentive for farmers around towns and cities to grow for those local populations. And, going forward, we need to look at the Environmental Land Management scheme, and ask, is it right, is it fit?
“As for the government’s 10-point plan for a green recovery, is there anything there for agriculture apart from planting trees? Trees are great, yes, they will absorb carbon in time – and if they are fruit or nut trees, they will provide us with food, too – but we need action much sooner to reduce carbon emissions.
“It’s almost a systems rethink: build back better definitely needs to be build back greener. Society, given choices and the starkness of the situation, will change lifestyle, and agriculture will change and respond – though it could be difficult for some sectors.”