Increasing the resilience of farming systems
Farming has always evolved in response to changing situations, markets and technologies, and is undergoing a rapid change now. There is growing awareness of the importance of farming as part of our food system and society, championed by a new generation of commentators and programmes, led by BBC's Countryfile. Investment in agricultural research is now at levels not seen for decades, with the development of new Centres for Agricultural Innovation.
My own research is focussed on an apparently simple problem. Many of Britain's arable soils have been degraded, after years of intensive cropping. This makes the soils less able to cope with extremes of rainfall and drought, that we are already seeing and are likely to get worse under climate change. How can we make these changes in ways that appeal to all farmers, and not just those committed to organic farming?
To answer this, I have linked up with people across the White Rose Universities of York, Sheffield and Leeds, as well as Manchester and FERA, who cover the wide range of skills and knowledge that we now need to understand soils. I am now involved in three major research grants to this White Rose Sustainable Agriculture Consortium.
The first is MycoRhizaSoils. This is a five year experiment to see whether we can use special types of soil fungi, mycorrhizae, that form symbiotic associated with many plants, to improve nutrient uptake by the plants. Here, we are using varieties of wheat of different abilities to associate with mycorrhizae, grown with or without added mycorrhizae using both ploughing and minimum tillage.
The second is SoilBioHedge, which s using corridors of grassland going into arable fields, to see if earthworms, fungi and other organisms will move into the field to benefit the soil. We also have a group of PhD students who are working alongside these experiments, including Katie Ward, who is supervised by Steve Banwart and I.