A project in Cornwall is helping farmers improve their environmental impact by reducing their carbon footprint.
Three farms that have joined Farm Net Zero are aiming to become net zero within five years, while 40 others are working to reduce their emissions by 30%.
The project supports farmers to implement changes, including in grazing management and compost use.
Dr. Hannah Jones of Farm Net Zero said farmers are leading the changes.
“The farmers come up with the ideas, innovations because it has to fit within their company,” she said.
“Any innovation… it will potentially succeed, but it can also fail, so for the farmer they need to understand that risk and we will support them with the data to make the decision whether that worked or not.”
The UK has committed to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050
According to the government, agriculture was responsible for 11% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.
Farm Net Zero, funded by the National Lottery’s Community Fund and run in partnership with a number of organizations including Duchy College, the Westcountry Rivers Trust and Isles of Scilly-based community interest company Farm Carbon Toolkit (FCT), aims to agriculture can contribute to achieving net zero.
Kate and Will Martin have worked at Treway Farm near St Austell for 15 years. They joined the Farm Net Zero project a few months ago as one of 40 monitor farms aiming to reduce emissions by 30% over five years.
In recent years they have switched from feeding grain to gain weight for slaughter to feeding 100% grass and silage from their own soil.
Their animals are now moved to new pastures every day.
The Martins said the system reduced fertilizer needs and improved their soil health, and they were curious about the impact it had on their carbon footprint.
“We wanted to get involved to know that we are doing the right thing for nature and that we are not a CO2 emitter, but actually sinking more carbon into our fields and that it is a much more sustainable business going forward,” said Mr. Martin.
Ms Martin said they sold all their meat directly to the customer and there was a “huge difference” between the meat from grain-fed and grass-fed cattle.
“You can see very clearly in the meat how the fat is very yellow,” she said.
“That’s from the grass, so you won’t see that nice yellow fat in any animal that’s been fed grain…and that’s why it tastes good.”
She said the cattle were “magical machines because they eat grass that we can’t eat and turn it into nutritious food.”
Dr. Jones, soil and carbon consultant at FCT, said measuring soil health and the carbon stored in it was one of the ways Farm Net Zero calculates farm progress.
Farmers can then calculate their carbon footprint using a specialized calculator that takes into account details about their farm, including livestock, inputs such as fertilizers, and landscape and soil carbon to show total carbon emissions and offsets.
Between Looe and Liskeard is Pensipple Farm where three generations of Anthony Ellis’ family have worked the land.
The mixed arable and sheep farm is already achieving its target of reducing emissions by 30%.
Mr. Ellis said, “Apparently we are carbon negative at this point.”
He said the farm had captured the equivalent of about 80 more tons of carbon than it had produced in the past two years.
There isn’t one change responsible for the reduction – instead Mr Ellis said it was about making much smaller changes.
His sheep graze on a rotational basis under solar panels, farm trucks run on biodiesel, while the central heating in the home is powered by oats grown on the farm.
“We are trying to develop a farming system that is much less dependent on artificial inputs and so the sheep are a big part of that because they are very, very good at recycling nutrients through the system, through the soil,” Ellis said. .
Mr Ellis said one of the things he was “particularly proud” of was that he had not used any insecticide on the farm for the past four years.
He said his fields were relatively small – about eight acres – and the use of the chemicals had caused beneficial insects to accumulate in the hedgerows around each field.
He said it was about “keeping your spirits up and trusting that nature probably has a solution to the problem.”
He said, “All these little things contribute to a better farming environment.”
Mr. Ellis also likes to experiment.
Part of one of his wheat fields was grazed by his sheep in early February to see if that affected Septoria – a disease that can reduce wheat yields.
He says it seems to be working and he plans to apply the method to the entire harvest next year.
“It is the disease that we focus on above all else and what we have seen grazing the sheep is Septoria that had built up over the winter being taken away by the sheep,” he said.
“Hopefully we get higher yields and a reduction in inputs.”
The Farm Net Zero project is about half way through its five years and Dr. Jones said it was “gaining momentum,” with hundreds of farmers attending events and farm walks.
“We learn a lot together,” she said.
“If you’re on a field walk with a neighboring farm…that’s proven that that innovation that reduces carbon footprint improves soil health, improves farm resilience, if that works, you’re going to get a lot of trust from those other farm
ers and thinking ‘right why can’t I do it?'”
She said improved soil health would also benefit the wider community.
“A higher quality soil, a higher carbon soil holds a lot more water and by holding the water it not only supports better growth in a drought but… if the soil holds a lot more water we reduce floods, there is much less, so there is less pollution, rivers and streams stay clean and the water companies have to clean up less.”
Mr Ellis added: “For me the carbon footprint is kind of a secondary story, there’s a much bigger story here around sustainability and landscape regeneration…for me it’s creating a farming system that means that in 20 , 30, In 40, 80 years my children can continue to farm here if they want to and the land will still be in a suitable condition to produce food.”
Follow up on BBC News South West Twitter, Facebook And Instagram. Send your story ideas to email@example.com