Soil Association conference highlights grassroots innovation in farming, growing and land use

11 October 2013

 ‘Giving it Welly’, day two of the Soil Association’s annual conference called for farmers to be at the heart of agricultural research and innovation. Chaired by BBC Radio 4 Farming Today’s Charlotte Smith, the conference explored farmer led innovation in developing countries and learning from other sectors including health, the arts and education. The winner of the Soil Association’s new Innovation Award, voted by conference delegates was also announced.

Professor Nic Lampkin, Director of the Organic Research Centre, set out the research priorities for organic farming, which he argued could be game-changing for the wider farming sector. He reminded delegates that innovations and technologies that have changed farming throughout history have been led by farmers themselves, citing the plough as an example. ‘Sometimes we have to stop and ask ourselves who research is for,’ he said.

Practical examples were shared from the Soil Association’s Duchy Original’s Future Farming Programme, which brings farmers together to learn from each other through ‘field labs’ – matching experimenting farmers with skilled researchers. This approach was strongly endorsed by the NFU Vice President Adam Quinney and Professor Tim Benton, UK Champion for Global Food Security. In his conference address, Tim Benton highlighted the importance of diversity for sustainability and resilience to the changing world - emphasising that more focus should be on the quality and kind of food we produce, asking “Should we be thinking about sustainable nutrition not sustainable agriculture?”

Speaking about the conference Helen Browning, Soil Association chief executive said; “the conference has helped me understand how innovation happens in farming, why some ideas fly and become the norm, and why others struggle. ‘Small is beautiful’ was also a heartening lesson; that most social innovation comes from smaller businesses and organisations, which don’t have the baggage or bureaucracy. Applying more creative thinking to farming and food systems is a challenge we are up for and I know a lot of our farmers are too!”

Following three rounds of very lively debate and voting from conference delegates, Ezee Tree won the 2013 Soil Association Innovation award for their biodegradable tree guards. With the rise in agro-forestry as a farming system that has positive ecological and economic benefits, Ezee Tree looks set for a great future. Aquagronomy (who developed a wheel track roller to reduce soil compaction helping with water run off) and Farm Drop (a new system for connecting people with local producers) were runners up. The Innovation Award rewards excellence in innovative approaches to sustainable, low impact farming and growing. The winner received a cash prize of £3000, with two runner-up prizes of £1000 each.

Natalie Davies, Managing Director, Ezee Tree Limited said; “Team Ezee Tree are delighted to have won the Soil Association’s Innovation Award, it’s great to be recognised for all the hard work and dedication our family team has put in, it’s such a simple idea but did take a considerable amount of research, design and time to be able to launch the Ezee Tree Guard. Plastic has an impact on all of us and we believe everyone is realising this like we did when we first came across plastic guards five and a half years ago when planting some trees. We are proud to have developed and now can offer a true, cost effective alternative!"

Conference speakers highlighted how much organic and non-organic farmers can learn from each other and how organic farmers drive innovation relevant to the farming industry as a whole. Tina Barsby, Director, National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) gave examples of how regulations restricting agro-chemicals, herbicide resistance and rising prices are driving non-organic farmers to look to the weed/pest management practices of their organic neighbours for ‘new’ solutions. She also confirmed that there is a place at the table for organic and ecological agriculture in the Government’s new agri-tech strategy.

Reflecting on the evidence showing that organic farming systems are both dynamic and innovative, the conference called for more research funding to be opened up to farmers to drive practical solutions and change, and for the research and innovation that so many farmers across the UK already carry out on a daily basis, to be recognized, backed and celebrated.


A selection of conference images are available to download here 

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Winner of the Innovation Award and £3000

Biodegradable tree guard from Ezee Tree Ltd. The countryside is littered with the remains of green plastic tree guards which are both unsightly and a hazard to wildlife. The family-owned Ezee Tree Ltd has designed a tree guard made from 100% recycled moulded fibre, which is waterproofed by using non-toxic additives, and supported by a bamboo cane. In use for more than four years, the hinged design and novel locking mechanism makes the guard easy to place around a sapling and secure in place, rather than a stake and several plastic ties. Not only innovative, this guard costs no more than the ubiquitous plastic tree guard. With more farmers looking to establish agro-forestry schemes on their land, these guards offer an environmentally-friendly option that saves resources and labour as they decompose in situ and do not need to be removed. Another benefit for those producers hosting school visits, the guards can be painted, helping to further engage children with the environment.

The delegates voted for Ezee Tree because: 'it's a practical real world product that's really needed'; 'what a simple, low-tech solution'; 'a single, good idea, wish I'd thought of it!'

Natalie Davies, managing director of Ezee Tree said, "Team Ezee Tree are delighted to have won the Soil Association's Innovation Award. It's great to be recognised for all the hard work and dedication our family team has put in, it's such a simple idea, but did take a considerable amount of research, design and time to be able to launch the Ezee Tree Guard. Plastic has an impact on all of us and we believe everyone is realising this, like we did, when we first came across plastic guards five and a half years ago when planting some trees. We are proud to have developed and now can offer a true, cost effective alternative!"

Runners up and winning £1000

FarmDrop. FarmDrop is an online local food marketplace. Farmdrop champions better food for all by strengthening the relationship between the producers and the consumer. FarmDrop allows consumers to buy local seasonal food direct from the producers by providing an online platform for people to create their own local food market. This arrangement is already providing a fairer deal to producers, who receive 80 per cent of all sales and greater credit for their produce. So far in 2013, there have been 14 FarmDrops across three London postcodes and the company has received 76 requests from people asking to open FarmDrops across the UK.

The delegates voted for FarmDrop because; 'helping to build sustainable food communities has the potential to make a difference', 'this has huge potential for higher returns for farmers', this model could go far - everyone gains but the supermarkets!'; 'it's supporting local producers, a solution to a missing link'.

Wheel Track RollerTM The frequent passage of vehicles along tramlines in fields compacts the soil which makes it easier for the vehicles, but creates conditions that favour water run-off and soil erosion. With the future threat of more extreme weather, water run-off is a problem that can only get worse. Determined to do something to reduce this environmental impact, Charles Creyke designed and patented a roller that works with angled tines to reduce the amount of water and silt running off fields. The tines run along the edge of the tramline, forming tiny drainage channels which allow surface water to escape into the adjoining crops. Under normal conditions, almost a quarter of the rain falling on tramlines runs off fields, but in trials backed by Defra and the Environment Agency the use of his roller reduced this to 2 per cent.

The delegates voted for the Wheel Track RollerTM because; 'increased rainfall is likely in future so we need to prevent run-off and associated soil erosion'; water is such an important resource'; 'it is an innovative solution with environmental benefits'; 'simple, but has huge impacts'; 'managing soil is at the heart of it'.

Details of all the finalists can be found here 

About the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme

The Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme supports innovation in sustainable agriculture. The programme helps British farmers identify and adopt practices that improve their productivity in an environmentally responsible way. It involves farmers across the country in developing innovative techniques aimed at improving yields and nutritional performance in organic and low-input agriculture. At the heart of this activity is a network of on-farm events, led by farmers and growers, where they can share their know-how, design field experiments and pinpoint practical challenges. These will shape the priorities for a new research fund, which targets key barriers to sustainable farming and food systems. The programme focuses on ecological farming, especially approaches that reduce farmers’ reliance on expensive inputs. It will therefore be particularly relevant to producers who farm to organic standards, yet open to all. The programme is funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation and will be delivered by the Soil Association in partnership with Duchy Originals from Waitrose and the Organic Research Centre

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