BASE-UK – Conference 2024 – Learning from Experience!

International expertise, as well as UK-based knowledge and practical experience, was on the agenda at this year’s BASE-UK conference, which took place in Nottingham in early February.  A wide variety of topics were covered over the two days, from soil health, cover cropping and intercropping, to integrating livestock and the nutrient density of our food.

There was also an insight into Landscape Enterprise Networks (LENS) – a network of commercial organisations seeking outcomes from the farmed environment in return for payment for the implementation of agreed practices.

The conference kicked off with Dr Ademir Calegari from Brazil, who shared his 47 years of experience with cover crops with great energy and enthusiasm.  He emphasised the importance of cover cropping in a sustainable farming system, with its contribution to soil carbon from root exudates, soil surface cover, soil aggregation, soil stability and water handling/storage.

While much of his work has taken place in South America, in crops such as coffee, sugar cane and soya, Ademir applied the principles of feeding the soil to feed the crop more widely. 

The messages for BASE-UK members were to find the right cover crop solutions for their particular farm problems or constraints, to make best use of multi-species cover crop mixes to bioactivate the soil and to exploit the nutrient cycling benefits that cover crops provide.  “If you get this right, the soil will feed the crop. And if you add livestock to the system, the results are almost unbelievable,” he said.

The first day also saw David Purdy give an update on the work done at Project Lamport, where heavy high magnesium soils present their own challenges and a long-term approach to building resilience into the system has been taken.

He was followed by first generation organic farmer Alex Fraser, who combines running a new farming business with his work as an A&E doctor in Yorkshire. He outlined progress to date and was honest about the challenges he has encountered as a new entrant.

The last two speakers were farmer members, Toby Simpson, and Ben Adams. Toby reported on the findings from his Nuffield scholarship on catch and cover cropping opportunities while Ben gave an update on his three-year intercropping trial.  

The second day began with soil health guru, Jay Fuhrer (see panel), who’s reputation precedes him. His presentation on moving the carbon dial was very well received by members.

Next up was Northamptonshire farmer David Goodwin, who spoke about how he had integrated livestock into an established arable business, outlining the barriers as well as the benefits.

Richard Jenner of Openfield then gave an update on LENS, explaining that it is just one of a suite of natural capital income streams for farmers.  “Every farming business is different and there is no right or wrong model,” he stressed.  “Farmers have the option to do nothing when it comes to natural capital opportunities, or they can implement the SFI, trade carbon, get rewarded for insetting carbon reductions in the supply chain or provide ecosystem services to a network, such as LENS.”  Most will opt for a hybrid approach, he predicted. 

The last speaker was Dr Hannah Fraser, a Nuffield scholar and wife of Alex. Hannah updated the conference on her findings on the role of farming in providing nutrient dense food, emphasising that the way we farm impacts nutritional quality.  Against a backdrop of declining life expectancy in the UK, Hannah’s message was that a healthy soil is the starting point for better foodstuffs.

Panel – Jay Fuhrer

Soil carbon levels can be moved in the right direction by applying a set of five soil health principles, US-based international soils expert Jay Fuhrer told the conference on the second morning.

Putting carbon back into soil helps with its ability to cope with future climate challenges by improving its resilience, he said, giving it a more stable structure and helping with water retention and infiltration, as well as making it less prone to erosion, increasing biological activity and improving its nutrient supply characteristics.  “That’s why farmers who increase soil organic carbon have better soil health.”

Old Sunshine

Jay pointed out that soil organic matter was built long ago when there was abundant plant diversity with numerous species and large populations of herbivores.  Having many species growing meant that the soils used to get root exudates from a diversity of plants, which fed the soil microbes and resulted in soil aggregates being built.

In contrast, today’s cropping systems based on monocultures can’t build soils in the same way, as the soil biology receives exudates from just one annual plant at a time, he added.  “Soil carbon has been lost by agricultural systems which took this species complexity away in the drive to become more efficient.  Carbon leaves the field in the grain, so unless you are taking action to slow these losses and put carbon back into the ground, you are going to keep on degrading your soils,” he warned.

New Sunshine

Jay said that farmers can use new sunshine to drive biological carbon capture, by harnessing plant diversity and using animals to do some of the decomposition or recycling required.  Carbon enters the soil as living, dead and decaying material, and the nature of soil carbon means that farmers need to appreciate the role played by plants and the importance of cover crops, he adds.

“The exudates they give off are consumed by soil microbes, which build aggregates and make the glue that helps to limit soil erosion and get water and oxygen into the soil.”

Put into a system, they mimic the scenarios from years ago, eventually helping to restore landscapes and build back what’s been lost.  He likened the process to accelerating biological time – as it shortens the window in which change can take place. “Multi-species cover crops make something happen in a shorter time period than if there had been monocultures there.”

Five Soil Health Principles

Jay Fuhrer emphasised that these are principles, not practices, which can be used in a systems approach.

  1. Provide Soil Armour/Cover
  2. Minimise Soil Disturbance
  3. Include Plant Diversity
  4. Maintain Living Roots/Plants
  5. Integrate Livestock