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New farmer-led fund announces first research grants

The Soil Association announces the winners of the first of their farmer-led innovative research grants funded by the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme.

Research is more crucial than ever to agriculture as the industry strives to farm sustainably in the face of climate change and increasing pressure on natural resources. Behind these new priorities is the challenge to make sure research is practical and relevant for farmers. It needs to tackle the real problems faced by farmers as they grapple with improving their productivity while protecting the environment.

That's why, last year, the Soil Association launched a new research fund where farmers and growers set the priorities. Now, having heard dozens of innovative ideas from producers and had more than 70 researchers come forward to help, the Soil Association is delighted to announce the first four projects selected for funding. They will receive research grants worth a total of more than £60,000, as part of the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme.

The research proposals were subjected to rigorous review by a panel of expert farmers and scientists chaired by Prof Charles Godfray, who said, “The call for proposals attracted a wide variety of fascinating projects, and more high quality research proposals than we were able to fund in this first round”.

The four projects selected for a research grant were:
Using green manures instead of spraying weedkiller around fruit trees in cider orchards. Grasses growing in orchards compete with the trees for water and nutrients so, typically, a vegetation-free strip along each row of trees is obtained through the use of herbicides. This solves one problem, but creates another, as apples falling on bare ground rot faster than those falling on grass, so yields are lower. Non-organic growers want to use as few chemicals as possible in their orchards, so green manures could prove to be the answer, with less run-off of chemicals into local watercourses and fewer chemical-residues on the apples. The research is led by the Bulmer Foundation's ONE project in conjunction with Henry Weston of Weston's Cider, Jim Clay of Showle Court and Chris Cotton of Hutchinsons.

Managing field margins to control flea beetle and other pests on Brassica crops. Many crop pests such as the flea beetle and cabbage root fly invade crops from field edges. This project will investigate whether pests can be controlled through the management of field margins (increasing plant diversity, using trap crops and biocontrol). This research could lead to fewer pesticides being used on non-organic fields and have major benefits for conservation. The research is led by Dr Pat Croft of Stockbridge Technology Centre, with consultants Phillip Effingham of GreenTech Consultancy, Dr George of Northumbria University and Prof Wackers of Leeds University. The trial sites will be on farms such as Polybell, Tesco's Organic Grower of the Year.

Control of common couch by using cover crops in organic rotations. Couch grass is difficult to control in arable and field scale vegetables. Organic farmers can't use weedkillers, so they have to rely on other methods such as physical weeding to remove the unwanted plants. There is evidence that growing cover crops such as buckwheat and caliente mustard could smother the couch. The idea was put forward by Cyril Blackmore, a root crop grower in Devon, who will be taking part in the research. The project is led by weed biologist Lynn Tatnell at ADAS Boxworth who said, “This research will provide farmers and growers with a better understanding of how cover crops can be a beneficial part of an organic weed control strategy as they can suppress perennial weeds, such as common couch grass”.

Biochar in animal feed. Emerging evidence suggests that adding biochar to livestock feed can have positive benefits on animal growth, health and development, and even reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The project will investigate the effect of biochar in the diet of pigs. The research is led by the Biochar Research Centre, University of Edinburgh, in conjunction with Pete Richie of Whitmuir Organics. Dr Simon Shackley of UKBRC said, "There is emerging evidence from abroad that feeding biochar to livestock can be good for animal health and growth, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We're keen to investigate this in the UK, and glad to be working with Whitmuir Farm and the Soil Association. A positive impact on weight gain in this trial could drive further research on the benefits of biochar for livestock management."

To find out more about the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme research fund and read about the research projects visit read more   

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