Future Farming Innovation at Elston Farm

Connecting farmers and researchers brings innovation to life

In mid-Devon, farmers and researchers are investigating the benefits of integrating trees with livestock farming through a 12-year project.  

Thought to be the largest participatory research project looking at silvopasture, the trial will monitor its impact on livestock behaviour, biodiversity and soil health. The aim of the project is to understand the practicalities of using a silvopasture system on farm, while also assessing if it could address some of the environmental challenges farmers are facing without compromising productivity.

Each of the seven farms involved in the project will monitor tree establishment and how it’s affected by their farming system. Also involved in the research project are the Organic Research Centre, Rothamsted Research and the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (South West). These organisations will assess livestock performance, the impact on soils and hydrology and changes to biodiversity respectively.

Crediton-based farmer, Andy Gray, is turning 26 acres of his farm into a mixed system of grazed grassland and 6,745 trees as part of the trial.

Speaking at the launch, Andy said: “With big changes in agricultural policy ahead, farmers are now looking at regenerative practices to prepare our businesses to benefit from ‘public money for public goods’.

“For me, agroforestry is one of these changes. I'm incredibly keen for agroforestry to be taken up by more farmers because of the environmental benefits it brings. The benefits are undeniable, namely soil health, water quality and shelter for animals. It also provides an extremely good marketing opportunity as it helps us show customers we are doing our bit.”

Connecting farmers with researchers

The silvopasture project is co-ordinated through Innovative Farmers, a programme managed by the Soil Association. The organisation connects farmers with new ideas to leading agricultural researchers, to help them explore the benefits and challenges of implementing innovative changes on farm.

Since launching nearly ten years ago, Innovative Farmers has launched over 110 farmer-led research projects across the UK, with more than 250 farms actively involved as field labs. Part of the Duchy Future Farming Programme, it is funded by the Prince of Wales Charitable Fund through the sales of Waitrose Duchy Organic products.

Ideas for new research projects come from farmers across all sectors, helping to ensure it reflects the issues which are most important to the UK industry. Some recent projects have looked at:

  • What soil management practices are effective at increasing deep burrowing earthworm numbers?
  • What technology can engineers and farmers co-design together?
  • Can lucerne improve the resilience of sheep systems in dry arable areas?

Innovative Farmers invites farmers to submit any ideas they believe could make their farm more profitable and sustainable. For ideas which could be explored further with on-farm research, Innovative Farmers puts together a research group of farms and pairs them with a leading agricultural researcher to provide support and funding. Research is carried out on farm as a ‘field lab’, with results from the studies made publicly available.

Andy Gray believes his involvement in the silvopasture field lab will help prove the value of trees to other farmers. “This field lab is about building knowledge and understanding for the wider farming community”, he says, “By doing this, we can prove to our neighbours that it works so they have the confidence to adopt it. Farmers trust farmers and the more conversations you have, the more you learn, the more you develop new ideas.”

Future field labs

If you have an idea you’d like to explore further on farm, Innovative Farmers would like to hear from you. Call 0117 987 4572 or email: info@innovativefarmers.org

In Cornwall, Innovative Farmers has also recently paired up with Farm Net Zero and will be running three field labs. Local farmers interested in reducing their farm’s environmental impact can find out more about the Farm Net Zero project here: https://farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk/farm-net-zero/  


drones used for farming

Future Farming

Farmers are currently seeing the biggest changes in agriculture for more than 50 years. As a mutual insurer, we’ve stood by South West farmers since 1903 and through our Future Farming Programme, we are helping our Members and the wider farming community navigate the changes ahead in this transformative time.

Future Farming Programme