Finding the way to net zero farming

The journey to net zero is hugely complex and finding the ‘road maps’ for individual farming businesses is not easy, according to Helen Browning, Wiltshire farmer and Chief Executive of the Soil Association.

This is the decade when farmers need to understand how to reach net zero, said Helen Browning. “We know farming can be a huge part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”

Speaking at The Farm of the Future: Net Zero in Practice event organised by RASE, she explained that establishing the current level of emissions was an important first step for her organic farm which includes pigs, sheep, beef, two dairy herds, agroforestry and an arable unit.

“I took on a research student for nine months to look at our whole farm emissions and at an enterprise level too. I also wanted to look at the nutrient balance of the farm and start thinking about our mitigating options. We benchmarked our fields to give us a really good sense of where the soils were at.”

The study of the 1600-acre farm revealed 70% of emissions are being sequestered, taking into account both soils and woodland on the farm. “That leaves over 1000t of carbon per year to deal with.” Helen calculated she needs to plant around 100km of hedgerow. “That’s doable if we put a hedge on every fence line but I also need to plant another 100ha of woodland, meaning about 15% of the farm would go into woodland or agroforestry.”

There are still a lot of unknowns particularly with how long soils continue to sequester carbon at the current rate, she said. “The big issue with milking around 500 cows is methane. I have started to look at the science on methane inhibitors and how we can reduce the amount cattle are producing.” This is particularly challenging with free-range animals, she adds. “Some of the feed-based inhibitors are much easier to use in housed systems. So natural sources of methane inhibition are interesting for us. There is information coming through about willow and the possibility it can reduce methane by 30% and nitrous oxide by perhaps more. The potential of high tannin herbs in our herbal leys is also very interesting.” Methane capture from slurry pits is another area Helen is keen to know more about, particularly the potential for converting it to a fuel source.

While some farmers are thinking about selling carbon credits, Helen is not sure. “I think there are some real pitfalls until we have established the rules of the game. The Soil Association Exchange is our contribution to this, and we have been working with several corporates to establish the right rules, but we need government to be involved in too.”

Achieving net zero is going to be a huge challenge, she concluded. “We need help with the route map of how we are going to transition, and the investment required to get us there.”