Stephen Briggs

Innovation and net zero

Innovative approaches will be key to farming reaching net zero believes Cambridgeshire farmer and agroforestry expert Stephen Briggs.

‘Enterprise stacking’ offers farms the opportunity to create multiple income streams while also making best use of sunlight Stephen Briggs told the Farm of the Future: Net Zero in Practice event.

“We're all harvesting sunlight and there are times of the year when there is near maximum solar radiation, but as an arable farmer there are times I don’t use it.” Growing arable crops, trees and pollen nectar areas in the same field has changed that, he added.

“We're sequestering about 4.5t carbon per hectare from having trees in the system. These are fruit trees so we’re getting a fruit crop and an arable crop. We're running a system that's 20% more productive than a conventional one.

“We put our farm through Farm Business Survey every year to look at the economics. It's coming out in the top quartile of farms, but its management is more complex.”

Stephen has been involved in work with the Forestry Commission which suggested 5.8% of agricultural land needs to be under tree cover to meet net zero commitments. “In our system here, we have 4ha of trees, interspersed with crops on 52ha, so that’s 8%. It can work, we don’t have to do the whole farm. We can select areas to try things out.”

Implementation of a controlled traffic system has also brought benefits. “We plant everything in wide rows and inter-row hoe. We’ve not used any nitrogen fertiliser for 15 years so it is possible, but it is a challenge.”

These practices led on to him introducing intercropping. This means in addition to the trees and arable crop he grows legumes too. “We've moved from having imported nitrogen fertilisers to growing nitrogen-fixing fertilisers. It's not perfect. We do still have problems and we haven't got it cracked, but we're moving in the direction of a living mulch system.

“Change is constant in our industry,” he concluded. “We’re pretty good at adapting to change, but we need to be driving it rather than it being done to us. As part of that you need to benchmark and measure where you're starting from and where you're moving to. Understand the food chain because you are in it and it's going to be knocking on the door asking you to account for what you're doing.

“As is always the case innovation will be key and we're all good at innovating. Let's continue to do that in the spirit of moving towards a net zero target.”