Soil Association Exchange
First published in the Organic Farming Magazine, March 2023
Soil Association Exchange was born from a kernel of an idea: that the farming industry was missing data about what was going on at a farm level across the whole country, and that this was holding us back from the systemic change towards agroecology that urgently needed to happen.
How to measure what was happening
Soil Association Exchange has been the brainchild of Joseph Gridley. Working first as a chef, Joseph quickly decided that a career in kitchens wasn’t for him, but his love of food and how it is made continued. Joseph has gone from working at the Kelly-Deli Foundation where he supported social business entrepreneurs to tackle food insecurity, to working at EIT where he delivered substantial EU funding to support agri food start ups. Now the CEO of Soil Association Exchange, he has developed the service from scratch over the last 2 years. ‘We started with a pretty blank slate. We knew we wanted to get out on farms, measuring what was happening and helping farmers improve, but the ‘how’ seemed like an impossible mountain to climb’. But slowly over the coming months, the concept of Exchange was born.
The pilot - using our existing organic licensee
The idea of helping farmers improve led to a considered decision to open this service to all. Organic farmers are often at the forefront of sustainable practice but Exchange needed to tackle the problem with an industry wide approach, considering scale and pace. Thus organic producers are in the pilot – Riverford being a founding business partner with Exchange - but so are farmers from the full spectrum of farming practice.
It’s clear that Joseph's focus has been on getting the very best people excited about the idea. He has been tirelessly pounding the virtual pavements, meeting industry and business leaders, agri experts, sustainability gurus, farmers and representatives from the breadth of the supply chain. ‘We had to tackle this from every angle. Everyone has some ‘skin in the game’ to move farming forward – we had to try and pull it all together. From retailers who need to work out how they are delivering on their net zero emissions, to legislation driving farming practice change, to new government subsidy arrangements, to farmers wanting their soils to be more resilient to a changing climate - that’s just a few voices, but what unites them is the need for farming to transition’.
What Joseph and his ever-expanding team have now done is build a product that looks at the whole farm. Kate Still, Head of Farming in the charity, helped get this off the ground from the early days, through the FABulous Farmers programme. ‘We knew we didn’t just want to focus on siloed aspects, like only on carbon, or only on biodiversity; we knew our point of difference had to be to look at the whole farm’. Exchange worked with Natural Capital Research to develop a methodology that could look at a farm's impacts across 6 different indicators – Soil health, Water, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Social and Animal welfare. Under each indicator are a varied number of assessments that make up how that indicator is measured. Kate continues, ‘It is this scientific methodology that creates the backbone of the product today. We spent a lot of time out on farms translating this into actual on farm testing – what was realistic, and what unknown variables were we coming across. That feedback loop is something we continue today and it will be absolutely vital to improving the service. We are undergoing a science review at the moment to update the methodology - we will do this every year with the aim of getting more accurate and sophisticated as we go’.
Late in 2022, Exchange brought on a team of developers to start translating the methodology into a digital dashboard and app – which is the core of the product today. Alex Crooks is lead developer. ‘Every farmer can login, see their data split out in minute detail, but also see their overall score. The challenge is in making a huge amount of data accessible and understandable for anyone who logs on. There are a host of different sources – from satellite imagery, to open source APIs, to in field sampling, lab results and interviews; they all somehow need to ladder up to something meaningful for the farmer’
Exchange has been out to 60 pilot farms so far and has over 400 in the pipeline this year. So, quickly, the data becomes staggering. But of course, it’s what the data is used for that is really interesting. There are already an impressive number of partners who are supporting and putting their farmers through the service including Lloyds Bank, Marks & Spencer, Nandos, ABP, Compass, Arla, Cibus and Riverford. All of them are united in the need to achieve a net zero future, to understand where their farms are at now, and what change needs to happen. All recognise that this is a shared responsibility – with the supply chain, finance and wider industry needing to support farmers on the transition, both with knowledge and with finance.
Lee Reeves, Head of Agriculture at Lloyds Bank said: ‘Supporting agriculture to drive towards a net zero future sits at the heart of what we do. Developing a strong partnership with Exchange strengthens this ambition and helps us understand where our customers are on their journey to net zero and develop farm level plans for incremental improvements that can make big changes at scale. We are truly excited about getting this out to over 400 of our customers farms this year’.
So what’s next for Soil Association Exchange?
Exchange is growing fast, and there have inevitably been some growing pains. As Harriet Atkinson, Project Manager at Exchange, said: ‘We are building something new, that hasn’t really been done before – and that has brought a host of issues that our pilot was designed to draw out. We’ve got a solid scientific methodology, and we are releasing an new one in November 2023, with a focus on improving accuracy and on ground application. We’ve scaled our team massively too. In March, we welcomed 60 new advisors and technicians. We were taking a while to get our reports out in the early days; this is now greatly reduced so farmers are seeing less of a lag. We can also go out a couple of time to each farm, meaning the impact of the weather on the data is reduced.
In the background, Lloyds Bank have helped support a big new build in 2023, and a piloting a ‘self-serve model’ with their customers. Jerry Alford, Farmer and Soil Association Advisor says, ‘Opening this up to a wider pool of farmers is where it gets really exciting. We can’t get on the ground and visit every single farm in the UK. But having an option for farmers to input their own data and start using the platform themselves, even if they are smaller farmers, is a great ambition. Farmers know their land inside out, but having one place that pulls it all together will be tremendously useful for them. You can imagine in 5 year’s time, the fact that they will be able to see the impact of the changes they make now, will be really powerful.’
Getting the finance right
Who’s going to be paying for all of this? Joseph Gridley explains: “This is where our link with rewards in the platform comes in. We know that farmers need to see how this affects their bottom line and how they can be supported financially to transition. We need to get this right. With this in mind, we’ve developed several ways in which we can link farmers up with financial rewards. First is maximising government subsidies and other grant opportunities. Second is enabling premium payments from buyers for better farm sustainability performance, and third is payments linked to ecosystem services. This is going to be a real focus for us in the year ahead, as unlocking great finance for farmers to make the changes needed is a key part of accelerating the speed of change in the industry”
The development of the Soil Association Exchange platform has been part funded via the FABulous Farmers project.
Find out more about Soil Association's work with the project.