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Reducing Inputs: Project Summary

Reducing Inputs: Project Summary

Highlighting practical ways to reduce synthetic inputs

This spring, five Scottish farms were highlighted in a short peer-to-peer knowledge exchange programme, which explored practical ways that farmers and growers might reduce reliance on synthetic nitrogen-based fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides to increase farm resilience; through combining approaches such as diversifying rotations, reducing tillage, using IPM plans and intercropping.

Soil Association’s Fixing Nitrogen report shows that, in Europe, more than half of all man-made reactive nitrogen derives from synthetic fertilisers. Global biodiversity assessments also show excess nitrogen in the air and water as one of the most significant biodiversity threats. At the same time, chemical inputs of all kinds are rapidly becoming prohibitively expensive for UK farmers, and this rising cost is already having a detrimental impact on the industry. Promoting and enabling the adoption of more low input, agroecological and organic farming approaches can play a key role in addressing these issues, and improving the resilience and environmental sustainability of our food production systems.

A recent NFUS members survey suggests that a many farmers and producers are keen to reduce pesticide use, or are already making changes to achieve this. This is great to hear, and we hope this short programme has given participants some ideas and inspiration to assess what might work best on each individual farm or enterprise.

Whole-farm approach

A wide range of low-input approaches were highlighted, through a visit to Balbirnie Home Farms in Fife where we heard about their experience of integrating livestock and arable enterprises; and in two webinars which focussed on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and Supporting Soil Health. Our hosts and speakers generously shared their experiences (good and bad) of reducing and eliminating the use of synthetic nitrogen-based fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides; whilst at the same time improving soil health and farm resilience, and producing quality food. One factor which they all had in common was taking a whole-farm approach.

The accompanying resources – including a case study on Balbirnie, webinar recordings, practical guides and a FAS TV episode – can be found on the project page HERE.

Feedback from participants was very positive, and each event stimulated some great discussion and debate. 90% of participants said that they understood the topic(s) or approaches better as a result of participating – although some answers just raised more questions! – and 80% said that they’d consider trying something new (or were already considering change) as a result of taking part. Key themes which kept emerging included the value of increasing diversity, getting to know your soil, using a whole-farm approach, talking to other farmers & producers, being flexible, and being willing to try something new.

Tried and tested

Many of the themes and approaches highlighted have been tried and tested through Soil Association peer-led projects, including Innovative Farmers Field Labs and FAB Farmers; and included a combination of:

  • Building soil fertility and soil organic matter using cover crops, crop rotations, diverse swards and livestock integration – which can support crop health and natural immunity
  • Measuring and baselining soil health to inform better management
  • Reducing soil tillage
  • Managing habitat for beneficial pest predators and pollinators
  • Increasing diversity in rotations to help control weeds without chemicals
  • Intercropping, which can help boost soil health and help control weeds without chemicals

Change is rarely easy, and each farm, holding and enterprise is different. We hope this short project has highlighted some of the ways in which, with some planning and support, reducing the use of synthetic inputs can be achieved whilst at the same time lowering carbon footprints, tackling disease resistance, improving soil health and ecological performance, protecting natural capital and boosting financial resilience.

*You might also like to check out the Agriculture, Biodiversity and Climate Change (ABCC) Network, which SA Scotland is a member of and highlights examples of what farms across Scotland are doing to support the climate and environment.

The project was funded by The Scottish Government through the Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund.