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12 February 2024

ORFC24: Moving towards Farm Ecosystem Management

During the mid-morning sessions of day 2 of the Oxford Real Farming Conference, Oxford Town Halls’ Council Chamber filled with energy and enthusiastic interest. Chaired effortlessly by Phil Carson, policy lead at the Nature Friendly Farming Network, the session epitomised the passion and positivity of the conference and the wonderful people that come together to generate hope for a more sustainable farming future. 

Oxford Real Farming Conference · ORFC2024 Unlocking Ecosystem Harmony For Managing Pests, Weeds And Diseases

There is a general understanding in the farming community that we must move away from a reliance on chemicals. Over reliance on chemical fertilisers is costly not only economically but also for public and ecosystem health. ‘The Birds & The Bees: Unlocking Ecosystem Harmony for Managing Pests, Weeds and Diseases’ created space for discussion with Patrick Barker, Ana Reynolds and John Pawsey who provided key practical considerations as well as shared experiences in championing our natural world and working alongside habitats and ecosystems.

Patrick farms in modern, productive ways alongside wildlife and his 545-ha family farm is an AHDB Strategic Farm for the East completing the 6-month programme, winners of the Farmers Weekly Countryside Farmer of the Year and FWAG’s Silver Lapwing award as well as having a Countryside Stewardship Higher Tier Scheme. Ana leads a national team at AHDB facilitating knowledge exchange in the cereals and oilseeds sectors whilst working on her multi-generational mixed family farm and using her fresh perspective to question farm practices. John has over 25 years of experience in organic farming. Whilst initially transitioning primarily due to economic reasons and concerns regarding herbicide resistance, John has experienced and champions the benefits to soil, biodiversity, natural fertility building, and productivity that this transition has had on Shimpling Park Farms Limited. 

Discussion of ecosystems for pest management ranged from flowering margins which have helped Patrick provide homes to 278 wildlife species (including 43 species of birds and 23 species of butterfly) to the diversity and timeframe of crop rotations reducing slug burden and black-grass. However, perhaps more important, was the message that ecosystem management should not be viewed in isolation from farm management and should instead be viewed as a farm ecosystem. A holistic view of the land should be taken in which farmers are stewards of an ecosystem which also produces food – sharing land with nature. Whilst Integrated Pest Management principles, when applied with the right mindset, can bring benefits, this discussion highlighted that pest management should move from being vertical and pest-centric to taking a more systemic approach. Speakers encouraged utilising ecosystems’ natural equilibriums, symbiotic relationships, and self-balancing qualities and trusting that nature will “take care of it”. 

The importance of supply chain transparency and traceability cannot be understated when creating value from encouraging farm ecosystems and biodiversity. Dialogues should be opened to ensure buy-in from the supply chain so that farming in this way is further encouraged and markets value this farming rather than acting as a barrier. Furthermore, farmers should be strongly encouraged that “Watching is Working” and to take time to immerse themselves in their farm ecosystems and appreciate as John articulated this “nucleus of wonderful diversity”. The key message: don’t underestimate the power this can have. Perhaps it is only by really observing and absorbing these habitats that we build our understanding of the world around us and its complexity. In doing so farmers should feel empowered and have confidence in their choices and confidence to take risks, strengthening the industry as a whole. Pesticides can no longer be used as insurance policies. 

Data collection and management is clearly integral in this. All speakers discussed both the importance of baseline data and surveying but also the challenges involved in measuring and quantifying it. Whilst there are of course exciting innovations exploring this challenge, taking simple steps such as surveys and recording what you see every time you go out onto your farm are equally as important in beginning to measure your progress. Ana also highlighted that the biodiversity that is perhaps not always as easily visible must not be forgotten and the health of our soils is at the roots of this journey to healthy farm ecosystem management. 

Patrick, John, and Ana rounded off the discussion by offering their three top tips for anyone to make a transition away from pesticide reliance: 

Patrick: 

  • Take time to consider the appropriate land use, even if that means not all your land is farmed!
  • Ensure every decision you make is a solid business decision so that even when you take risks which don’t quite work out you will be able to bounce back
  • Learn to love the species and wildlife on your farm 

Ana: 

  • Observe, write down your plan, and map the habitats and connectivity on your land 
  • From this – design your farming system to build in this diversity
  • Education is not time wasted

John: 

  • Talk to other farmers. Seek out best practice and speak to those doing it best
  • Work with an enlightened and independent agronomist
  • Do it now!

If you have been inspired by Patrick, Ana, and John’s insights you may wish to explore Nature Friendly Farming Network’s farming stories.

Becky Ashford recently graduated from the University of Exeter achieving a first class BSc with Honours in Business and Management with Industrial Experience. Most recently she has worked as a Research Assistant for Professor Sarah Hartley exploring the potential of synthetic biology in biodiversity conservation and assisting in the development and editing of an undergraduate textbook exploring different approaches to innovation. Find Becky on LinkedIn and Instagram. 

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