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24 September 2016

King West

Is your soil management plan letting you down?

With scientists warning that the UK has only 100 harvests left in its soils, the need for addressing soil health is becoming increasingly important.

Soil is critical to biodiversity and is the foundation
of any farming strategy. However, intensive farming over the decades has resulted in a sharp decline of basic nutrients vital to sustain growth. Soil compaction, erosion, flooding, and a decline in organic matter and soil nutrients are becoming of increasing concern when compared to the backdrop of volatile pricing and climate change.

The United Nations named the year 2015 as the “International Year for Soils”. Following this announcement, the Soil Association have warned that for the UK to maintain its ability to produce food in the long term, significant and immediate action is required.

Leading the way in soil health is the Duchy of Cornwall Estate. Having begun to look closely at baseline standards three years ago, the Estate has introduced Education and Development Support Strategies, whilst planning with farmers and land owners through hosted workshops. The workshops cover soil compaction issues, infiltration and the particular issues caused by farming maize. One particular example of a successful outcome of these workshops has been shown on a farm in Herefordshire. The installation of a tapered buffer strip, has created a grassland waterway across a field prone to flooding. This strip now helps to reduce soil loss and improve filtration.

Landlords are being urged to introduce a soil-testing regime as part of all Tenancy Agreements. As soil is the principal asset of rentable farmland, it is vital for landlords to begin investing in safeguarding the soil to maintain the quality and yield of the crops.

The Crown Estate, which owns 106,000ha across the UK has become one of the first institutional landlords to introduce soil testing as a part
of all new Tenancy Agreements. Under the ‘Project Soil’ Programme, a clause has been added to all new farming Tenancy Agreements stating that the tenant must maintain, and where possible, improve the quality
of the soil on their rented land. Prior to the signing of any new tenancy, samples are taken from every field to baseline levels of nutrients such as N, P, and K (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) as well as measuring the pH value, soil structure and level of organic matter. Tenants are supported by the Estate via workshops that look at best-practice soil management, aiming very much for a partnership between landlord and tenant in order to maximize productivity and protect the life of the land.

The Crown Estate report that in all ten tenancies that have been created since their soil programme scheme was launched, it has been the farmer with the most robust, achievable and realistic soil management plan which has won the land. In some cases, the choice has been for the farmer with the better soil management plan as part of their application package over the farmer simply offering a higher rent.

It is difficult to measure soil levels over a relatively short period of a three- year tenancy as parcels of land do naturally change in terms of their trace element levels, year on year. However, to manage the wider strategy over the 10 to 15 year view, it is vital to start measuring now, and at regular intervals thereafter. Integrating soil testing at the start, mid-term and end of tenancy agreements seems the logical place to begin.

If you are a landlord and would like more information, advise
or support on including soil management clauses into your tenancy agreements, please get in touch via the King West Market Harborough office or email; Harry Epsom on hepsom@kingwest.co.uk. 

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