Thursday, 1 June 2017

Last leg of American journey - Becky Willson's Nuffield Scholar trip

Nuffield scholar Becky Willson is travelling around the world to visit countries to find out more about emissions reductions projects for farmers. In the last of a three-part series of blogs, she visits Nebraska and California to look at the issue of soil health.


The third part of my journey saw me travel to Nebraska to talk predominantly about soil health and building resilience within the farming system. Nebraska is a very dry state with an annual rainfall of 24 – 28 inches. I met a variety of farmers who were using different management options (including rotational grazing, cover crops, reduced tillage and intercropping), but they all had the same three goals in mind:

  •          To enhance water cycle and nutrient cycle efficiency
  •          To improve soil organic matter content (and alongside it soil health)
  •          To enhance long and short-term soil resilience

The farmers in Nebraska also work with state climatologists to develop tools that include weather forecasting to help them with farm management decisions. They try to use historical climate data to predict what may happen in the season. I found it interesting when talking to these farmers – they had come to the realisation that the most limiting factor to their yields (and ultimately profit) after water was carbon and not nitrogen, which they could go and buy.


The final stop was California, the biggest agricultural economy in the world, where they are spearheading a project called ‘Healthy Soils’, which uses money from a carbon tax to fund soil carbon projects. The state was being used as a ‘test bed’ to try the idea, which could then be rolled out nationally. I talked to the people responsible for the project and the farmers who were involved – there was an air of excitement, which was slightly tempered by the new administration and whether the project would still happen. 


In summary, it was a fascinating trip, which gave me an opportunity to visit a large range of inspirational people and projects, but also provided me with more questions as to how we can implement some of America’s good practices here in the UK. Integration is a key issue, which we need to focus on, namely what can we integrate within UK agricultural policy that would hit emissions reduction targets without extra paperwork or bureaucracy? There are also problems around what the public will pay for in terms of environmental credentials, and whether we can include carbon in it.

What is clear is that we can all work together on these issues, and by co-ordinating efforts across sectors, industries and countries, there may be an opportunity to achieve real and positive change.