Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Communicating carbon reduction schemes to farmers, busting preconceptions, driving efficiency and profit

Becky Willson works as a project officer for the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit (FCCT), a farmer-led organisation which aims to provide practical advice and tools for farmers, focusing on greenhouse gas emissions, energy resilience and sustainable farming methods. As well as working for the FCCT, she also works for Duchy College Rural Business School as a specialist in resource management, translating research and developing tools and advice for farmers around managing their soils, manures, nutrients and water. 

This year, I have been lucky enough to have been awarded a Nuffield scholarship, which gives me an opportunity to spend 18 months travelling and studying in depth on a topic which I am passionate about and that could potentially help to transform our industry for the future.  My topic, which is intimately connected to what I do as a day job, is all about how we communicate carbon reduction schemes to farmers.  My research is exploring two main questions:

1.    How do we effectively communicate the benefits to the farm business of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and get farmers interested and engaged in emissions reductions?
2.   What can we learn from other countries about implementing an effective emissions reductions strategy that will inspire farmers to want to participate?

This journey will take me on a global tour and allow me to meet farmers, other people like me involved in running projects, research groups, organisations, government representatives and others to try and understand in more detail what we need to do to create genuinely sustainable farming systems that are profitable and resilient – and crucially how to involve farmers in this process so that theory leads to on the ground practical action.

As I highlighted earlier, this topic is very closely connected to what I already do with farmers in my day job.  I spend a lot of time talking, writing and trying to engage with farmers about the business benefits of reducing emissions from farms, and how this can be made possible at a practical level.  However, it is not a subject which excites most farmers and as such dissemination is a problem.  As an organisation, we can organise events, write articles, run campaigns on social media, and develop carbon footprinting calculators, factsheets and case studies. The material can all be based on cutting-edge science and of excellent quality, but if farmers aren’t interested or don’t view it as relevant to their business and, as such, don’t engage, we won’t achieve our goal and the problems remain.

We can’t get away from the fact that, however optimistic we are, we won’t ever engage with 100 per cent of farmers.  But we can try and increase the numbers of people who do engage by communicating the issues in ways that demonstrate their relevance to mainstream business viability rather than being a ‘nice extra’. It seems to me that the challenge of effective communication will involve multiple approaches: effective marketing (do we communicate a carbon reduction ‘by stealth?’ – e.g. promoting it as a cost-cutting measure), clear translation of science and its application in the field and the development of robust accounting methodologies that are grounded in science, are easy to use and have practical worth.

So what now?

Over the next year I will be travelling around the world to look at this issue in more detail.  At the moment, I am planning on travelling to Australia and New Zealand to look at some of their research and farmer projects – these include Young Carbon Farmers, the Future Beef project and Farm 300.  I am also planning a trip to the U.S. to look at their Climate Hub Model and some of their extension practices. 

I have been to Scotland to look at their Farming for a Better Climate initiative, which works with farmers over three years to help reduce their carbon footprint and assess the business benefits of doing so, as well as seeing the Cool Farm tool developers and their research. This trip was a real eye opener - a highlight was attending an event, “Driving Efficiencies in Suckler Cows and Breeding Ewes”, which aimed to help famers in difficult economic times focus on improving output by concentrating on critical efficiency factors. Although this was run by the Climate initiative it attracted 120 farmers, some of whom had travelled over 100 miles! 

I am also planning to go to Ireland to find out more about their green marketing and quality assurance that they are promoting through Origin Green and the use of the Carbon Navigator with Irish farmers. Other visits in Europe are in the pipeline and I don’t want to miss anything out.

I will be blogging about my findings through the Beef and Lamb Matters blog.