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19 May 22

Affinity Water will be giving an update on the planting of all year-round cover-crops at Groundswell 2022 and supporting regenerative farming practices

In a new #podcast Affinity Water’s Agricultural Advisor, Shaun Dowman, takes a tour of an experimental all-year round cover-crop planted in Hertfordshire which is proving a success.

Normally cover crops are grown over the winter, allowing farmers to plant crops in Spring to be harvested and sold in late Summer, but on one farm near to a drinking water borehole the cover crops will now be grown year-round to hold nitrate in the soil and organic matter and prevent them leaching into the water course.

As Shaun walks through tall purple phacelia, crimson clover and linseed he spots butterflies, and skylarks overhead. He explains how Affinity Water are at the forefront of supporting Regenerative Farming techniques by participating in the Entrade reverse auction paying farmers to plant cover crops which also reduce soil erosion and benefits farm biodiversity.

He says: “The key focus of Groundswell is Regenerative Farming. How farmers manage their farmland and how they manage their soils can have an impact on many other aspects of the environment. It can have an impact on water quality and catchments, it can have an impact on air quality, it can have an impact on biodiversity. Soils can also be great store for carbon if managed correctly.”

The podcasts can be listened to below:

Part one

 

Part two

This will be the fifth successive year that Affinity Water has been the headline sponsor of Groundswell held on the Hertfordshire Farm of Paul and John Cherry, which is now the hottest ticket in Town and attracts farmers from all over the UK and abroad and where Government ministers will once again be attending.

In part-one of the podcast Shaun takes a reading of nitrate levels in one of the first experimental all year-round cover-crops field from a porous pot sunk in the ground which collects small amounts of water. He compares it to similar reading in a strip of land nearby which is left fallow and shows how he is using new technology to take soil readings.

He then showcases a new infra-red scanner that can help farmers quickly assess the carbon content of the soil and says the Company is part-sponsoring a PhD student at the University of Reading who will be writing her thesis on the results.

Shaun outlines the benefits of these new techniques: “If a farmer is implementing the right practices after a few years, you might see those soil carbon readings increase. Over a fifteen-to-twenty-year period you really can see some big gains in terms of the organic matter content of soil. We are talking about realistic timescales of having an impact on soil carbon. But in terms of the benefit to water you get an almost immediate benefit. If a cover crop is grown over winter, compared to it being left bare, the water environment gets an almost immediate benefit to that. That greatly reduces run-off and helps infiltration and stabilise the soil. There is an immediate benefit of planting cover-crops.”

Planting cover crops will also reduce costs to the water company and save money and energy that would have been used to treat the water, and is also good for the wildlife, wildflowers and bees. “It’s better all round,” says Shaun.

Groundswell 2022 will take place from 22nd to 23rd June 2022 at Lannock Manor Farm, Hertfordshire, the home of the host farmers the Cherry Family. Tickets are on sale. You can find out more here.

The sell-out show is now one of the most important in the agriculture calendar and last year over 3,500 people attended to learn about regenerative farming and many other big topics such as climate change, biodiversity and sustainability. The event is a great opportunity to network with other farmers, advisors and policy makers as well as seeing the latest farm machinery demo’d on the farm.

Shaun continues: “A big focus of Regenerative Farming is about building soil carbon. If you grow cover crops and disturb the soil as little as possible you can actually start building carbon in your soil and that is sucking carbon from the atmosphere. Plants (and other photosynthetic microorganisms) are the only living thing that will remove carbon from the atmosphere. Soil is a really important sink for carbon.

“The amount of carbon in the soil has a clear relationship with water as well. As you build organic matter in the soil (which is 50% carbon) it acts as a sponge and you can hold more water in the soil. That can stop processes like run-off, which can help infiltration, all these things are really beneficial for the water environment. This device is a really quick and simple way of helping farmers monitor whether they are building carbon in their soils or losing carbon in their soils.”

He added that climate change was making such trials even more important: “We are a farmed nation in the UK. 70 per cent of our land is farmland. There is so much more value to land other than the just the food we produce it is a source of natural capital. We have to work with farmers if we want to maximise the amount of natural capital in our land. That is why government and ministers are so interested in it. We need to do things differently. We are facing a climate crisis and a biodiversity crisis so we have challenges ahead in supplying water particularly in the SE of England where we have a growing population, and it is relatively dry. We need to be thinking carefully and smartly how land is managed, because that has a big influence on so many other aspects of our lives.”

In part two of the podcast Shaun moves to another cover-crop field nearby with swaying tall crops and spots signs of health in the soil where earthworm holes are found in abundance, and he tells us: “This hidden workforce is important for all of us. Worms (and plant roots) create some of the first pipes in our water network, allowing water to infiltrate into the soil. And then he also spots mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, again these slim white lines in the soil, are a sure sign of a health. He asks the rhetorical question: “How do we put a value on this?”

He continued: “Last year Affinity Water funded over 1,000 hectares of cover crops in North Herts and South Cambs, working in collaboration with Cambridge Water. It is estimated that it held onto over 50 tonnes of nitrogen that could have otherwise leaked into the aquifer and there are other values to that as well.”

The Groundswell event provides a forum for farmers, and anyone interested in food production and the environment to learn about the theory and practical applications of Conservation Agriculture or regenerative systems, including no-till, cover crops and re-introducing livestock into the arable rotation, with a view to improving soil health.

Host Farmer, John Cherry said: “We want to thank Affinity Water for working with us again for another year and being the Headline Sponsor of this event. We are looking forward to hosting over 5,000 people this year, all of whom share a passion for regenerative agriculture.”

As agricultural advisor for Affinity Water Shaun’s work targets catchment solutions that help improve water quality and reduce reliance on water treatment. Using knowledge of land management and the aquatic environment he works with farmers to help safeguard drinking water catchments and enhance the farmed environment.

Kevin Barton Head of External Communications for Affinity Warer said: “John and Paul and the rest of the Cherry family, are spreading the Regenerative Farming word to farmers across the Country and into government too now. As a water supply company operating in the south-east of England and the largest Water only company in the UK, we want to protect the environment for the sake of our 3.6 million customers and future generations. Our headline sponsorship of the Groundswell event goes hand in hand with our work on catchment management. We are doing all we can as a Company to promote sustainable agriculture in the UK alongside protecting the environment.”

NB: Our photographs show Shaun Dowman at work taking soil samples from a cover crop field in North Hertfordshire

For further information please contact Kevin Barton on: news@affinitywater.co.uk

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