Reasons for British horticulture to be cheerful

Dr Lionel Dupuy of the James Hutton Institute Ecological Sciences group

Dr Lionel Dupuy at the James Hutton Institute's Ecological Sciences group has received a grant for his study of transparent soils

Artificial soil research at James Hutton Institute
New model soil systems could be used to unravel the spread of soil-borne diseases

A flurry of public and private funding initiatives for technical innovation in the British horticulture sector heralds a brighter future for the industry, with large and small farmers benefiting from investment

There has been much talk of the decline of British farming, with a carousel of blame offering up reasons from supermarket price wars, through the soaring cost of agricultural land, to an inability to recruit new talent to toil the land.

One of the recurring arguments for the UK apparently falling behind its European neighbours is the historical reduction in research and development (R&D) funding. However, in the horticulture sector several recent announcements are challenging the argument that British farming is sitting on its laurels.

Scotland’s James Hutton Institute has revealed that one of its scientists has been awarded €1.98 million (£1.41 million) from the European Research Council Consolidator Grant.

The money will assist Dr Lionel Dupuy of the institute’s Ecological Sciences group in Dundee to continue his study of transparent soils. Technology developed by Dr Dupuy and his team combines the principles of optics, chemical engineering, physics, chemistry and biology of soils to research the best way to use nitrogen fertilisers.

“Food production is predicated on the application of nitrogen fertilisers, which can contribute significantly to the production of greenhouse gases and the saturation of agricultural ecosystems. The use of nitrogen fertilisers must therefore be optimised,” Dr Dupuy explains.

“New model soil systems could be used to unravel the spread of soil-borne diseases, the bio-remediation of contaminated soils and the mechanisms underlying soil biodiversity and activity.”

Competition for the grant is high, and Professor Iain Gordon, the institute’s chief executive, says its awarding will reap incredible benefits for the agricultural sector.  

Not only are research establishments receiving development funds, but farmers across the UK are being offered the opportunity to apply to the European Innovation Partnership for grants to put into practice the latest in agricultural technology.

The news came on the same day that the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) opened up applications for slices of £5 million of government funding to farmers looking to install cutting-edge systems from LED lights to crop robotics.

According to Kent-based arable and fruit farmer Charles Tassell at Church Farm in Maidstone, there will be no shortage of interest in the funding given the levels of engagement there are around the subject of technological innovation among the farming community.

Tassell runs the AgriChatUK and EnviroChatUK forums where, he says, whenever there are technical topics posted the numbers involved leap.

“Farmers are very much interested in new technology, there’s lots of talk around drones, irrigation technology, and the use of robotics,” he adds. “At the moment there’s a lot of buzz around how better to use GPS technology.”

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) recently released a report into British food security, highlighting the need for increased public funding for R&D if the country is to reach higher levels of self-sufficiency, which is currently at 53%.

However, it said it was disappointed with a report in The Economist in February that claimed British farmers are less productive than international competitors.

Gail Soutar, the NFU’s chief economics and international affairs adviser, says that while there are many challenges for UK farming, comparing productivity with other countries was not as straightforward as The Economist article claimed.

She adds that some of the examples given were not representative, and that all countries have different climates, production techniques, and routes to market. “While there are issues regarding self-sufficiency for British farming, we are doing very well in certain sectors,” Soutar notes.

Sean Charlton, a Kent soft- and top-fruit farmer at Mid Kent Growers, says that following a recent trip to Spain, he feels that in particular when it comes to strawberry farming the UK is ahead in terms of technique and productivity.

“We’re not some fledgling, struggling industry,” he adds. “We’re one of the most professional sectors in farming, and we are always looking to be more efficient, especially when it comes to automation of tasks.”

Charlton, who rents his land from Charles Tassell, has just taken on another 100 acres under a Farm Business Tenancy. He has invested millions in expanding his business, planting a further 40 acres of strawberries, and diversifying into raspberries. The raspberries are being grown in pots, under polytunnels, using the latest irrigation and growing techniques.

Sarah Calcutt, co-founder of Partners in Produce, which works with farming businesses across the UK, says that in particular the soft-fruit sector is an example of progression and productivity.

“It [has] seen a dramatic change in the nature of business, there are strong grower groups, large farming units and extensive investment in growing, picking and packing operations that bring it directly in line for R&D, productivity, availability and quality with its continental counterparts,” she explains.

“Investment in new storage technology, agronomic systems such as micro analysis of soil, crop mapping, increased mechanisation of harvesting – platforms for the new taller orchards, and bin trains, mean that the worker welfare and also productivity is rising.”

Tassell says that this picture of investment is being played out across the horticulture sector, from small- to medium-sized farms to larger growers.

This is certainly the case at Barfoots, which is one of the leading producers of vegetables in the UK. It is known for growing exotic produce along the south coast, as well as owning international farms, and has now turned 10,000ft2 of existing but underused greenhouse space in Chichester to grow chillies.

Business development manager Sophie Bambridge says the aim is to offer a 52-week supply of chillies, by combining imports from its Senegal farm with the British-grown produce. While the majority of the crop is the standard red and green variety, Bambridge says that 10% of the space is for growing trial varieties from Mexico and Peru, among other countries.

Again, the business is investing in R&D to help support the growth of the chilli trade. “We are using very innovative techniques, and the way we are growing them is a UK first,” she says. “We’re not just growing the trial chillies in isolation, we’re backing this up with consumer research because we see this as a way of reinvigorating that sector of the market.”  

With more public and private investment in the horticulture sector, this is one area of British farming that can bank on a better future.

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