The Prince of Wales’s charitable trust is paving the way for research into innovative farming methods that is resulting in better produce, but the fruit of such work is not just limited to organic producers. Produce Business UK finds out how conventional producers, buyers and end consumers can all benefit from the steps being made to cut costs, protect the environment and improve product flavour
Since 1985 Duchy Home Farm, the estate owned by HRH The Prince of Wales, has been a self-proclaimed flagship for organic and sustainable agriculture, ploughing ahead regardless of the media painting the project as an eccentric pursuit.
During the 1980s when farmers were being moved towards practices more suited for intensive farming, Prince Charles took a different approach, and laid the foundation for the development of the business Duchy Originals, a range of products and produce sold on licence that is now managed by Waitrose under the brand Waitrose Duchy Organic.
Profits from the sales are used to fund a number of charitable causes, including research into farming methods. The Soil Association, in partnership with the Organic Research Centre, Waitrose Duchy Organic and the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation delivers the Duchy Future Farming programme.
Waitrose offers an exclusive Duchy Organic fruit and vegetable range, and credits this with making the supermarket a destination store for shoppers seeking organic produce. At the same time, it fits in with the retailer’s sustainable strategies.
Mark Price, the retail chain’s managing director, says: “Waitrose is especially proud to be involved with the Duchy Future Farming Programme as it complements other areas of agricultural work we are supporting. This is a timely programme that is set to deliver real benefits on the farm, exactly what good research should do.”
Conventional growers can get involved too
However, the initiative is not exclusive to organic farmers, and the organisers actively encourage conventional farmers to get involved with the projects, which include field trials, known as ‘labs’, of alternative materials and practices.
From this October the programme will begin a new phase. The results from the programme so far have been positive, with new ways of working identified that increase the health of soil, and therefore the quality of produce. There have also been unexpected results, such as new opportunities for farmers to add to their business bottom line.
Last year, a field lab run by Iain Tolhurst, of Tolhurst Organic Produce in West Berkshire, involved trialling woodchip compost as a replacement for peat-based products, which are largely imported. The woodchip compost was tested on cabbages and leeks, and especially in the case of the leeks, the quality of the vegetable was noticeably better.
With the adverse environmental impact of peat extraction, and the fact that not only is the European Union attempting to enforce a ban on turf cutting but also that DEFRA is hoping to phase out its use by 2030, there is a growing need for alternative products.
“This is not just an issue for organic farmers but for conventional farms too,” explains Tolhurst. “And, actually, this is an opportunity, because woodchip could offer another income stream for a farm should it be further developed as a compost. At the moment, it’s an urban product, much of it coming from tree surgeons, and unbelievably a lot of it is still going to landfill.
“The problem we have is that peat is still low cost and readily available, but that’s not always going to be the situation, and it’s best to start looking for alternatives now rather than waiting until it runs out.”
Tolhurst adds that he understands why producers like to use peat-based products, but following the trial he is sure woodchip, which could be made on-site and from local materials, could match imported peat.
“This is why these field labs are so useful, and any farmer, organic or not, can apply to trial a solution for a problem they are experiencing,” says Tolhurst.
One such participant is Jonathan Boaz of Mill Farm, who farms 600 acres near Droitwich. Boaz is not an organic farmer, but recently he took part in a field lab into the best way to improve soil health and fertility.
“I have strong concerns for wildlife and soil health, but my decisions concerning the business need to be profit led and commercially viable,” he says.
“The group I worked with all felt the same and it clearly showed [in] the results that this can be achieved. We have shown you can look after your soil and increase your yield without breaking the bank, but it has to work within your system.
“I never stop experimenting and learning, I have recently submitted a field lab proposal because the group is now interested in looking at how compost teas could increase soil bacteria and fungi in winter wheat crops.”
Expert advice and funding
Liz Bowles, head of farming at the Soil Association, says that while farmers are already experimenting, testing and developing new approaches on their own farms, the Duchy Future Farming programme supports this with expert advice and funding to make the most of their investment and help ensure valuable results are achieved.
“Through field labs we give farmers the tools to do their own experiments and innovate more freely. We need effective techniques that are low-cost, low-impact and environmentally sustainable to support future farming,” she adds.
“By bringing together forward-thinking ‘innovative farmers’ we can make real changes in farming. Targeting the barriers to sustainable food production, from improving soil organic matter to increasing yield, helps all farmers.
“We want the next phase of the Duchy Future Farming programme to draw in an even bigger number of farmers, and in October this pioneering programme will embark upon a new phase with new partners from across UK agriculture to have even more impact on farming in the UK.”
With consumers increasingly claiming that taste and value matter most to their buying decisions, finding ways to cut costs and increase flavour should be in all producers’ interests, not just royal ones.