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Martin Lines: “We need a new contract between government and farmers”

The chief executive of the Nature Friendly Farming Network on why agricultural practices must protect wildlife.

By Megan Kenyon

Martin Lines was ploughing the field on his family’s farm when he spotted something interesting. As the soil was turned over by the plough, Lines could see a tractor print from a two-year-old harvest still etched into the ground.

“It was a wake-up call,” the chief executive of the Nature Friendly Farming Network tells New Statesman Spotlight when we meet on his south Cambridgeshire farm. “I could see that we were causing soil compaction and damage,” he says, “which means we will need to buy bigger and heavier machinery to move the soil.” A vicious cycle ensues; heavier machinery means more soil compaction and gradually more soil depletion. Unhealthy soil makes growing crops harder, at a cost to the farm and its farmers.

Since then, Lines has stopped moving soil altogether and has begun to pursue more nature-friendly farming methods. His farm has been in the family for 30 years and has historically been a “very traditional farm” with “lots of heavy cultivation”. But this has changed. “Now after we harvest, we go out with a drill and we plant a seed mix,” he explains. Lines uses a method called “direct drilling” whereby instead of ploughing the field to distribute seeds, small holes will be drilled into the soil into which seeds are placed. The creation of these small holes captures nutrients from both the air and the ground, and also fosters a more fertile environment for biodiversity.

Taking a more nature-friendly approach has generated multiple benefits for Lines’s farm. “We’ve seen a 65 per cent reduction in fuel costs,” he explains, “most pesticides have dropped by at least half, and we’re becoming more resilient to how the weather affects our soil.” These methods have also increased the number and diversity of crops that Lines is able to grow.

Worms and other insects find themselves at home in the soil, and there are areas that have been allowed to completely rewild with flowers and other plants growing upwards through the grass. While Lines is showing me a rewilded bank which runs across one of his fields, we spot a small group of intrepid hares making a run for it across the grass.

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The willing presence of so many insects and wild animals is not always conventional in farming, but they all help the surrounding ecosystem to function. “Worms make the soil healthy, and that feeds the plants and the crops that we grow,” Lines says. “Because the soil is already healthy, it needs a lot less nitrogen.” By minimising disturbance to the soil, the biology in the ground has become more active, feeding the crop, and eventually leading to a healthier yield at harvest.

Lines has been testing and using nature-friendly farming methods for over a decade. But the Nature Friendly Farming Network was first established in 2017. Over drinks at the launch of the 2016 State of Nature report, a group of nature-minded farmers all putting similar techniques to use on their farm found themselves “bemoaning” their lack of a voice in the sector.

“The report was another depressing story of the impact that farming is having,” Lines explains, “so I challenged some of the conservation groups to say: look this report is great, but where are the voices of farmers who are actually doing the things that you want us to?” After consulting with farmers, and getting a team together, the Nature Friendly Farming Network was born. Today, the network has 14 members of staff across the UK, and is a recognised stakeholder with Whitehall departments and all three devolved governments across the UK, and as chief executive, Lines has had meetings with both Conservative government ministers and members of the Labour shadow cabinet.

The network is farmer-led, but it doesn’t charge farmers for membership and instead takes donations and money from trust foundations. Lines explains that they do this in order to encourage more farmers to get involved, and to learn about the nature-friendly methods they could employ on their own farms. But there’s a social element to the network too. “Being a farmer is a very isolating job,” Lines says, and “there’s a huge social pressure around success. The reality is that for many farmers, you don’t see their bank balance.”

[See also: We should be more worried about nature-related risks]

But a crucial part of the network is lobbying government for a better deal for farmers, particularly when it comes to encouraging them to use more nature-friendly alternatives. The network’s manifesto, published earlier this year, has seven key asks, with a “decent return for nature-friendly farming” at the top of the list.

With a new government likely, the next few months will set the tone for the future of UK farming. When the Welsh Labour government tried to introduce a new programme to help farmers transition to more nature-based solutions and think about rewilding, chaos and protest ensued. This is definitely a sensitive topic.

In the general election campaign, Labour has pledged to “back British farmers” by reforming the Environmental Land Management Scheme – a post-Brexit subsidy scheme – to make it less uncertain and complex for farmers. In February at the National Farmers Union conference in Birmingham, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to double management payments for the sustainable farming incentive scheme, and announced a £220m funding pledge for technology and productivity initiatives. Both parties have been clear that British farmers need more support to transition to more sustainable methods.

It’s vital that farmers are given a fair deal, Lines believes. “We need a fair recognition of the goods we’re delivering. It’s about the rapid recognition that farming is more than food,” he says. “There really needs to be a new contract between government and farmers which recognises that food is important – but a lot of the other things we can produce [ecology-rich habitats and sites for carbon capture and storage] will meet the targets we need to have a healthy planet.”

[See also: Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan must include nature]

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