Organic business management – tools and approaches (Organised by IOTA), sponsored by Triodos Bank

How can farm sustainability assessment, including carbon foot printing and nutrient budgeting be used to improve farm performance? The Public Goods Tool is the principle resource for this session. Other tools and techniques will be dis-cussed to show how they can be used to drill down into a farms’ performance on particular aspects of sustainability and help develop ways forward. There will be an emphasis on practical changes that can be made to improve the environmental, finan-cial and social sustainability of the farm.

Mark Measures (ORC): Chair

Session summary

William Waterfield started with an introduction of how as a consultant he has been using the ORC public goods tool. He pointed out that it is best to prepare the farmer for the data required, so they are to hand when starting and in the best cases he managed to complete data entry in about 2 hours. The outcome of the tool (the spider diagram) can be used as a point for discussion of where the farmers wants to be, even if asking that question sometime leads to a long pause at first, followed by some reflection.

Bill Grayson then reflected on the use of the tool on his own farm, which is based on grazing nature conservation areas. Bill liked the tool as it shows the interconnectedness between the different spurs, which helps to communicate complexity in more simple way, and he suggested that the farm can be seen as ‘spider’ that is sitting in the middle of the web. The tool complemented the regular assessment of the financial situation, with which he was happy. He made useful remarks about several of the spurs and how the assessment identified areas for developing the farm in the future.

This was followed by two separate group discussions on nutrient management tools and on carbon tools.

The discussion group on carbon reported that very different tools are used which all have somewhat different approaches. They serve to identifying hotspots, such as livestock, crop substitution, energy use for forage production, and changes in soil organic matter. Changes to the system that would bring some improvements to the carbon budget include light bulbs, energy use for grain drying, water use and improving soil organic matter content and keeping the machinery for longer so that embodied energy is spread over more hours of use.

The group on nutrient management highlighted that tools are used to check everything is OK and to monitor trends over time, assess the need for mineral supplementation and design better systems. Several tools were discussed, such as soil analysis as the staple for nutrient management, with some different opinions on the value of more complex analysis options like Albrecht, biological activity and soil organic matter; plant tissue, forage, milk and blood analysis which allow monitoring of the availability of nutrients in different parts of the farming system; and spreadsheet based tools for nutrient budgets. Manure analysis was not used by many participants in the group, relying on more standard data for manure planning.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Tools can help to talk about sustainability and this has clear relevance to farmers and consultants.
  • The spurs that the ORC Public Goods Tool uses can be used to start this discussion
  • Assessments should be leading to recommendations for action that need to be farm specific.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

William Waterfield (Waterfield & White/Farm Consultancy Group): A practical approach to assessing farm sustainability

Sustainability is more than just being good to the envi-ronment or developing a robust business. It has many facets including the use of resources, animal welfare, social engagement and local support, but also quality of life for the proprietor and this demands that the business generates a cash surplus. The Public Goods (PG) tool is a simple way to understand how your business compares and it highlights areas of strengths and weaknesses. Based on a fairly straight forward questionnaire, the 9 themes of the PG tool are able to produce a snapshot of the business. In this session we will look at the results from some typical organic and low input farms and see how this analysis of the farm can help advisors provide clients with cohesive long term advice and proprietors develop a more sustainable business.

Bill Grayson (ORC): Farmer experience of using sustainability assessment to develop their farm (9.74mb pdf file)

As a farmer, my main focus has been on producing goods for the market along with securing the government payments that support this production. In the last two decades however, increasing attention has been directed at farming’s role in providing the public goods that UK Agriculture affords to wider society. This debate has been sharpened in the course of recent CAP reforms because of arguments about using subsidies to reward delivery of public goods as opposed to simply supporting production of commodities. Whilst my own livestock farming operation has environmental objectives at its heart, I was concerned at criticism being expressed in the media regarding the overall sustainability of extensive grazing systems like mine, particularly regarding their GHG emissions. These concerns eventually led me to examine ways of assessing and recording the impacts that my farming practices exert on the ecosystem services upon which they ultimately depend and which translate into wider benefits for society as a whole. The PG Tool provided a starting point and I commissioned an assessment in 2012, the results of which will form the basis of my presentation.

Practical steps to improve farm sustainability – two examples:Energy and emissions. Facilitator Laurence Smith (ORC)

What practical steps can be taken to improve the farms carbon footprint?

Nutrient management. Facilitator Richard Harding (Procam)

What does a nutrient budget tell you and what can be done? How can soil analysis and tissue analysis be used? Manure and fertiliser use, cropping implications.

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