Our farmland environment is made up of a highly complex network of habitats that support an amazing diversity of plants and animals, microscopic soil organisms to farmland birds. Any changes to this intricate network of interactions can be subtle and sometimes unpredictable, so it is important we fully understand how our environment is changing over time.
You may be wondering what we can do to help? Well, at the Centre for Sustainable Cropping (CSC) near Dundee, we’re aiming to develop a cropping system that can produce high quality food, whilst still maintaining a healthy environment. This means using what we understand about ecology to work with the environment to improve the health and physical structure of the soil, minimise the losses of nutrients and chemicals from cultivated fields, and support a rich variety of farmland wildlife. With a balanced system of soil, water, plants and animals, we can, over time, reduce our reliance on chemicals to produce high crop yields and eventually, find a more sustainable way of producing food.
We are measuring the long-term effect of crop management on our environment. Established in 2009 our long term platform serves to help improve the sustainability of food production in Scotland and now, eight years on, we have learned a lot! We are using the information that we’ve gathered to refine our cropping system (how the soil, crops and environment are managed through each growing season) and improve on the level of sustainability we can achieve, while still growing highly productive and good quality crops.
The CSC is run by the James Hutton Institute and is the largest field-scale experiment at the institute, extending over 42 hectares and growing a variety of crops. It will also be the longest running experiment, since we aim to maintain the site for a minimum of 3 rotations (18+ years) to get a better understanding of the long-term impact of changes in how our crops are managed.
Our long term goal is to put together a single management package which includes looking after the soil, reducing losses of pollutants into the air and water and encouraging the diverse array of plants and insects needed to help control crop pests and diseases. We are measuring the effect of these management practices on the whole arable system, by comparing directly with standard agricultural practices.
This novel approach allows us to look at the arable environment as a whole, which means we can find out what the cost or benefit is for everything that depends on our farmland habitat, from soil micro-organisms and wild plants to crop yields and input costs.
Investment by the Scottish Government for this long term project means we can use the platform as an open research facility, providing fields, datasets and archived material for all sorts of new projects on many aspects of sustainable land management over (eventually!) many decades which will help us to get more for less through sustainable farming.
Dr Cathy Hawes
Coordinator for the Centre for Sustainable Cropping at The James Hutton Institute