Farming and Science join forces for AONBees!

FARMERS AND SCIENTISTS JOIN FORCES TO EXPLORE THE FUTURE OF POLLINATOR-FRIENDLY FARMING

Representing the faces of farming across Cornwall, 11 enthusiastic and influential Cornish farmers and advisors gathered to discuss the best ways to work in partnership to benefit bees and business. Together with researchers from the Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) based in the Penryn campus of the University of Exeter, we explored the motivations, barriers and support needed for pollinator-friendly farming into the future at our focus group on 5th September 2017.

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BEE-STEWARD is a computer program of virtual bees in digital landscapes developed by researchers at the ESI that can be used to predict the effects of different land management on pollinator survival and pollination rates and is the basis of our Farms for AONBees project. Now, joining forces with farmers and land managers, we are working together to make sure BEE-STEWARD benefits bees and business on the ground. Although BEE-STEWARD focusses on pollinators and more specifically bumblebees and honeybees, management that is good for bees is also good for lots of other farm wildlife.

 

 

 

Motivation

The Government. The Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme can be a huge motivation for farm management, providing governmental guidance, support and funding for practices that look after the environment. However, management on the ground needs to be justified in terms of establishment and maintenance costs and needs to deliver desired results to make sure farmers get involved. Not all farms are eligible for the CS scheme, but this doesn’t mean they’re not aware of food security or that they don’t want to enhance their farmland for nature. This means that there still needs to be direction from the government on how to manage landscapes sustainably for all farms.

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Healthy farm, healthy business. It’s not all about money as a motivation. It is clear that farmers want a healthy farmed landscape for nature; their farm is their investment in their future and their families’ future. There are opportunities however, for “win wins” for bees and businesses in terms of financial gains from yield increases or CS schemes payments through the application of pollinator-friendly management exploring these “win wins” in partnership could deliver the best benefits for nature and business.

Supermarkets. Supermarkets are a big motivator; getting a contract with a supermarket can be essential for the future of some farm businesses. Some supermarkets will advocate entry into CS schemes for example which could increase the uptake in pollinator-friendly management, but not all farms supply to supermarket; some are too small and instead supply local farm shops and farmers’ markets. Nevertheless, it appears that there is great potential for supermarkets to influence how their suppliers manage their land sustainably.

 

Barriers

Time is money. Many farms already have low profit margins, meaning that dedicating time and land specifically for wildlife can be difficult even if farmers know that space for wildlife is important for the health of their farm. Government incentives such as the CS scheme can be very time consuming especially for small farms where the time spent on the application is not necessarily justified by the potential payments. Every farm is different, and every farmer is different; a blanket approach as we have seen in the past is not appropriate in the future, and therefore management recommendations need to be more bespoke to the individual farm. Methods where we can optimise land by targeting the best areas to grow food and enhance nature with opportunities to save time and money are required.

Supermarkets. Where supermarkets buy their produce from inevitably comes down to price, this enables them to contend with their competitors. However, buying on price alone doesn’t take into consideration the way in which the land has been managed and doesn’t add value to produce that comes from farmland managed sustainably. It is the general consensus that not all supermarkets are recognising, rewarding and awarding farmers that are doing their best for nature. It is clear that supermarkets could be a big motivation in the future for pollinator-friendly farming and therefore it is essential that we effectively engage supermarkets in BEE-STEWARD.

The “unknown”. Many farmers do not know what wildlife they already have on their farms and so require base-line surveys so then bespoke management can be recommended and applied. There is some help available for these types of surveys e.g. Farm and Wildlife Advisory Group and the Wildlife Trust, but not all farms have access to these services and surveys are time consuming. If farmers know what wildlife is on their farm, it can help them in their management decision making and this information can be shared with the businesses and supermarkets that they supply. It is therefore important that we consider how best to gather on-farm wildlife information and collaborate with the right partners, sharing data and ideas.

 

Support needed

Simplify and optimise decision making. It is important to simplify farm management decision making and make sure that any new tools fit with and enhance existing procedures. BEE-STEWARD could be used to compare predictions of different CS scheme options on bee survival and pollination rates and utilise the information that would go into these applications. BEE-STEWARD could be used to identify the best crop (and overwintering crop) type and location, help with rotations and identify the best use of unproductive or “difficult” land e.g. field corners or slopes, all bespoke to the individual farm. There is also a great opportunity for BEE-STEWARD to work with farms on a landscape scale e.g. facilitation areas or farmer clusters to save time and resources and to share best practice through peer-to-peer learning.

Recognise, reward and award. It is clear that the group felt strongly that more support is required from supermarkets to celebrate their farmers who look after nature and share their environmental aims and objectives. Supermarkets have huge influence and can enable farmers to enhance their farmland for wildlife and recognise, reward and award them for their efforts and share this with their customers. Considerable business engagement and campaigning is required, and we have plans to start this in collaboration with the University of Exeter’s Business school, targeting across the “farm-to-fork” supply chain.

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Challenge public perceptions. Farmers need the support of the public that they are producing food for. This means that it is essential that all the public understand how farm businesses work and how food is produced – not just those already watching farming programs and attending Open Farm Sundays. The public need to be willing to buy British produce made in a way that supports the environment and need to be willing to pay for it. Businesses are an immediate route to this public engagement by celebrating their producers and what they do for the environment. Many food and farming organisations do this e.g. the NFUs “Back British Farming”. Therefore, it is important to work in collaboration with Natural England, Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the National Farmers Union on the BEE-STEWARD project so that we can target public events in partnership. Schools and agricultural colleges offer a route to the next generation of farmers and consumers, making sure that they have the knowledge and skills for wildlife-friendly farming in the future.

 

Taking this forward with BEE-STEWARD

We are planning substantial business engagement to promote BEE-STEWARD and how it can be used to help manage landscapes for bees and business and to celebrate our “Bee-stewards”. There is a great deal of talk about “win wins”, enhancing pollinators whilst increasing profits and there are a few routes to achieve this-

  1. Using BEE-STEWARD recommendations with the aim of increasing yields or year-on-year yield stability, how can we translate more bees into a better business?

  2. Using BEE-STEWARD to make best use of difficult land: What are the easy ways to do so, and can we even save money?

  3. Using BEE-STEWARD as a tool for marketing – celebrating farmers as role models for profitable farms run sustainably and innovatively. This occurs within the farming industry but what about to the wider public?

There are some opportunities highlighted to celebrate pollinator friendly farming-

  1. The next generation of consumers and farmers: Work with schools and agricultural colleges.

  2. Supermarket marketing and public engagement in collaboration with partners such as the NFU, the Wildlife Trusts etc.

  3. Support communities of farmers: Regardless of farm type / size etc, all are running businesses, and need to balance the environment and food production.

We have a great deal of work to do and of course we can’t solve all of the problems with a computer program, but we can work in partnership with scientists, food and farming businesses, supermarkets and the public to make sure we can have a sustainable and profitable farming industry that supports nature and the people that it relies upon.

 

What’s next?

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We have dates for our next focus group where we will put BEE-STEWARD through its paces, testing it out on real farm maps and management options on 29th and 30th  of November at the ESI on Penryn Campus, 12:00 noon-2:30pm. We also have business engagement events for the winter and spring, dates TBC. For more information on the project and to join one of our focus groups please contact BEE-STEWARD researcher Grace Twiston-Davies on g.twiston-davies@exeter.ac.uk.