The Soil Health Hub Podcast

#1 - Jake Freestone: Long-term solutions and outcomes for improving soil health

January 15, 2021 Soil Health Hub Season 1 Episode 1
The Soil Health Hub Podcast
#1 - Jake Freestone: Long-term solutions and outcomes for improving soil health
Chapters
The Soil Health Hub Podcast
#1 - Jake Freestone: Long-term solutions and outcomes for improving soil health
Jan 15, 2021 Season 1 Episode 1
Soil Health Hub

Welcome to the first episode of the Soil Health Hub Podcast! We're delighted to have Jake Freestone as our very first guest.  Jake is the farm manager for Overbury Enterprises, a LEAF accredited farmer and a Nuffield Scholar. In 2014, Jake won  Progressive Farmer of the Year by the Farm Business Awards and Soil Farmer of the Year 2020 by the Farm Carbon Toolkit. The discussion focuses on real-life examples and practical, long-term solutions to improving soil health. Tune in to find out more! #soilhealth


Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to the first episode of the Soil Health Hub Podcast! We're delighted to have Jake Freestone as our very first guest.  Jake is the farm manager for Overbury Enterprises, a LEAF accredited farmer and a Nuffield Scholar. In 2014, Jake won  Progressive Farmer of the Year by the Farm Business Awards and Soil Farmer of the Year 2020 by the Farm Carbon Toolkit. The discussion focuses on real-life examples and practical, long-term solutions to improving soil health. Tune in to find out more! #soilhealth


Rob Ward:

Hi, Jake, welcome to the Soil Health Hub podcast. And how are you today?

Jake Freestone:

Rob, I'm very well, indeed. Thank you. And it's great to be here. And thank you very much for asking me to come and answer a few questions for you.

Rob Ward:

It's a pleasure. Firstly, congratulations on your achievements, as the Soil Farmer of the Year, talk me through what it felt like when you got that.

Jake Freestone:

I was really chuffed actually it was, it's been a combination of the journey that we are, we're not even starting really. But it feels like that we've been on it for the last seven or eight years, and trying to push the agenda of more sustainable farming, more regenerative farming, which focuses around the health of the soil to try and push that into into people's awareness and the political agenda and the farming agenda as well.

Rob Ward:

That's great. Let me ask you some some more detailed questions around that the Soil Health Hub is about real stuff for real farmers. Yes, it's forward thinking and the future of how we are going to approach this challenge, but it is about real outcomes and real situations that ultimately lead to a viable future for this. That's very important for us at the Soil Health Hub. So what does soil health mean to you, Jake?

Jake Freestone:

That's a really good question. And it means, my opinion and my view on it changes, and the more I learn about it, and so if I go back to my sons to start my farming career, and so certainly when I came here to Overbury, in 2003, we were we were planning on the farm, and we gradually moved away to a minimal cultivation scenario, partly based on economics, to be honest, how can we reduce our cost of production by trying to do less, less of the fields use less diesel, be more efficient, cover more acres with fewer men, fewer machines. And then that sort of carried on that thinking right through till about 2011. And then we were starting them to really scratch till. So we were just looking at some of our very thin soils, we've got Cotswold brash, which is a very thin soil over limestone. And we were sort of constantly piling up big rocks and cultivating them up, and it was, you know, evident that that's, you know, degrading the soil in the fields and you know, braking equipment at the end of the day. And we had a really wet Autumn in 2012. And we started to scratch till a few fields then. And that autumn, you could have blindfolded me and taken me to any field and I could have told you how we cultivated that field by how far I sank into the, into the mud. And that was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me as as in we need to be able to do this a better way to to enable our machinery to travel to capture organic matter and keep that in the soil. So it started off with healthy soil in terms of, you know, not moving it around too much trying to do as little to it as we could get away with once compaction was removed and, and out of the way. So it became a sort of a journey really of sort of exploration and achievement and wonder as well, because, you know, we're finding things funghi growing in the middle of our fields, for instance, mushrooms all over the farm, and it's you know, that's the sort of stuff that we we never really appreciated or expected. And so to me that healthy soil, the nub of it now is is can you get a spadeful of it, break it apart and find life in there. Can you find earthworms? Can you open it up and you can smell it and it smells sweet and organicly, a bit like compost, you know that you would put on your on your garden. So trying to actually put a measurement on soil health, I think is a really a really big challenge in terms of putting a number to it. It's more, more a feeling, I suppose. And I think that's where the industry will have challenges going forward.

Rob Ward:

Well, I think that's probably why there's been some resistance to because some of the sort of fact based people don't really see that meaning, they don't get it if they're in that way because they don't like feelings, they like facts. And so it also makes it sound a little bit like it's idealistic rather than real. So let's focus on the practical side, then you've now moved to a mixed farm, really up about on Overbury Enterprises. And so how important is that before we answer that question, the the the whole process of intercropping not keeping the soil growing something that that's fascinating, and it's a total turnaround and it sounds like that, that you literally did have a light bulb moment, say seven years ago. It's out there, there abouts, and the key productivity gains you've seen, give me a simple example of cost savings and profitability increases you've had as a result of this type of thinking,

Jake Freestone:

I suppose the easiest one that's very straightforward to measure is diesel use. And we have gone from about 52 litres a hectare to establish a crop of wheat down to 17 litres if we roll it afterwards. So from a from an economic point of view, and cash going out of the business that's made some huge savings across the sort of acreage that we're farming. So we're combining about 950 hectares here, we've got another 250 hectares contract farming next door. So that's making some significant cash savings. In terms of output and productivity, our wheat yields have remained the same. We had a really good year in 2019 highest yield of all the crops across the farm. That's partly whether we have just the right weather at the right time. But it's also I think, a combination of how we're building organic matter in the soil. Organic having said just know that you can't really measure soil health, one of the indicators is organic matter. And we've moved some organic matters on some of our sand and gravel and fields from 1.1%. On based on loss of ignition in 2005, up to just under 3%, 2.98% in 2017, I think we took those tests. So we are you know, we are making changes. But I think the challenge we have is it's a biological system. So it is influenced by very wet autumns very wet winters. But you know, in terms of profitability, yeah, our costs in terms of machinery replacement are going down. We've lost 280 horsepower worth of tractor out of the system. So that's, you know, reducing capital employed in the business that can be used elsewhere. We're not replacing cultivators and drills, that the drill we bought was an expensive drill, but it will have a lifespan of probably 20 years here on the farm. So in terms of that recapitalisation and reinvestment we're trying to be as slim as we possibly can, to compete in a very, very difficult marketplace.

Rob Ward:

Do you think then your soil as a result of this attitude towards focusing on constantly improving the biologicals in the soil, as it's protecting you against more extreme weather scenarios.

Jake Freestone:

I'm convinced it it will do we're on the journey that you know, last year, we had such a wet winter followed by a such a dry spring. And I would love in a funny kind of way to have had a field that was still conventional every year to be able to compare, because I don't think you can just do it on an annual basis. I hear and see lots of reports I you know, we tried to get direct drill last year, you know, in the system, and it didn't, it didn't work. But that's sort of one crop in one year, not in in a whole rotation and a whole shift of everything else you need to do to make the directory work things like cover cropping things like a wider, more diverse rotation spring crops in their livestock we mentioned earlier on so it's it's part of that whole whole approach, really. But you know, in terms of organic matter, our limiting factor here in the UK, but not is still drought, in terms of wheat yields. So anything we can do to manage water is important. And for me that is about holding on to it when it's in short supply organic matter will do that, and then also sort of shedding it through the through the soil profile, in periods of excess. And again, organic matter and structure will enable us to do that. And if you look at the predictions of climate change, we will be having wetter, wetter winters, drier summers, both of which will prove a challenge in growing food in the UK in the future. So yes, we can admit some of that with irrigation. But that will be difficult and expensive. So the next best thing is to improve organic matter. So you've got a bigger sponge to be able to hold that nutrient and

Rob Ward:

It sounds like it's an insurance system. But of course the water. you have to be patient to get the right policy to make it work.

Jake Freestone:

Yeah, I've not heard of it like that. But you're right. It's a bit like a bank account as well. I think you have to keep adding to your bank account, rather than in a conventional system. If you think of organic matter as your current account. You need to keep topping it up. You can't keep withdrawing it. And I think that as an industry, we've been guilty of that. For very, very logical reasons. I think we have a very temperate climate here. So erosion is a slow process in the UK. We don't have those extremes of you know, dust bowls blowing across prairies, monsoons, and then and then massive floods that you see in sort of Bangladesh and those sorts of places. So it's happening very slowly. And I think the problem with that is it sort of becomes a bit unnoticed. You know, there's a bit of, you know, a bit of brown water running down the ditch. Well, you know, it always happens. And actually, it can't always happen because at the end of the day, that's the farmers asset that's, you know, it's what your your farm is made over. And that's the bit I really struggle for some people to not want to change.

Rob Ward:

Yeah, sure that change is always slow. And actually, for good reason, because there's a lot of risk in farming. And so by mitigating that risk, I'm just going to go back to the point you made about organic matter. And yes, it would be amazing if everybody was doing organic matter calculations every year and doing the level of detail you said about that one field that's increased, which is amazing. Other characteristics you think are important for measuring soil health? What are those?

Jake Freestone:

I mean, a key indicator, which is really easy for anybody to do is earthworm counting, aiming for 16 earthworms in a space full of soil equates to 400 per square metre. And that's a very good indicator, they did some meta analysis a few years ago. And that was shown to have an increase in productivity, nutrient cycling, draining, aeration, all those sorts of things. So that's a really key one, we're starting to look now in a bit more detail about biological and fungal relationships within the soil, our soils are usually bacteria dominated, because we constantly historically, we constantly cultivated them. So the funghi didn't have a chance to get themselves established. And then you go through with a plough or a cultivator and pull those hyphy apart and disrupt that population, whereas bacteria kind of much faster adapting to that change in environment. So our fungal populations are increasing. And we're just starting to measure that now. Actually, this autumn got hold of a little bit of equipment, which we can test on farm, bacteria and fungi relationships, and we're looking for a one to one relationship of bacteria.

Rob Ward:

I was going to ask you, what is your fungal bacterial ratio? And and I'm not sure many farmers know this, or even ask themselves this question. But I suspect in five years time that people will quote their fungal bacterial ratio, as if it's just as important. It's out of there, the nitrogen account they've got in the soil as well. And it's interesting from the group, the work we were doing within the soil health hub is it's finding out how much that those that fungal bacterial ratio can affect the nutritional optimization of the soil to help plants be more productive and higher levels of immunity. Have you seen that? Have you seen levels of less need for fungicides, less need for using fertilisers?

Jake Freestone:

Yeah, I mean, you know, really, really good question. And that that's, you know, that's the aim, we want to we want to be able to reduce our using fungicides, and fertiliser, nitrogen fertiliser, specifically in terms of its carbon footprint, its massive here in its manufacturer and its use and its effect on the organic matter in the soil. You know, we're looking hard at how we can improve our nitrogen use efficiency, but ultimately reducing overall rates and we've cut it down 15%. Now, since we've started along this journey with with not an impact on quality or yield, so that's encouraging, but there's still a long way to go. Like to get down to about a 50% cut without affecting profitability, because, you know, although we might not get the same yield, we'll be saving, you know, 100 pounds actor and nitrogen fertiliser Yeah. Now so the last, I guess there's a few inputs we've we've cut back on. Insecticides is one. So we haven't used insecticides on arable crops here for the last four years. That is including oilseed rape, no BYDD spraying for aphids in the autumn. And again, we are we're not seeing we're not seeing detriment in not using those products. We haven't been using fungicides seed dressings for last three years, we treat with zinc and manganese, but but not a fungicidal seed dressing. And again, we're not seeing any detriment to that. And in fact, we're actually seeing faster plant emergence as well. And that, to me is really encouraging. You know, there's a cost saving there but actually, if we're trying to have a more fungally dominated soil, why are we putting a fungicide in the soil next to the seed that wants to have a symbiotic relationship with the funghi that you just killed off. So kind of logically, you know, the plants and the soil have an integral relationship that you know, we've sort of interfered with so we're sort of we're sort of rolling the clock back on that.

Rob Ward:

It's like you're recruiting a whole army of volunteers to help you, Jake, in farming better. These fungal of bacteria guys are they're sort of on your side and they're to do a lot of the work for you, including, say if you put a synthetised ag-chems onto the crop to try and get what you used to get.

Jake Freestone:

Yeah, yep, totally. So we just had another stage last last year, actually, we had two four hectare blocks where we treated with biological products instead of fungicides. So we were comparing a force spray fairly traditional farm standard approach versus a biological approach. And the low the yield was higher in the farm standard, I think he was off top my head, it was 8.3 versus 8.1. So you know, it was 160-170 kilos difference, which equated to, I think, 27 pounds a hectare, more wheat sold. But actually, the margin was higher in the biological products, because we'd spent 40 pounds less per hectare. So although the numbers aren't, you know, they're not massive, we haven't saved 100 pounds. The fact that if we still have this, you know, even if he said that's not statistically different, the fact that we haven't used synthesised products and came up with the same result, that has to be a positive, a positive outcome.

Rob Ward:

And I guess, the non biological, it's a one off moment, almost a bit like a sticking plaster to stop bleeding, but with the biologicals it's going to benefit in year one. It's also creating more benefits beyond that, and the subsequent year, so yeah, so it's a preventative, rather than just dealing with the symptom. And I think that's very exciting. We could do a whole series of work around biological treatments, as alternatives. So we'll probably get another day. So look forward to bringing you on that one again. So it's a really great practical stuff there. And then and at the same time, you really, you know, you've, you've hit some important elements around the world we live in and climate change area, there's a lot of talk about regenerative agriculture and agri ecology, and to the outside world looking in, it doesn't really feel like it's anything specific, other than a set of good feelings. Do you think that it needs a protocol or a definition? Because I'm thinking as a food branding person from my background that, Well, I'll be I'll be missing a trick here. Because, are we, you know, in the States they started to see some products be branded around, they judge of the farming system, but they have a protocol to back that up. Are we moving in that direction here? Is that a good idea? And is the name regenerative agriculture, and I struggle with this word agric, agriculture, agroecology. So if I struggle, saying it's great, but what is the difference between the two - re-gen versus agroecology? And is there a difference?

Jake Freestone:

Well, I'm not sure that there is really, it's all trying to promote a more natural way of farming, I think all the techniques employed in agro ecology would fit into regenerative agriculture and vice versa from where I said, it would be fantastic to get a food label or food brand as a region or nature friendly farming, you know, that's already been been coloured by somebody. But it I guess there's there's two angles to it as well, there's the fact that we hope and believe that the food we're growing will be more nutritious in terms of its, you know, food density, but that will change year on year with climate and I don't know, and you'll know, Rob from food marketing point of view, how you justify that and sell that. So that's one side of it. The other side of it, which I do think we can, as a group of farmers put together is the the core principles of what we're trying to do. So, you know, move the soil as little as possible and have a diverse rotation have cover crops, you know, have livestock in there as well. The you know, livestock are really important in terms of that recycling of nutrients, whether that's grazing cover crops or crop residue, turning that muck back onto the field, adding compost, all these all these techniques are all aimed at improving the soil health to grow healthier product, healthier food for people. And I would you know, I'd love to see you know, farmers who are farming this way, and it would need accreditation I think in due course I don't. And again, then you come back to this Well, what do you measure it against, and then people start to think that well, we need a number because it is then easy to measure against your soil must have an organic matter of 4.8%. Well, that's easy on some soils on the fence, very difficult on sand and gravel and they might be farming in completely opposing ways but which Still tick that box. So I think it's, it's gonna be much more holistic approach. I mean, I've got my leaf badge here on here, leaf is really important, I think in terms of integrated pest management, and how we can develop that sustainability in the in the industry, obviously, they've got a leaf mark challenges, but it would be good to be very helpful to get to a point where we could brand, you know, a green product.

Rob Ward:

As with like food products hat on, the only benefit of a protocol to consumers is if they understand it. And if they don't understand it, then all credit is bureaucracy, and costs. So at the end, I think it's fair to say there have been some big challenges with other let's let's not name them, protocols that have been created for foreigners that haven't been valued by the consumers. Because it's difficult to understand them, you know, that everyone's got a licence to leave, and they don't really want to know the scientific detail of what's going on. And that applies to a car manufacturer, as well as it applies to your farming. And actually, this comes down to trust ultimately. So if you can create a trust protocol, and a name that makes sense instantly to a consumer, then this has got potential, but maybe actually, if it simply is more profitable, because you're using biological treatments, and using a whole range of different cropping systems, integrated pest management, all the different areas that you've already mentioned today, and actually simply is good business good, you know, not only good for you, or how you feel about the world, but also good business as it makes more money, or is more sustainable. So it deals with what we call the soil health insurance scheme against climate change, then actually, maybe that's enough anyway. But crucially, I guess the last part I'd like to touch on is - you mentioned carbon a couple of times, do you think carbon sequestration markets are part of this? Or do you think they

Jake Freestone:

A really good question, I think there is a are it? huge opportunity for us to be able to increase the amount of carbon that we have in our soils, as an industry across the country. And there'll be very few soils I would expect in this country, apart from some grasslands that are out there, sort of if we said peak carbon, and I know that there are people out there looking at how they can offset carbon from other industries, and they're looking at agriculture to do this, I think we have a real worry about covering the country with trees, and taking a lot of land out of production. Ultimately, we have to be able to grow food to sustain the population. Now, you know, we also waste a lot of food in this country and across the world. So I think we need to tackle this from as always, it's a complicated argument, but it needs to come from various angles. But I think fundamentally, we still need to have a food industry here in the UK. And we need to do that whilst improving our soil carbon. And I think there are markets coming along. It's really early days yet. And again, they're all grappling as far as I'm aware of how do you measure it? And how do you measure your soil carbon today? And then how do you measure it and compare it in five years time. And I think that's until we can sort that out, you're into a very much of a, not a gentleman's agreement, but a very much along the lines of, well, if we farm in this way, by not moving the soil by having cover crops and keeping our fields covered, the science tells us that we will be having an increase in soil carbon within the fields. And I think that is probably the position we need to be at the moment to say that we have bought into these ideas. This is what we're doing. The science is backing that up. And yes, let's take some tests. So we test for loss on ignition for organic matter. We also started doing potassium permanganate tests, which is measuring the active carbon in there. We've got this funghi and bacteria relationship test that literally just started this autumn. But all these things, you know, they take four or five years to show an increase or decline rather than a sort of a one year cycle. So it is really quite tricky to be able to do that. Unless there's some you know, again, we talk about agritech helping, unless we can we can use drones and satellite imagery to measure carbon and people are working on this now to measure that now. But then actually, we've got Footage from 5,10, 15 years ago. Well, can we run that then through the software programme now and pick up changes from back then I don't know whether that's possible, but that might be a way to look at it. You know, what was what was Jake doing when he started at Overbury in 2003 and where is he now? Everything's crossed that we've shown an improvement. But you know, that's the that's the challenge that I think we face.

Rob Ward:

Yeah, it sounds like though, that it's the carbon is your, almost like the byproduct of creating a more biological environment. It's it's the, it's the it's what happens to be like us we eat food and then we have to go to the lavatory. So it's what comes in? And yes it should and if it stays in the soil that's good for the world, right from climate change perspective, but it is the biologicals that are driving this, and that they are the you know, they're driving the vehicle. And what comes out of the back is what comes out at the back. And if we're measuring because at the back only we could be missing what's happening or what direction we're going in from, from where it's been driven. And yeah, the feeling we're getting from a lot of very important, interesting people is that it the biologicals are driving this, and therefore, understanding that is actually going to be the the key area rather trying to drive the car by looking in your ear turning around and using a mirror to drive forward. Yeah, yeah, that seems to be an area of interest. So we're coming to the end now. But I'd like to ask you, it always wants to, I'm very grateful for some incredible people, I've met my life, who were who were the industry, people, you know, aside from your family, and obviously important people like that. Interesting people that you've met, that have that you would almost want to say thank you to and people that are really helped you think in a way that's where you are now.

Jake Freestone:

You know, I've been really lucky, partly from Penelope, who's my employer here Overbury, to enable me to go my Nuffield Farming scholarship that was, you know, that was that was pretty life changing. And now we've we've turned the farm around here to now doing what we're doing. So you know, she needs a huge pat on the back through that organisation, I you know, that there's a huge number of people but I think Bill Ritchie, who's down in New Zealand, who was one of the designers and creators of the of the no till drill that we use, he is sort of vision of the of the concept, if you like, of what we're trying to achieve. And the implications on the on the soil, it was was pretty was pretty special. John Palsy, actually, as well, he's an organic farmer in Suffolk, and who, again, he'd be fascinating to interview an awful lot of knowledge from from the organic sector that we are starting to now employ ourselves. Andy Howard, a Nuffield scholar who got me into intercropping, four or five years ago, and we're cropping all of our oil seed rate with companion cropping. And that's helped with reduced fertilisers, reduced insecticides reduced and funghicides. So there's that. Yeah, there's a lot of people. So that's just a little small gathering of them really.

Rob Ward:

Fantastic! And as a Nuffield scholar myself, I couldn't agree with you more. It's been an amazing worldly net of people. And long may it continue. It's a wonderful, truly, a wonderful organisation. So if we think about applying, apply, wherever you are, I think there are 12 countries around the world now that are doing them. So I mean, I think all the all the international International. So very quickly, your last last question, what is the what's the next for Jake and Overbury? What is the next? What's the thing that you hope to achieve in the near future? A single simple answer, please.

Jake Freestone:

Yeah, well, a single answer. We need more integration of livestock into the farming system. We haven't really talked about that today. But we've got 1100 use, we need a different type of animal, or their animal byproducts on the farm to help reduce our carbon footprint, as well as add more diversity to the to the business and business exposure to climate markets and things like that. So I think that would probably be the one thing on top of all the other bits that we would be aiming to look at.

Rob Ward:

Brilliant Jake, I'm not going to take any more of your time. Congratulations again for being so Farmer of the Year. You are an inspiration yourself. So thank you. There's a lot of people that listen to this. I'm sure that they'll gather some inspiration themselves to take things forward. So well done. Amazing, what you've done. And I look forward to seeing you again at the next Nuffield conference in Rio, hopefully. Yeah, absolutely. And thank you!

Jake Freestone:

Absolute pleasure. Thank you for inviting me Rob. Great to see you!