By Debbie James

A Pembrokeshire farmer wants the Welsh Government to recognise no-till agriculture as a public and environmental good in its revision of the farm support system.

Will Scale has been using no tillage techniques to grow crops at Great Nash Farm, Llangwm, for 15 years.

He has done this for environmental, economic and social reasons and, through good quality agricultural production, he has improved his soils.

He is now evolving the system to draw in more influences from regenerative agriculture, such as identifying environmental ‘leaks’ in the production system and building soil while increasing resilience to weather and commodity prices.

To inform his plans, Will was awarded a place on the Farming Connect management exchange programme to study the regenerative techniques used overseas.

“I wanted to learn more about how the best of European techniques can take us beyond ‘sustainable’ methods, and how we can look at more regenerative techniques,’’ he explains.

“After all, what is the point of looking to sustain agricultural techniques that may not be adapted enough for our future?’’

Will studied the techniques being adopted on farms in France and Finland.

Zero tillage, he discovered, remains a “win-win’’ low technology technique that can help protect soils against erosion, carbon loss and waterlogging, and keep establishment costs low.

It may not be as pertinent in Wales, which has a smaller percentage of cropped and ploughed area compared to much of the UK, but the core concept is still applicable, he reckons.

If farmers are supplying a public good through no-till techniques, Will believes this should somehow be recognised.

“We can achieve quite a few of our conservation aims with regard to farmland bird winter foraging areas with no-till. It can sequester carbon, reduce or eliminate erosion and it is low cost and low investment. But, as the concept is not traditional, it needs some support.’’

The Farming Connect study also focused Will’s thoughts on weaknesses in his own farming system, including not using cover crops intensively enough.

Cover crops are the solar panels for the soil when not cash cropping, he points out.

“Keeping something growing in the ground will absorb more carbon, shade out opportunistic weeds and build soil fertility via the growing root system.

“But also, understanding the limitations of cover crops involves experience and a degree of risk-taking to understand where they fit in. It’s a bit like a jigsaw using plants.’’

Will intends to further optimise his crop rotation and add more species and plant variety.

“This may help me reduce my chemical and fertiliser inputs. I can see a bit more potential for continuing to reduce some herbicides in my rotation with a bit of strategic thinking.’’

While aiming to reduce herbicide use, Will does admit he is very concerned about a proposed glyphosate ban; currently, zero till farming without glyphosate would be very difficult, he insists.

“Going back to full soil tillage will be more damaging than using glyphosate, there appears to be very little scientific evidence of its harm despite what the current non-science based pressure groups are proposing.

“We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater on this and replace one emerging technique with something where the implications could be worse.’’

Will’s research highlighted how all farmers need to understand more about the potential of soil biology for their soil fertility needs.

“The more we disturb our soils, the harder it is for the biology to function, and it is plants, roots and soil creatures which have created this underground empire for us to grow things on the top two inches,’’ he says.