AH Worth Case Study – Improving Soil Health For More Sustainable Potato Production

Find out how a farm business has used Fera’s expertise to improve soil health and cut chemical use

Award-winning Lincolnshire vegetable grower, AH Worth, has been striving to improve soil health, cut chemical use and protect biodiversity with support from Fera Science.

Farm manager, Simon Day, and Senior Plant Nematologist at Fera, Bex Lawson, explain how they have been working in partnership to measure the impact of regenerative agriculture investments and assess farm sustainability.

 Key farm facts
  • 2,600ha of Grade 1 fertile, silt soils
  • 350ha of potatoes
  • Potato varieties grown: Maris Piper, Melody, Marfona, Desiree and Nectar
  • Other crops grown: winter wheat, sugar beet, vining peas and maize
  • Land is also let for vegetable and salad crops
  • M&S supplier, and one of the supermarket’s Indicator & Innovation farms
  • LEAF demonstration farm, regularly hosting visits for schools, farmers and interest groups

How is AH Worth striving to improve farm sustainability?

AH Worth has been moving towards more sustainable potato production by focusing on reducing greenhouse gases to help cut the carbon footprint of the farm business. To achieve this, they have been using regenerative principles such as reduced soil cultivation, more efficient use of nitrogen and investments in soil biodiversity.

“The business has always been environmentally focused and we’re aiming to stay one step ahead on our journey to sustainable farming,” says Simon.

“Five years ago, we made the decision to widen the potato crop rotation from one-in-six to one-in-eight years. We’re still on a learning curve with trialling different cover crops in-between rotations to add organic matter to our soils.”

Sowing cover crops from the cultivator to help keep more nutrients in the soil and reduce soil erosion, Simon has experimented with biofumigant cover crops and recently more traditional mixes, including vetch, phacelia and radish.

“What we want is good ground cover to protect soil quality, but minimal management,” he says.

To measure the impact of these changes and provide direction on soil management practices at AH Worth, Fera researchers were brought in.

How is Fera expertise helping AH Worth protect soil health?

As part of Marks & Spencer’s ‘Farming with Nature’ campaign, the supermarket funded Fera research trials on AH Worth’s nematode numbers.

“Nematode populations are the best bioindicator of soil health,” says Bex.

“Analysing and classifying the nematodes within various soil samples gives us an indication of soil biodiversity and how well the farm is doing in terms of improving its sustainability.”

With establishment costs of £80/ha for some cover crops at AH Worth (as of 2021), the soil health data from these trials can prove this outlay is a worthwhile investment.

“At AH Worth we have seen improvements in diversity from autumn 2021 through to spring 2022, largely from the use of cover crops and reduced cultivations.

“Nematicides are currently being used on 60-70% of the farm’s potato land, and in the future, with a good balance of beneficial nematodes and good soil health, there may be less need for a nematicide at all,” she says.

How has this sustainability project benefitted AH Worth?

Fera’s nematology team’s insights are helping to show the Lincolnshire producer is moving in the right direction towards a more sustainable farming future.

“This project provides us with a baseline of data, so we can track how different farm management practices are benefitting the soil structure at AH Worth,” says Bex.

“For example, we can see what happens when organic matter is applied to the soil in the short and long-term.

“These insights enable us to offer other farmers guidance on what’s working positively and what more can be done to improve soil health.”

Why is it important for farms to continually invest in soil health?

Knowing the health status of AH Worth’s soils is vital – this forms part of the farm businesses natural capital in the same way as air, water, trees and hedgerows do.

Natural capital is an asset that brings value to people and in the case of AH Worth, helps provide a source of food to commercial outlets, such as Marks and Spencer.

Protecting natural resources on farmland, and investing in its natural capital such as soil, offers a huge opportunity for farms to futureproof their businesses.

LAND360 helps farmers, such as Simon, to understand what natural assets they have, providing a sound evidence base to aid decision-making for sustainable land use and future revenue.  Find out more: Examples of Natural Capital across a Farm Business.

Read about the National Potato Industry Award AH Worth received in recognition of this partnership work with Fera.

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