This is a phrase we are all familiar with – in fact, in the past few years I've rarely gone more than two conferences or webinars without someone saying it, including me. However, now more than ever it resonates with me for our industry. Growers are increasingly having to become experts in several areas: not only are you crop production specialists but also environmental managers, accountants, HR advisors and many more things to boot.
If we look at environmental management in particular, many of you will have either recently begun new agri-environment agreements or are contemplating entering schemes. Now, applications are open for new Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreements, and the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) is gearing up for its first wave of official applicants in England. For those of you in Scotland, the Agri-Environment & Climate Scheme (AECS) opened for new applications on the 24th January. While all of the schemes differ slightly in terms of options and conditions, ultimately they all come with the requirement to map, monitor and provide evidence of your chosen features.
If we come back to the 'work smarter, not harder' phrase, it's a sensible approach for most farm businesses and I think many of us will be familiar with recording 'typical' crop production activities online to an extent. Interestingly though, the same approach is not always the default when it comes to managing environmental features and agreements – but why? These things can have a direct impact on overall production and business performance so surely it can only be a good thing to look at them in tandem with everything else?
To save yourself working harder, the smart option is to record all your information together, whether it's a Countryside Stewardship agreement or your yield data. With such growing focus on sustainable practices and resilient farm management, this approach is going to be more important than ever.
To support growers to do this, the teams at Kings and SOYL collaborated to launch an environment manager tool in MySOYL, part of Frontier's MyFarm platform. It gives growers the ability to plan, map and record environmental and crop production data together.
Whichever agri-environment scheme you have chosen or are thinking of choosing, they all have three common requirements: mapping, monitoring and evidence recording. The environment manager tool can help in all aspects and – importantly – it's straightforward too.
One of the most arduous tasks of planning any agri-environment scheme is planning where to site your options. Typically, it's a task that involves numerous paper maps that must be re-drawn every time there is a change and that's before you get down to the colour coding and labelling.
By using the environment manager tool, it is easy to make quick changes and refresh your map rather than re-draw it. By outlining areas within MySOYL, it also means it is far easier to share ideas with and get feedback from your advisors, landlords or anyone else involved in the planning process. Another smart win is that you instantly know the size or length of your proposed features, therefore there's no need to break out the measuring wheel.
Many of you probably record your crop production observations and activities in software programs already. With the environment manager tool, you can do the same for notable farm features, scheme options and natural capital assets, including uploading photos to show points of interest and evidence activity.
Working smarter can mean working more simply too. The environment manager tool allows cross-team collaboration so, instead of one person collating notes based on snippets of long past conversations and scraps of paper with various people's scribbles on, everyone can easily log their observations in MySOYL for the team to see.
Gathering and producing your evidence for an inspection can be a stressful ordeal, especially when you only have 24-48 hours to find all your maps, invoices, records, photos and an array of other required documents. If you've mapped and monitored your features using the environment manager tool already, all you'll need to do is export a PDF report or sit the inspector in front of your computer and walk them through your records. For those using MyFarm, you can also use MyAccount to get access to and download all your invoices, thereby providing an inventory of purchases.
Here's an extra one: Evaluation
Now, this fourth section wasn't in my initial list of requirements but for me it is one of the most important tasks if you are to be truly smart. We've mentioned in past blogs about the need to remove the competitiveness between environmental projects and crop production, looking instead at how the two enhance each other to create a more sustainable crop production system. By recording activities around both in the same system, it is easier to assess how they are influencing each other.
As an example, around me in Scotland many growers are using stubbles followed by green manures for AECS, which we know will improve soil health. However, what does it mean to the following crop; does it increase yields? Some of you will be using grass leys or planting wildflower strips for pollinators and beneficial insects as part of your CS agreements but it's worth asking: where would they deliver the greatest benefit on your farm? Once planted, what long-term impact are they having? These are all questions that we can start to answer by bringing crop production and environmental records together in one place.
If an activity contributes to your farm's output (and that includes your economic, crop and environmental performance), you should be recording it. However, rather than writing lists or making spreadsheets, you can be smart about how and where you evidence the things you do so that the data delivers more, such as helping you to make quick comparisons, test scenarios and set benchmarks for your business. Let's not forget the time that can be saved too – I think every farm business can always benefit from more of that!
More information about the environment manager tool can be found here. Alternatively, please speak to your local Frontier, Kings or SOYL contact.