Stockbridge Technology Centre Research Foundation (STCRF) have been working for many years on the benefits of introducing increased plant diversity onto farms. Much of this work focused initially on making better use of non-cropped areas to provide resources for beneficial insects, for example in the form of flowering field margins. With the creation of STCRF’s ‘Sustainability Department’ some 5 years ago, however, focus shifted toward beginning to think about how plant diversity could be introduced into the crop fields themselves. Recognising that multiple benefits could be gained through cropping into ‘living mulches’, we started to think about how we could develop this production technique to be more compatible with yield-driven arable systems.
Following discussions with Andrew Manfield at Manterra Ltd, it appeared that modern machinery and precision agriculture techniques could hold the key to driving modern, high-yielding polyculture systems by allowing cultivated crop strips to be ‘banded’ into permanent understories of living, non-crop plants, always leaving half the field covered by ‘living mulch’. We expect the benefits of this 50% permanent green cover to be many and varied – from providing a protective cover for the land in winter to prevent loss of soil through runoff, to feeding beneficial insects such as bumblebees and providing an undisturbed, in-crop habitat in which beneficial soil invertebrates can thrive.
As a ‘Small to Medium Sized Enterprise’ (SME) employing only a handful of researchers, the benefits of DIVERSify to STC are as many and varied as the benefits of living mulches to farming. As a Registered Charity that aims to support the UK crop production industry through near-market research and demonstration, a clear benefit will be access to knowledge and ‘plant team’ approaches that are being adopted throughout Europe that we can feed-back to the industry at the regular events we run from our dissemination centre on site. The opportunity to work with, and feed into, a large and multi-national network of leading academics, researchers, farmers and other stakeholders is also an exciting opportunity. We are excited to be co-leading the validation and demonstration work package on the project.
Day-to-day management of this work will be the responsibility of STC Project Manager, Dr Jen Banfield-Zanin. Jen notes “Being involved in projects like this is a great way to engage with the latest developments in R&D across Europe, and DIVERSify perfectly fits our work in Sustainability. I anticipate that the next four years will be hard work, but that the rewards to both STC and to our food production industry will make it all worthwhile. If we can help our industry to reliably and profitably adopt a ‘plant team’ approach to crop production, then we will have made a hugely significant contribution to the sustainable intensification of agriculture”.