Farming for the Future

A unique visit for CLA members in Nottinghamshire gave them plenty to ponder
James Brown speaking to CLA members at Pollybell Farm

A floating solar farm, a reverse coal project, and a robot that kills weeds with light were some of the unique farming techniques CLA members heard about during a visit to the Lapwing Estate. Lee Murphy went to meet the estate’s Chief Executive, James Brown, the man behind these innovative approaches to farming.

The Brown family has a strong history in farming of over 120 years and an immense passion for growing healthy, affordable food while enhancing the land and surrounding environment.

At Pollybell Farm (the farming operator of Lapwing Estate) James Brown oversees a family-owned diverse organic farming business. The farm covers 5,000 acres crossing the three county borders of Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire, producing vegetables on highly fertile lowland peat.

Whilst cereals, vegetables and livestock are at the core of the business, James truly believes that by farming in a holistic manner he is helping to preserve and improve the land in which the family farms for future generations.

“Our land goes from one minus metre below sea level to plus one metre above. Peatland is the most fertile type of land and its why over a third of all UK fresh produce is grown here and it gives you a comparative advantage. And that is why the concentration of food production is on land like ours, and other similar areas such as the Lincolnshire Fens and Cambridgeshire Fens.”

Pollybell image for web - do not use elsewhere on site
Floating solar farm at Pollybell

England's drained lowland peat soils are among the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the land-use sector (SOURCE 1). It is an issue that has been at the forefront of James’ mind for more than a decade.

“In 2011 we started a project with the soil association on low carbon farming. By 2013 we came up with a plan to tackle our carbon emissions, which included changing the tractor fleet, installing renewables and enhancing cold storage. This reduced our operational emissions from around a tonne a hectare to around half a tonne a hectare.”

But with James estimating that his highly fertile lowland peat could be emitting around 25 to 35 tonnes of Co2 per hectare, he clearly wanted to do more. And so the ‘Reverse Coal’ project began on a 20 hectare trial plot on the farm.

The premise of ‘Reverse Coal’ is to utilise photosynthesis to remove CO2 from the atmosphere via production of short rotation coppice willow (SRCW) on rewetted peatland.

This simultaneously cleans the water of chemicals, abates landscape soil emissions from agriculturally drained lowland peat, and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere through the SRCW. The biomass crop is then dried and fed into a pyrolysis plant to produce biochar, electricity and heat.

“Just going down an environmental scheme where the government pays you not to farm the land isn’t economically sustainable for us. When beginning this project the first place we looked was backwards. What would nature do to this landscape? That’s usually a good clue as something that would work from a practical point of view.

“We’re currently at the proof of concept stage so the project is taking place in on 20 hectares of the peatland. We’re having a pyrolysis plant built and the energy conversion will then support a controlled environment agriculture facility.”

As if a study of this complexity and scale was not challenging enough, James has a range of other unique and innovative projects on the estate. Lapwing Energy includes a floating solar farm on an irrigation reservoir, a wind turbine, and planning has been granted for an anaerobic digester.

The solar farm produces 400,000 KW/year to power the packing facility, cold stores and farm irrigation. A wind turbine compliments the solar panels.

Pollybell image - copyright Pro Horizon Ltd

“We had the reservoir built as it gives us two to three weeks back up water supply if there is ever a pollution incident on the nearby river,” says James. “If you have a reservoir, you’re going to be pumping water, so you’re going to be needing power. If you’re irrigating, you tend to be growing crops which need other types of power such as cold storage.

“Once you’ve taken the land out of production for your water, why wouldn’t you stack energy production on the top? It just seems naive not to – you just need to make your land work and that is what we are doing.”

James is also the co-founder of agri-tech start up Earth Rover which is based at the Lapwing Estate. The business aims to develop robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to make chemical-free produce available to and affordable for all.

It’s flagship technology is the Earth Rover’s battery and solar powered Concentrated Light Autonomous Weeding System (CLAWS). With 8 built-in cameras, CLAWS targets individual weeds, delivering a concentrated pulse of energy that can quickly and accurately destroy the meristem of the weed without harming surrounding plants or soil.

The environmental focus at the farm stretches further, with enhancing biodiversity a key part of their land management strategy. In addition to a Countryside Stewardship Scheme, James and his team are proud to work with both the RSPB and Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust to get a better understanding of their land and the species they have there.

Over a two-year project with the RSPB, they have looked at the temporary wetting of arable land as part of rotation to look at the multi layers of potential benefits -such as natural flood storage, habitat for wintering waders and controlling pest and disease within the soils.

The CLA works hard to ensure its events give members the opportunity to visit some fascinating and thought provoking locations. This visit to the Lapwing Estate certainly left them with plenty to ponder.

Source 1 : Evans, C, Morrison, R, Burden, A and others (2017). ‘Final report on project SP1210: Lowland peatland systems in England and Wales – evaluating greenhouse gas fluxes and carbon balances’

Images used in this piece are copyright Pro Horizon Ltd.