Sustainable Farm Network begins work to boost farm knowledge exchange

A national network of different public and private demonstration farms has begun its work – and is set to launch formally next month.

The Sustainable Farm Network – a School of Sustainable Food and Farming initiative – will bring together a diversity of UK farm networks to help them share experiences, findings and best practice.

As its work develops, it will also share successes and research drawn from participating farm networks through research papers, public presentations, and policy advocacy – using the collective power of the participating farms to boost their reach and impact.

The first meeting of the Network’s steering group has just been held, with its Chairman announced as Professor John Gilliland.

Gilliland, a willow and livestock farmer from Northern Ireland, is a special advisor to the UK’s Agriculture Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and to Quality Meat Scotland (QMS).

With his own farm independently verified to be beyond Net Zero already, Gilliland has a keen appreciation of the task ahead for the Sustainable Farm Network.

He said, “There has never been more pressure on our sector for change, than now.

“The speed of change we are all going to be asked to deliver on, to meet both the Sustainable Development Goal of zero global human hunger and keep global warming under 1.5 degrees, has to be guided and mentored if it is to be a fair and just change for farmers.”

Currently Professor of Practice in Agriculture and Sustainability at Queens University Belfast, Gilliland chaired the writing of the Northern Ireland Sustainable Agriculture Land Management Strategy.

This led to the creation of the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme – a world first public investment of £38 million into baselining all fields’ soil, trees, and hedges across Northern Ireland, along with some additional support for carbon footprinting of greenhouse gas emissions to help farmers make informed decisions about land management.

A previous President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, a Non-Executive Director of SRUC, Chair of DEFRA’s Rural Climate Change Forum, Vice Chair of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, a member of the EU Commission’s Soil Mission Board, Gilliland is currently chair of the innovative, EIP-Agri funded, farmer-led, carbon farming project, ARC Zero.

Gilliland added, “I am giving of my time to the Sustainable Farm Network because I see it as supporting the development of a more balanced pathway that is both inclusive and based on solid evidence.

“We learnt in the ARC Zero project that diversity is a strength – diversity in sector, in size, in geographical area – and this will be reflected in the networks the SFN looks to work with.”

To build this diversity, the project aims to develop its community of farm networks and facilitators in its first year.

Project Manager Lucy Bates, who joined the Harper Adams School of Sustainable Food and Farming in February, said, “There will be some great benefits for farm networks in joining the Sustainable Farm Network – from improved access and input to research and training, joint funding opportunities, and from an increased public profile to the chance to have their voices heard by policymakers and industry.

“That industry link – which is at the heart of all work within the School of Sustainable Food and Farming – benefits the farm networks involved, but it also benefits industry, upskilling workers, expanding knowledge along and across supply chains and furthering our shared aims of moving towards a sustainable food system.”

Professor Michael Lee, Deputy Vice-Chancellor or Harper Adams University, said, “As a University, we’re already part of an interconnected international network through the Global Farm Platform, and I have seen the impact that those links have on research and knowledge.

“Meeting the challenges of Net Zero while feeding a growing global population – and ensuring we do so in a way which benefits farmers – is the key task for our food and farming industries in the years ahead.

“Doing so while meeting wider sustainability goals – such as boosting biodiversity, enabling rural communities to thrive, and improving our water quality – makes the task even greater. Yet we already have crucial knowledge being shared in our existing farm networks on each of these and more.

“Bringing those farm networks from across the UK together into the Sustainable Farm Network means each can draw strength from the others as we face the challenge together.”

Find out more about the Sustainable Farm Network

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