At this time of year as you look out the window at grey skies with a chilly northerly wind and with the prospect of darkness in the mid-afternoon it is difficult to see what might inspire someone to be a farmer.
I believe we are entering a new age, where farmers are recognised and valued for the contribution they make to our countryside.
The future will be about innovation and changes in both crops and animals and how farmers manage their land. It will be challenging but I believe it will also be exciting and fulfilling.
For example, as you pass Taunton on the M5, you might have seen a few fields of vegetation some 3m tall. This is Miscanthus Giganteus, commonly known as Elephant Grass. Like other grasses it lives for more than 20 years. It is root based and has stems that can grow 3-4m tall in a single season. It is harvested annually typically in late winter or spring. Delaying the harvest allows nitrogen to move down the stems back into the roots to support growth the following year.
It is high yielding with a yield of up to 11-14 dry tonnes per hectare, easy to grow and has several environmental benefits.
Unlike some new crops it is non-invasive so it will not self-seed and spread. It captures carbon and can potentially add substantial amounts of carbon to the soil through its roots. Research has shown an average carbon accumulation in soil of over 2 tonnes per year, with no carbon saturation over time. The extensive rooting system and lack of tilling can substantially improve soil quality and rehabilitate depleted soils, with added microorganisms. Miscanthus has low fertiliser or herbicide needs, as a crop it has low water needs and can be used to clean dirty water such as sludge or sewage. Fields of elephant grass encourage biodiversity. Below ground there is a positive effect on the number and abundance of earthworm species, the leaf litter helps the ground stay moist. The overwinter cover provides a valuable habitat for beetles, flies and birds and provides a wildlife corridor and refuge for Brown Hare, Stoat, Mice, Vole, Shrew, Fox, and Rabbit.
Miscanthus is used as a raw material for biofuels and can be burned directly or processed into pellets. It can be used to produce fibreboards, geotextiles, and building materials. The pulp can be used to produce sustainable packaging.
Farmers use miscanthus straw to mulch soil to retain moisture, inhibit weed growth, and prevent erosion. The high carbon to nitrogen ratio makes it inhospitable to many microbes, creating a clean bedding for poultry, cattle, pigs, and horses.
The use of non-wood raw material such as Miscanthus could be an effective way of backing up worldwide wood supply, especially in countries with insufficient forest resources. It is notable that the UK has only 13% tree cover compared to 32% in the EU. We need more trees!
Cleaned and separated pulp is suitable for manufacturing paper and card. Furthermore, it can be used to help reinforce packaging boards made from recycled fibres. Cardboard when recycled loses its strength as the fibres get shorter, blending in Miscanthus pulp prolongs the life, the value, and the strength of the cardboard.
This is exactly the type of innovation that we will support at Westaway Sausages, there are clear wins in terms of sustainability for both our packaging and the environment. Plus of course it supports the agricultural sector in our region. What is not to like?