Leckford farm innovation will help accelerate Waitrose’s net zero ambitions

The Waitrose farm on the Leckford Estate will be a test bed for farming innovation over the next 15 years and will be critical in helping Waitrose play its part in helping to tackle climate change. 

Writing to customers, James Bailey, executive director of Waitrose, explains:

We pledged last year that our UK farm-supplier network would be net zero by 2035 and while it is going to be challenging to get there, there’s no doubt in my mind how pivotal this will be in the fight against climate change. 

So how do we do it? 

Our farm on the Leckford Estate has long been a unique asset for the Partnership, providing many products to our customers, including mushrooms, apples, pears, cider, sparkling wine, apple juice , cold-pressed rapeseed oil and flour. And while this will continue, from today, it will have another equally important purpose.

Over the next fifteen years, we will use our farmland at Leckford and the full weight of our resources to facilitate radical change across our industry. Specifically, we will use a combination of research and practical application to identify the best farming techniques to help us manage this land in a way that is kinder to the environment.

Whether it’s planting trees to promote biodiversity, or reducing water usage to protect resources or using regenerative soil practices that help sequester carbon, our focus will be on biology rather than chemistry. 

Leckford will be an experiment in farming best practice, one that we hope will pave the way to genuine solutions to help conserve our soil, air and water for future generations and importantly, help us to deliver our 2035 commitment.

There is, however, little value in doing this work alone and we are realistic about what this can achieve in isolation. This is why we intend to share all our findings with our farmers, suppliers and anyone interested across the agriculture and retail industries, to elevate regeneration and conservation from a status of “nice to have” to essential everyday farming practice.

To succeed, it’s critical that we bring our farmers on the journey with us. Fortunately, having worked closely with the majority of them for decades, we know that they share our high standards, not only in terms of quality, high welfare and provenance, but in regard to our treatment of the environment too.

Similarly, we know how adaptive they can be. Whether it’s working flat out through a global pandemic or adjusting to the biggest changes to UK farming for 50 years, our farmers have always persevered through the most extreme adversity and managed to deliver. And as we stand on the precipice of the biggest challenge we will ever face in our lifetimes, we will need that spirit and determination again.

Our farmers are partners in the success of our business and it’s because of this that we will never ask them to do anything we’re not prepared to do ourselves. 

We hope therefore that by leading this work, we can define what the future of UK farming should look like. And in its discovery, use what we’ve learned to create a balance in our food system that will help reduce the impact that food production has on our planet.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “It is good to see Waitrose commit to innovative farming practices which will contribute to their net zero ambitions. 

“Last year, the Government set out how we will transform the way we support and incentivise farmers to farm more sustainably, create space for nature and enhance animal welfare. These incentives will provide a powerful vehicle for achieving the goals of our 25 Year Environment Plan and our commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.”

Examples of innovation, waste management and regenerative farming at Leckford:

Innovation and Waste Management

  • Harnessing sustainable energy: Leckford has already kickstarted a number of sustainable energy projects to replace fossil fuels. For example, in addition to the Partnership’s gradual switch to electric vehicles, it will trial the use of biomethane to power tractors, as well as Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (HVO) to run food processing and farming activities. In addition, we continue to work with the Small Robot Company to drive innovation in the low-emission autonomous machinery sector.

  • Capturing methane and using it for biofuel: We have commenced investment in a biomethane facility to harvest fugitive methane* currently going into the Earth’s atmosphere from animal manures and food processing byproducts. This will save over 500 tonnes of carbon per annum, with the biomethane captured converted into an eco-friendly fuel alternative to power vehicles.

  • Rehoming less than perfect apples and pears: If our products don’t meet our strict product specifications, we don’t just waste them. In the case of our Leckford apples and pears, if they don’t make the grade, we send them to a local producer to make juice or cider – ensuring everything that is grown on our farm is utilised.

  • Utilising byproducts on farm: We have a milk processing unit on our farm at the Leckford Estate and this generates an element of waste during the production process. However, rather than throwing it away, we capture it and send it to an external company for use as a natural energy source. Similarly, pellets generated from our rapeseed processing on site are used for animal feed.

Regenerative Farming

  • Mixed farming methods: Our focus will not only be to conserve and restore nature, but enhance it too. Key to our plan is taking advantage of our mixed arable and livestock farming system at Leckford. As well as using our beef cattle to fertilise the soil, we will employ methods to promote topsoil regeneration, improve water efficiency, and support biosequestration. Our end goal is to strengthen the health and vitality of our soils and increase biodiversity throughout the natural habitats that our farms co-exist with.

  • LEAF Beacons of Excellence membership: Waitrose’s Leckford Estate is one of an elite group and the only retail member of the LEAF Beacons of Excellence membership group. Together with this group, we will develop what best practice regenerative agriculture looks like, which will then be scalable to the other farms we work with. Our work with the LEAF beacon group will be key to driving our understanding of the importance of livestock rotations on soil health in arable rotations, in turn helping us become better farmers ourselves.

  • 12 year rotation cycle: As well as maintaining wildflower plots to encourage friendly insects and pollinators and promote biodiversity, we are introducing herbal leys, which will be left for three and a half years and grazed by our beef cattle as part of our arable rotation**. This will include grasses, legumes and herbs such as red clover, which among other benefits, will help sequester carbon and add nutrients to the soil to create resilient pasture that is more fertile, good for water retention and attracts micro organisms in the soil to enable taproots***.

  • Peat removal: As well as removing peat in bagged compost at our Waitrose stores and the Leckford nursery, we are also trialling an innovative peat replacement in our Mushroom Farm following Innovate funding, which we will share insights from our work with our UK farming supplier network to start phasing out the use of this important carbon store for good. 

  • Field scanning of soil characteristics: to generate soil textural maps and inform targeted measurements of soil health improvements and carbon sequestration benefits of farming practices.

  • Replanting and rewilding: Leckford will be the site of a ‘70 trees for the Jubilee’ avenues project under the Queen’s Green Canopy. The trees will, amongst other things, help provide tree cover for beef cattle, provide homes for wildlife, protect soils and add to the carbon-capture capability of the Estate. We also commit over 40% of our land to nature conservation, and turn any areas with unsuitable topography into natural spots to increase biodiversity on farm.

In support, the Rt Hon Caroline Nokes, MP for Romsey and Southampton North said: “I have seen at first hand some of the exciting innovations Waitrose and Partners are developing at Leckford to meet their net zero by 2035 ambitions across their UK farming network.  

It is so vital that we look at our farming systems and make sure the regenerative agriculture techniques and learnings at Leckford are spread through the supply network. 

I am confident this will help farmers make food production as kind to nature and the planet as possible.”

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