Ken Jones: Applying long-term thinking to improve soil quality

Ken Jones, Director of Rural and Coastal at The Crown Estate, addresses the issue of soil degradation and why applying sustainable soil management practices is a no-brainer.


15 September 2016

The degradation of the UK’s soil has increased in recent decades with organic matter content declining to critical levels in some farms. As a commercial organisation taking a long-term view of its asset base in order to preserve value, addressing this issue and ensuring good soil management practices on our land, is a no-brainer.

It’s also an issue that is in everybody’s interest. As part of a recent customer survey we asked our tenants how important the availability of soil quality data would be if they were considering taking on new land. 81% responded that it would be ‘very important’ or ‘important’. For that reason we see working with our tenants to promote effective soil management as an essential part of maximising the productivity and long-term sustainability of our rural holdings.

Sustainable soil management is a long-term affair. It can take up to 1,000 years to form just one centimetre of soil. Enriching soil organic matter takes five years and upwards, involving much more than just spreading fertiliser and manure. With many farming tenants on five year leases, it is important that we find ways to ensure they approach soil management with a long-term perspective, rather than a focus on short-term returns that could degrade the soil.

We’ve looked to tackle the topic head-on by introducing a range of initiatives to support sustainable soil management in the farming community which can help improve the resilience and health of soil for farmers, safeguarding both quality and yield”

Ken Jones, Director of Rural and Coastal

We’ve looked to tackle the topic head-on by introducing a range of initiatives to support sustainable soil management in the farming community which can help improve the resilience and health of soil for farmers, safeguarding both quality and yield.

We’ve also applied this thinking to our leasing programme and the way we select bidders. As part of any new tender we now require a soil management plan to be submitted. We’ve seen around 10 new tenancies or re-lettings under this practice, and in each occasion the tenant was selected for both the strength of their soil management proposal as well as their commercial approach. In doing so, we have even turned down higher rent offers in favour of applicants with better soil plans.

On-going education is also a key element in good soil management. That’s why we have funded a series of workshops with the Royal Agricultural Society of England for farming tenants on the theme of ‘Enrich Your Soils’, focusing on plant and animal residue in soils, which is essential to soil fertility and the sustainability and productivity of farms. These interactive sessions have been delivered by Innovation for Agriculture across England and proved popular with tenants on both short and long leases.