A GROUP of progressive farmers has joined forces with an agricultural research station to establish on-farm water-testing labs in the Hampshire Avon, Dorset Stour and the Test and Itchen catchments.

Members of Environmental Farmers Group (EFG) are partnering with Rothamsted Research to help improve river health and deliver other positive environmental outcomes, thanks to funding from the UKRI-BBSRC Resilient Farming Futures programme. 

The partnership helped EFG members in the Wylye catchment in Wiltshire to design a farmer-led, water quality monitoring scheme, which will help them reduce farm pollution in the river. 

The collaboration with Rothamsted will be rolled out across other tributaries.

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As well as standard sampling for nutrients, farmers on the Wylye are using a pioneering low-cost colour analysis of sediment in the river. 

Samples are tested in the first on-farm lab, sited in a disused farm building, which was originally set up with grants from the Fishmongers’ Company, Codford Biogas and FiPL. The sediment can then be traced back to specific areas and inform management options to improve water quality. 

Rothamsted has secured funding to develop eight additional labs in neighbouring catchments over the next four years. 

The bottom-up approach to the water testing initiative is key to its success. By taking ownership of collecting and managing the data, farmers can avoid being wrongly blamed for pollution incidents and better understand how they can adapt their own operations to improve water quality. 

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EFG board member Tim Palmer, who helped establish the first on-farm lab on the Wylye, said: “Having oversight from Rothamsted will ensure the scientific credibility of the data; so it is accepted by the regulator as robust. The assumption is often made that agriculture is to blame for the vast majority of pollution, but in many cases there are other factors at play such as domestic sceptic tanks or water companies discharging waste.

"That’s why, as the regulatory framework is ratcheted up, it’s essential to have the data to accurately identify the root of the problem. And it’s not just about testing, it’s about putting the tools in the farmers hands, so they can set the targets, challenge themselves and tackle the problems at source.”

The EFG, which celebrates its second anniversary this month, is a farmer-owned, farmer-led environmental cooperative designed to help its members access private sector funding for restoring biodiversity loss, getting cleaner water in our rivers and moving to net carbon zero farming by 2040.