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 soil health & tenancy reform

In July 2019 the SSA responded to the Defra Agricultural Tenancy Consultation. We’ll continue to engage with Defra as metrics and protocols behind this work are shaped.

Agricultural land tenancy contracts can impact on the health and quality of the soil in the territory they cover as they have the potential to enshrine the environmental stewardship responsibilities of both owner and tenant.

The rationale for such interventions is clear. The growing trend for short-term tenancies – some as little as a few months - puts increased pressure on farmers to introduce temporary land management practises that cause soil degradation and downstream harm (e.g. pollution, run-off, erosion).  

As changes in soil health and quality will generally manifest over an extensive timeframe, often much longer than the tenancy itself, there is little incentive for the tenant farmer to invest financially in safeguarding long-term soil health. Ultimately, the shorter the tenancy, the less impetus there is for the farmer to consider soil’s viability.

There are steps that can be taken by land owners – who bear the greatest responsibility and financial reward from an improvement in their most important asset - to address this through the contracts they agree with their tenants. The Crown Estate, which owns 106,000ha across the UK, recently became one of the first institutional landlords to introduce a soil-testing regime as part of all new tenancy agreements.

Under its “Project Soil” programme the Crown Estate has introduced a clause in all new FBTs that require the tenant to maintain and where possible improve the soil. The first of these agreements was put in place two years ago.

Prior to any new tenancy, soil samples are taken from every field by precision farming company SOYL to assess levels of nutrients such as N, P & K, as well as pH, soil structure and organic matter. If soil tests at the end of the agreement show that indices have fallen, the tenant is effectively required to pay for putting the land back into the condition it was at the start of the tenancy.

The costs of the tests and the data produced are shared 50:50 between the business and the incoming tenant.

Source: Farmers Weekly, March 2018

As 80% of the environmental impact of degraded soils is felt off-site, there is also a clear public interest argument, and rationale for government intervention as it considers soil health as part of its ongoing tenancy reform process. This should include the following:

  • Changes to the tenancy regime that increase the grant of long-term contracts are to be encouraged, as they are likely to result in a greater willingness to improve the environmental status of the soil, e.g. via the design of diverse, long-term crop rotations needed to restore healthy soil balance.

  • We encourage the practice of some landlords surveying the soil at the start of a tenancy and requiring a tenant to improve or maintain the health of the soil over the course of the tenancy.  Landlords in any case should be held accountable for the health of their soil and should carry out regular audits based on standardised protocols.

  • To support this, access to best-practice soil management education should be made available enabling both landlords and tenants to identify and address the cause of any decline in quality.

  • In extreme cases, legal protective measures to ensure that the soil is not adversely affected by the farming to which it is subject shouldbe explored.  For example, a certificate of poor husbandry under the 1986 Act, would enable an interested landlord to enforce proper soil health actions.

  • We endorse the government’s suggestion of a new Business Competence Test. As part of this, we consider that either a formal qualification in soil health and management or demonstrable practical experience should be one of the required features for any applicant to succeed to a tenancy.

  • ­­­We also consider that farmers who have practical experience should be able to rely upon on their “Soil CV” demonstrating a record of improvements they have made to soils on other land that they have farmed.