Climate Change Champion - Thomas Gent
Caught in the light coming through the half-open workshop doors, the Weaving GD8000T is an impressive piece of kit. But it has two curious additions –– a hay rake tine wheel has been attached at each end of its 8m span.
“You always find something’s being modified or adapted whenever you come in the workshop,” says Thomas Gent as he inspects the additions. “These move the swath of straw so we can get the cover or catch crop drilled as soon as the harvester leaves the field without having to wait for the baler to arrive –– the combine header’s also 8m wide,” he explains. At 24 years old, Thomas calls himself a ‘child of regenerative agriculture’. “The farm
here has been following it for 12 years, so it’s all I’ve ever known. Put me on a plough or cultivator and I wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he says. But when it comes to carbon accounting, he’s become something of an authority. In Jan this year, Thomas launched Gentle Farming, reputed to be the first certified carbon-trading scheme for farmers in the UK. “I guess no one really knows how to sell carbon until you set your mind and just do it. Hopefully Gentle Farming is now established in this area and it’s a case of just pushing it forward.”
You could say being a pioneer is a family trait, though. The Gents currently farm around 800ha near Wisbech in the Cambridgeshire Fens. The land lies mostly on heavy clay, and it was to alleviate the problems associated with this without mixing the soil that Thomas’ grandfather Tony invented the flat-lift, a design developed by nearby
Taylor Engineering in what then became a joint venture. The success of the tool allowed the family farming business to expand, but the need to manage a larger acreage with ageing machinery led Tony and Thomas’ father Edward to take the farm down the direct-drilling route. “Originally we had a John Deere 750A, but it didn’t
work well on our soils at that point in time,” says Thomas. “This was traded in for a Weaving Big Disc, but Grandad reckoned he could make an improvement on the design, so it disappeared into the workshop.” The key difference with what surfaced and then became the GD coulter is that the cutting disc is set at a 25° angle. This lifts up a ‘duvet’ of soil under which the seed is placed and gravity drops it back down, ensuring no open channel is left behind the press wheel. Another engineering and worldwide success, it’s also enabled the farm to develop its regenerative agriculture system, with almost every crop planted now passing through the GD8000T. “We had the dip in yields in the first few years when we went no-till, but our wheat yields now average 8-10t/ha. Organic matter levels are up around 8-10%, but when Grandad started down the low disturbance path, they were just 3-4%. What you notice is that when it turns dry around here, our crops stay green. When it turns wet, we can stay on the land for longer,” says Thomas. The cropping is all combinable, apart from maize, grass ley, rye and triticale grown for a local anaerobic digester plant, operated by Adapt Biogas (formerly BioCow). “We grow a small amount of maize, which doesn’t really fit in with a regenerative agriculture system, harvested late when it’s often wet. But we’ve found a system that seems to work.” For the past two seasons they’ve been using a Sly Stripcat, that cultivates a very narrow strip and plants the seed within this. Taking a trip to a nearby field, Thomas inspects a crop that has established evenly and is growing well on land that has had minimal disturbance. “Maize gets a bad reputation around here because of the damage it can do to soils. But I hope we’re showing that doesn’t have to be the case,” he says. “In theory, you could establish clover in the undisturbed land in between the rows, but we haven’t quite got that far, yet.” Thomas moves on to the
farm’s legume and herb-rich leys, though, part of the farm’s Mid Tier Countryside Stewardship agreement. The plan here is to keep the clover as an understorey when the land comes out of the temporary ley, he explains. The area has been split up and is grazed sensitively by horses to maximise the pollinator and soil-structure benefits of the sward. “Livestock form an essential part of the regen ag system, but there’s very little around here, and I’m not a fan of keeping animals myself. The horses work well and provide an additional income.”
Grazing cover crops
There’s also an arrangement with a local sheep farmer to graze the cover crops and oilseed rape. “We establish OSR early once the whole crop rye is off, which means the crop is huge by the time winter sets in. So this year, we mowed 10ha, left 10ha and grazed 20ha with sheep. The theory is that it reduces the cabbage stem flea beetle larvae, as well as improving the canopy.” An inspection of the crop suggests it’s the grazed area that’s faring best. Then just across the road is the farm’s crop of quinoa. “This crop’s quite a
challenge because we’re
not allowed to apply any sprays at all –– we haven’t applied any insecticides across the rest of the farm for years and we’re reducing our fungicide spend. But it’s not applying any desiccant pre-harvest that’s difficult with quinoa. So we harvest at 25% moisture and dry it down to 10%. You can get a yield of 1-1.5t/ha, which brings a return similar to a good crop of OSR,” says Thomas. Beans provide another break, and another essential element in the regen ag system, as well as a low carbon source of protein.
But the barn right next door to the bean field is being fitted up for a far more fascinating protein source. “We’re about to start farming insects –– black soldier flies. They call it super soya,” he explains. “It’s part of a UKRI-funded project with AgriGrub and Cambridge University to investigate scaling it up. It could be a very valuable home-produced, low carbon source of livestock protein and far better than importing it from Brazil.” The grubs are fed food waste and their faeces, known as frass, is also a valuable manure, he adds.
So how did Gentle Farming come about? “It was after harvest a couple of years ago, I took a sample of grain to the local merchant. There was another farmer there dropping off a sample who I knew ran a high input intensive farming system, burning so much diesel and tilling the soil,” says Thomas. “I thought, how can my produce get the same value in the marketplace as this? There must be a way of differentiating it. So I set about finding out.” When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it became Thomas’ lockdown-learning project. He exhaustively researched avenues that would bring the regen ag farmer a better return for what he considered was a more sustainable farming system. “For ten months, no one would talk to me. It was a really hard slog to find the answers I was looking for.” He had the opportunity to speak at a BASE-UK meeting, and it was following this that a group of farmers with similar aspirations got together. “The initial idea was to sponsor a hectare. We got quite a bit of interest. What we needed was some form of certification.” This is when he came across Agreena, a carbon dioxide equivalence (CO2e) certification programme based in Denmark. Agreena quantifies carbon sequestration and CO2e reductions, creating the opportunity for issuing CO2e certificates based on changes in agricultural practices towards Conservation Agriculture. It’s a model designed under the ISO 14064 standard, based on IPCC guidelines (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and using the Cool Farm Tool.
An agreement was reached to collaborate and introduce the certification to UK farmers. “So far we have farmers across the country, issuing their carbon credits for each harvest, but demand outstrips supply,” notes Thomas. Interest in the venture is now picking up, he says, driven by recent national press coverage. “It is awesome when you suddenly find yourself having conversations with chief execs. I’m 25 and have only just started. I look at Grandad who’s so knowledgeable in this sector and experienced. “I’ve already made loads of mistakes and I’m aware there’s an element of the young naïve, here. But I’m also not held back by any preconceived ideas or reservations –– I’m just doing what I think is right for what I believe is a better way of farming,” he reasons.
As featured in Crop Protection Magazine - Issue August 2021