M&S has committed to sustainable agriculture through a new five-year collaborative programme designed to help its Select Farmers gain resilience to the biggest environmental challenges they face.

The ‘Farming with Nature’ programme will provide farmers with industry-relevant, specialist support in the areas of climate change, biodiversity, soil health and water usage to help them to become more sustainable and deliver measurable improvements to their businesses.

Farming with Nature

As part of the project, the own-brand retailer has established 17 Indicator and Innovation Farms across the UK, spanning fresh produce, dairy, beef, lamb, pork, turkey, chicken and eggs.

The farms will be supported by M&S-funded specialist industry partners from The Wildlife Trusts, the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and Fera (The Food and Environment Research Agency).

Learnings from these farms will be shared through knowledge transfer events with other M&S Select Farmers and the wider industry.

Steve McLean, head of agriculture and fisheries at M&S, said: “We know that farmers are facing significant challenges, with uncertainties around Brexit, climate change and changes to farm support.

“Adapting to these pressures will require innovation in farming practices and we are determined to support our Select Farms as they find new ways to meet the environmental challenges we face.

Our approach is about providing practical support as well as helping to play our part in closing the gap between customers and agriculture.”

The Farming with Nature Indicator Farms programme includes two livestock farmers from Northern Ireland.

Graeme Boden, egg producer from Newmills, Co.Tyrone. Photo: Liam McArdle

Graeme and his wife Linda started their free-range egg business in 2010 and have 16,000 birds that supply M&S with high-welfare, fresh eggs through Skea Eggs.

The egg enterprise is run alongside a beef-finishing unit on the farm, located in the village of Newmills, near Dungannon in Northern Ireland.

Graeme has already implemented several environmental initiatives on the farm, including solar PV generation and LED lighting, which has significantly reduced their energy usage, and has a well-established tree-planting programme.

However, Graeme said he is still keen to do more. “Being part of the Indicator Farm programme appealed to us as we want to see what more we can do to help the environment and improve our carbon footprint," he said.

"We want to take a whole-farm approach to these changes and see how far we can get.”

William and Maurice Kells., Photo: Liam McArdle

Father and son, Maurice and William Kells farm together in Co. Armagh rearing beef for M&S through Linden Foods. Cattle are pasture-grazed in summer and early autumn and supplemented with concentrated feed.

The family has planted a range of broadleaf native hedges over the past six years to provide wildlife habitat and shelter for cattle.

“We have started to limit our hedge cutting to encourage biodiversity, avoiding unnecessary cutting and damage to habitats”, said William.

Our grazing fields are home to a wide range of grasses and watercourses are fenced off to provide wildlife corridors and protect water quality.

"We have buzzards nesting, bumblebees and honeybees with beehives situated in our orchards to facilitate pollination. We are immensely proud to be an M&S Select Farm producer.

"We are really looking forward to taking part in this Indicator Farms programme and seeing how we can enhance our farm environment further.”

Logical for business

Speaking to Agriland, Peter Kennedy M&S agriculture manager said sourcing locally within Northern Irelands was "logical" from all aspects.

"From an M&S point of view, we are working to ensure we have some innovative products which take quite a lot of work in terms of research and development. We maybe do that work with one processor and trying to emulate that across regional areas is quite difficult.

"However, it makes logical sense to work where you can with local suppliers that are meeting your standards and are meeting your requirements," he said.

There's a stronger customer message from local farms and local stories, as well as benefits from a sustainability and transport miles perspective.

"We are working more and more on that to ensure customers have [a local] offering."