CIEL | Meet the Scientist

Becky Willson

Project Manager

DC logo shield RBS 200 x 89

What project/s are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on the Soil Carbon project, a farmer led research project aiming to understand how to measure, monitor and manage soil carbon and the factors that influence it.  My other current project is developing the Farm Carbon Calculator, to help farmers assess their current carbon position and identify some practices that might help reduce emissions.  Over the last few years I have also been working on the Farm Crap App, an app which aims to help farmers value the nutrients found in their slurries and manures and treat them as a resource rather than a waste product, and helped on a diverse forages project.

What capability are you drawing on to deliver the research?
Working with colleagues at Duchy College who have developed a fantastic network of farmers that are keen to try new things has been a real asset, and one which has been sustained through my work with the Farm Carbon Toolkit. The partnerships which we have developed with other institutions including Rothamsted Research North Wyke, and the University of Plymouth for the soil carbon project has allowed for brilliant collaboration and strengthened the link between farmers and researchers.  It’s always a team effort.

What would be your ideal research project, assuming no barriers!
So many to choose from! The ability to work over a longer time frame (especially in soil research) is always really valuable as well as the luxury of having sustained relationships with farmers. I would love to be able to take the Soil Carbon project further, both in terms of working with more farmers and different management systems and soil types, but also being able to dig a little deeper into the details around the impact of management practice on soil health and resilience.  As long as there are lots of farmers involved who can feed in their thoughts and views I’m happy!

How did you arrive at doing what you do now?
I graduated from Aberystwyth University with a degree in Agriculture and spent the next few years happily milking cows, finally moving from assistant manager of a 300 cow herd in Kent to managing a herd in Devon. Unfortunately, over the next 18 months we lost most of the herd to bTB, something not experienced up until then in the South East. It made for a rather sombre end to my hands-on farming career.

After this, I spent a couple of years designing school curriculum-based resources to educate the public on farming, and then went to work at the South West Regional Development Agency (RDA), delivering Rural Development Funding for farmers specifically around resource management. It taught me to sit at a desk! After the RDAs were abolished, I helped run a resource management project at Duchy College; the ‘SWARM Knowledge Hub’, focusing on translating research into practical information for farmers that would help them manage their soils, manures, nutrients, energy and water in a better way.

In 2014 I started working for the Farm Carbon Toolkit, to work with more farmers specifically around carbon, soil health and greenhouse gas emissions.  In 2016 I was awarded a Nuffield Farming scholarship, travelling globally to understand how to communicate carbon reduction schemes to farmers and how to inspire engagement. My focus has very much been on applied research and developing projects that try and work with farmers to develop solutions that work, are practical and help build resilience.

How much do we know about carbon stores on farms? Are there key areas we need to know more about, or can farmers start monitoring their farm now?
It’s never a bad idea to assess soils, and the best time to start monitoring was probably 20 years ago, so I always advocate understanding the health and carbon status of your soil. It’s so exciting to start to see farmers’ interest in this area beginning to develop, as they are changing the way that they manage their stock, cultivations and rotations.

We need to be able to fully understand the impact of these management practices. We also need to help farmers understand the limitations with testing and that they appreciate the range of testing options that are available and what to do with the results. Starting with digging a simple soil profile pit and assessing the structural condition is a great first step. We know that there are opportunities to improve soil health and carbon stores, what we need more information about is the impact of management, and also what is possible at different depths within the soil profile.

My advice to farmers who want to start monitoring is consistency – ensuring consistency of depth of sampling, analysis method and lab, and season of sampling. All of these are so important. There is a real need for information on how to test soils for carbon and the range of options that are available. We are just in the process of providing some guidance for farmers on this topic, building on the results of the soil carbon project.

Find out more about our Founding Research Member, Duchy College Business School.

Becky Willson | CIEL