Sector trends

How farmers can invest in water quality

Collaboration and an eye to environmental protection mean Severn Trent Water is benefiting from its relationship with local farmers.

For arable farmer Ally McGregor, transformation of his family farm began with a simple question. Why were they spending so much time, energy and money ploughing up fields to establish crops, in the process breaking up soil structure, waking up weeds and causing problems that required remedial action, extra chemicals and more work? 

At Weston Hall Farm near Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, he began to make changes. Having started direct drilling – which leaves the soil undisturbed as crops are planted, reducing effort, cost and energy input – he was on his way to an approach called regenerative agriculture (RA). 

Innovation for Agriculture defines RA as “practices which enrich soil, protect water and increase biodiversity… to mimic natural processes to combine food production with environmental stewardship”. For the hard-pressed farmer, it’s a leap of faith, as there is often an initial drop in yields. But after a few years, yields usually recover and, with lower input costs, this more natural approach is financially rewarding. 

“RA is about putting back as well as doing no harm,” explains Ally. “It takes a while for the soil to kick the habit of being fed lots of chemicals. But once it gets over the shock, it’s much better for it.”

Clear thinking on water purity: the Farm to Tap scheme

Regenerative agriculture is also better for water quality, with improved soil structure meaning less run-off and fewer chemicals being used, meaning less pollution in rivers and groundwater to be removed at treatment. It thus appeals to water companies, such as Severn Trent Water, which has adopted a programme to help farmers with initiatives that add up to a form of regenerative agriculture.

For every £1 that we invest in STEPS, we see a saving of between £2 and £20.

Jodie Rettino
Catchment Management and Biodiversity Lead, Severn Trent Water

Severn Trent funds schemes to promote environmental and biodiversity benefits, which also improve water quality at source. Its ‘Farm to Tap’ scheme, for example, worked with farmers to help mitigate the impact that pesticides and other run-off from farmland was having on drinking water, with a particular focus on reducing metaldehyde (a recently banned substance used in slug pellets).

      It also runs the Severn Trent Environmental Protection Scheme (STEPS), which has two express purposes for the catchment area:

  • to help farmers fund schemes to reduce chemicals in groundwater and surface water
  • to provide grants to boost biodiversity and have a positive environmental impact

The results have been impressive. Jodie Rettino, Catchment Management and Biodiversity Lead at Severn Trent Water, explains: “For every £1 that we invest in STEPS, we see a saving of between £2 and £20 in water treatment costs. We also create another £4 in wider environmental benefits.” 

It’s as close to a no-brainer as a business investment gets. Jodie says Severn Trent currently works with around 6,000 farmers, with ambitions to grow this to 9,000. 

Taking STEPS: support for farmers and land managers

In operation since 2015, STEPS grants support owners and tenants with technical knowhow and finance to improve water quality at source, promote biodiversity and protect the environment. Eligible projects can include:

  • pesticide sprayer washdown areas 

  • arable grass and wildflower margins

  • cover crops

  • biofilters

  • watercourse fencing 

  • livestock drinking troughs 

  • rainwater harvesting schemes

  • farmer innovation 

But there is more to STEPS than cash. Recognising that farming communities are steeped in tradition and some farmers may not be comfortable with innovation, Severn Trent provides specialist advisers and scientists to offer technical support. Marion Perrett-Pearson is Senior Agricultural Adviser for the Avon and Leam catchment and spends her time out in the community, meeting farmers.

“It’s a close-knit community and the only approach that works is to build relationships,” she says. “You get to know individual farmers and their quirks. This is why we can help them navigate STEPS and get the most from it.”

Ian Burrow, NatWest’s Head of Agriculture and Renewable Energy, agrees. “It’s the same approach we take to farmers’ banking needs,” he says. “While these are business owners, we meet them at their kitchen tables, not at a boardroom table. As a result, it’s a different, more intimate relationship."

Swap Your Nozzles: tackling harmful run-off

Back at Weston Hall Farm, Ally is showing off a new pesticide washdown area, part-funded by a STEPS grant. Marion played her part in getting it funded and is proud of the result. Using a tank to capture the water that comes off a spraying machine as it is washed down, then filtering the water through biofilters (homemade in this case) and returning the cleaned water to the land, Ally saves himself money and reduces the quantity of chemicals Severn Trent deals with farther down the line.

The ability for farmers to adapt the scheme to fit with changing circumstances is a real benefit. Things change from year to year, so you need that flexibility.

Ian Burrow
Head of Agriculture and Renewable Energy, NatWest

The same thinking lies behind Severn Trent’s ‘Swap Your Nozzles’ scheme, which invites farmers to an online training seminar covering legislation, the use of buffer zones, different types of nozzles, and the most effective way to apply sprays to crops. Participants can then apply for a free set of low-drift nozzles and caps. Marion explains that reducing drift from spraying makes a massive difference to the amount of chemicals that end up in run-off.

It's evident from their interaction that Marion and Ally have worked closely as he has developed RA elements across the farm. Ian, too, is excited by the possibilities of the STEPS programme. “It’s clear there are major benefits for the farmers and the environment, as well as savings for Severn Trent,” he says. “The ability for farmers to be agile and adapt the scheme to fit with changing circumstances is a real benefit. Things change from year to year, so you need that flexibility.”

These are curious times for farmers. With inflation putting huge upward pressure on the cost of fuel, feed and fertiliser, there are also income boosts to be had from rising food prices. Add in the uncertainty of the post-Brexit transition, and Severn Trent’s catchment management programmes, offering as near certain a win-win as farming ever can, must be a reason to celebrate.

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of NatWest Group, as of this date and are subject to change without notice. Copyright © NatWest Group. All rights reserved.

scroll to top