Can agriculture and the environment ever exist in harmony? South East Rivers Trust have made fantastic progress towards achieving sustainable water use in their project "Holistic Water for Horticulture". The River Medway, part of the South East Rivers Trust catchment, supports a thriving polytunnel horticulture industry. This results in the production of high value soft fruits, such as strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. Naturally, this holds massive benefits for the local economy—but it also places a lot of pressure on the river.
What is polytunnel horticulture?
In polytunnel horticulture, crops are grown beneath a closed-off structure. This protects the crop from adverse weather which would usually prevent their growth outdoors. As a result, growers are able produce soft fruits for longer seasons than outdoor growing allows. Crops in polytunnels are watered through trickle-irrigation, which is where the issue of water use arises.
What's the problem?The Medway is located in one of the driest areas in the UK. When you combine this with the pressure of climate change and population growth, water levels begin to dip dangerously low. On top of this, water is frequently abstracted from the river in order to support the horticultural industry. As a result, concerns are growing that there may not be sufficient water levels to support future business needs while maintaining the ecosystem services the river provides.
What's the solution?Through the Courtauld Commitment 2025, South East Rivers Trust, Kent County Council and NIAB EMR have teamed up to develop the Holistic Water for Horticulture (HWH) project. This project encourages poly tunnel growers to modify and improve their on-site set-up in order to improve water security and return excess water to the environment. HWH promotes a whole system approach, promoting techniques such as water recycling for irrigation, rain water runoff recapture, and returning excess water to the environment. As well as encouraging sustainable water use, the HWH approach has a whole host of benefits, such as reduced flood risk, improved soil and water quality, and higher levels of biodiversity. Increased levels of biodiversity can lead to improved pollination and biological pest control. These benefits ultimately drive down the cost for growers and other stakeholders, while simultaneously increasing water security in the area. It's a win-win!
So, what does the future of Holistic Water for Horticulture look like? Samantha Hughes, Project Development Manager at South East Rivers Trust, said:
"We're working towards creating a tool box of measures that growers can use to address issues at a specific site but that end up benefiting others in the catchment. Feedback from the project launch event has allowed us to identify what concerns growers and how to take the Holistic Water for Horticulture forward. We are talking and working with growers, grower organisations, retailers, companies in the supply chain, water companies and knowledge providers to better understand how to benefit all."