GFM trials: An update on the Global Farm Metric’s latest on-farm trials

  • 12.07.2023
  • article
  • Arable and Horticulture
  • Global Farm Metric
  • Lifestyle
  • Measuring Sustainability
  • Small Farms
  • GFM team

This year our farm trials will test the use of the Global Farm Metric framework to enable farmers and others to navigate the complex world of farm sustainability, so that they can support and drive change. The trials will also explore the value of assessing vital aspects of farm sustainability that are sometimes overlooked. Initial farm visits are already providing early insights and generating discussion.

The Global Farm Metric (GFM) framework is a holistic, common language for describing farm sustainability. It provides all those involved in food and farming – from farmers to policymakers to the CEOs of big companies – with a roadmap to navigate the confusing array of different approaches, agendas, initiatives, policies and assessments relating to the sustainability of farming. Previous trials have shown that this confusion can be a real barrier to engagement with the issue of farm sustainability, and to effective change.

In presenting an overview of all aspects of farm sustainability, the framework has already revealed how some aspects are sometimes sidelined or not considered to be part of making farming more sustainable.

While many sustainability assessments focus on the impacts that farms have on people and planet beyond the farm gate (for example, the contribution of farm greenhouse gas emissions to global warming), less attention is focused on the need to ensure that future generations can meet their needs for farm products, in particular, food. If a farm is in a poor state economically, socially or environmentally, that represents a risk to its long-term ability to meet those future needs.

The GFM team is developing a proof-of-concept assessment tool designed to demonstrate the value to farmers, and to the farming sector as a whole, of collecting data on the state of farms, to assess these risks to future production.

A key message is that actions to safeguard the future of a farm by improving its economic, environmental and social condition, very often align with the aim of reducing negative impacts that a farm might be having on the world beyond the farm gate. By finding solutions which achieve both, the sector can develop joined-up approaches to sustainability, recognising and managing trade-offs and opportunities that might otherwise cause negative unintended consequences.

To support this process, as well as testing the value of the GFM framework to engage farmers on sustainability, our trials this year will also use our ‘proof of concept’ assessment tool to explore the value of a risk assessment on the state of the farm system.

The first step in the trials has been for Marina Suárez and Anna Heinlein, from the GFM trials team, to visit farms all over the UK to introduce the ideas behind the framework to farmers and to test the questions that will form the GFM assessment.

Involving farmers in the development and testing of any assessment is crucial. Their first-hand experience and perspectives contribute significantly to developing a robust and practical assessment that reflects the needs and experiences of the farming community. In a similar way, discussing the GFM framework with farmers provides information about how best to make it relevant and useful as a sustainability roadmap and driver for change in the sector.

GFM trial at Troed y Rhiw Farm

One of the farms that Marina and Anna have recently visited as part of the GFM trials is Troed y Rhiw Organics run by Nathan Richards and his wife, Alicia Miller, in West Wales. Troed y Rhiw is an 8.5 ha certified organic farm, which also offers courses in beekeeping and organic farming and has holiday accommodation on the farm as well.

The couple show a real passion for nature, as evidenced by the sign at the entrance of their farm which reads, “Ecology now!” The sign serves as a daily reminder that everything they’re doing on their farm is for nature – their business strategy and decisions are made with nature at the core.

A banner that reads ECOLOGY NOW!

Troed y Rhiw is a beautiful farm and one of only a handful in the local area to produce and sell organic vegetables and fruits. There are few local markets in West Wales and there isn’t much competition among growers, which, in terms of profit and business viability, is brilliant!

But the community depends on their services. Nathan and Alicia provide food for more than 1,000 people a week through their local box scheme and producer’s market; they also supply selected restaurants and green grocers – the demand is greater than the labour available on the farm to support it and Nathan makes it very clear that the potential for a localised food system is huge and necessary.

Challenges and opportunities at Troed y Rhiw

The aim of this trial is to review the framework (as a common holistic language) with Nathan and Alicia, and to use the assessment as a methodology to collect quantitative data. The results of this assessment will enable Nathan and Alicia to analyse and monitor sustainability risks and opportunities, and changes over time at farm level. Because the assessment is still under development, it will be a little time before Nathan and Alicia have a final result for their farm; however, by taking their first steps in the trial process and talking through the categories with the trials team, Nathan and Alicia have begun the conversation and thinking that will set them on course for their full assessment.

As Marina and Anna spoke with Nathan, working through the framework category-by-category and asking the relevant questions from the assessment, two areas of challenge emerged:

Climate Change

Nathan and Alicia bought their land in West Wales for a variety of reasons – their farm sits in the coastal belt, where the climate is just a bit warmer than inland a few miles, giving them an early advance on their production, and the reputation of West Wales for rain was definitely a consideration. However, over the nearly 15 years that they have farmed there, the climate has noticeably changed. Winters have become wetter, warmer and wilder (as predicted) and, in the last couple of years, there have been extended periods of drought in the spring and early summer. Last month, Wales had its hottest and driest June on record, which is not ideal when water is such a critical asset to growing their crops.

Natural water courses are present on the farm but are not accessible where the crops are grown. This means they have had to use mains water. With the diversity of crops they produce on the farm in a combination of open fields and polytunnels, bringing water to the crops is a manual job that requires a lot of time and attention.

“Diversity is the key,” says Nathan – there is value in having a lot of different crops in the ground. This has helped immensely when weather conditions are not ideal, particularly as they grow large amounts of green manures which, when incorporated into the soil, help to boost organic matter and retain moisture beneath the surface.

This year, the length of the drought has proved harder to manage, and the impact of climate change can be found in the lateness of crops which have struggled to survive. Alicia and Nathan are investing in irrigation equipment and looking at how they might better utilise the ponds on their farm. But they are expecting similar conditions next year and wondering what the continuing impact of these will be, triggering concern about what the future holds. Nathan is experimenting in stone fruit production, pushing to see what crops might be better suited to the changing climate.

Resources/Farmers and Workers

One of the questions asked as part of the GFM assessment, under the ‘Governance category, explores the existence of any external and/or internal factors that either support or constrain whether a farm can sustain itself in the long term.

For Nathan, this prompted a conversation about a significant systemic issue in Wales: “While there is a history of horticulture in Wales – before the intensification of agriculture in the country, every farm would have grown their own veg and probably sold some of it – this has declined. There is a perception that horticulture production is something that happens in the East of the UK, not, particularly, in Wales.” And for agroecological farmers and growers, this poses some difficulty. “Finding appropriate machinery for field-scale organic horticulture is hard.” New machinery is expensive and often too large for a small farm; most new machines are so big, they wouldn’t fit through the farm gates. Nathan relies on second-hand machinery, which is sometimes in poor condition and requires a certain expertise to repair, and that expertise can be hard to come by locally.

Further, there’s very little government funding of edible horticulture. While Tyfu Cymru has been an important developmental body for horticulture, much more is needed to support agroecological fruit and vegetable production in Wales. Nathan also feels that there is much more in-depth training needed in the sector, to engage and support new growers. This lack of resource in the community makes hiring experienced people a difficult task, so they have often hired inexperienced workers and trained them up. This is particularly relevant in medium scale production when machinery skills are critical.

By going through the framework and considering the assessment, Nathan and Alicia were able to gain an initial insight, through the holistic lens of the GFM framework, into their farm’s strengths and vulnerabilities when it comes to sustainability. ‘Crops and Pasture’, ‘Nature’ and ‘Community’ are just some of the GFM categories in which Troed y Rhiw excels, while other areas, like those outlined above, show where there are vulnerabilities that can be addressed.

While in the early stages, these trials have already yielded valuable insights for the Global Farm Metric team. Working directly with farmers is an essential means of understanding the value and efficacy of the framework, highlighting areas of opportunity for further development of the assessment. Looking ahead, we will be seeking further input and feedback from horticulture experts and practitioners like Nathan and Alicia, so that we can ensure the GFM assessment meets their needs, as well as those of many other farmers working across a range of regions and farm types and employing a variety of practices. Their insights and experiences will help ensure that the Global Farm Metric offers a robust assessment that addresses the intricacies and challenges faced across the farming industry today.


If you’d like to find out more about Troed y Rhiw Organics, visit

If you’re interested in participating in the Global Farm Metric 2023 farm trials, sign up here:

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