The Soil Association has announced funding for three innovative new research projects to support sustainable agriculture.The three projects, which have been devised to address important issues facing farmers practically and innovatively, have been awarded almost £50,000 between them, as part of the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme. The results will potentially reduce farmers’ costs and improve productivity and animal welfare – but could also provide great benefits in marketing healthier products to an increasingly aware and demanding consumer.Excitingly, and bucking the trend for research to be driven agrochemical companies and other input suppliers, these research topics were suggested by farmers, working alongside scientists. The projects tackle three key challenges for organic and low-input agriculture: managing weeds without herbicides; finding affordable protein feed for poultry, pig and fish farming; and growing even healthier food.The successful research projects are:‘Winter grazing cereals: the effects on crop-weed competition and grain yield’.Black grass is a particularly difficult to control weed that affects many farms across Britain – and is the source of much frustration for organic and conventional farmers alike! Led by innovative farmer John Pawsey at Shimpling Park Farm in Suffolk and the Organic Research Centre, this project will look at how grazing winter wheat with sheep can help control the black grass. The project helps to tackle the broader challenge of managing weeds without herbicide – one of the themes of the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme.‘Increasing insect consumption by laying hens in free range systems to reduce feed costs, enhance food quality and improve welfare’.Every farmer wants to find ways to reduce input costs – and this research project will potentially not only lower feed cost, but also be better for the hens and improve the nutritional qualities of the eggs. All through something as simple as increasing insect consumption in laying hens. Led by Stonegate at their Sutton Estates farm in Newbury and researchers from the University of Bristol, the project helps to find new ways of delivering ‘affordable protein feed for poultry’ and ‘grow even healthier food’. And if the results are positive, in the future it may even be able to make a big difference to the welfare of the thousands of hens who live in back yards and gardens.‘Enhancing iodine and other trace element content of organic milk.’Studies have consistently shown that organic milk is nutritionally superior in many components, and it’s important to organic farmers as the starting point for many consumers into buying organic food. But despite this, organic milk contains less iodine than conventionally produced milk. Newton Farm and Acorn Dairy have teamed up with researchers from Newcastle University to try to increase the levels of trace elements, including iodine, in organic milk.The team will be treating their grazing land with iodine-rich products, such as calcified seaweed and also supplementing cows’ diets with organic iodine. Important for consumers, this study tackles the research theme of ‘growing even healthier food’ .Speaking about the projects, Tom MacMillan, Soil Association director of innovation commented; “We had a fantastic set of applications for some really innovative and interesting projects and it was inspiring to see so much enthusiasm from farmers and scientists alike. We’re confident that we’ve picked three projects that not only will provide real tangible benefits to farmers but will also support innovation in farming, led by farmers – something which is at the heart of the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme.“The Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme is all about putting farmers and growers in the driving seat so they can work together to devise practical solutions to the issues affecting them every day.”Research is more crucial than ever to agriculture as the industry strives to farm sustainably in the face of climate change and increasing pressure on natural resources. To help, research must be practical and relevant for farmers. It needs to tackle the real problems faced by farmers as they grapple with improving their productivity while protecting the environment.The Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme is funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation and helps farmers work with each other and with researchers to produce healthier food in ways that are better for the environment and farm animals. In addition to the research fund the programme runs ‘field labs’, which bring a small group of likeminded farmers together to solve a problem, adapting an approach pioneered in developing countries that supports practical DIY research by farmers. So far 450 farmers have taken part in field labs and there are 30 more planned for 2014.