Two new schemes from the Soil Association aim to put farmers at the forefront of research. Tom MacMillan reports.

Tom MacMillan

There is hardly a year that starts without at least somebody at the Oxford Farming Conference lamenting the gulf between agricultural research and practice, and calling for it to be bridged. The difference this year is that these calls may now be getting some answers.

The past few months have seen an upsurge in efforts to address this gap including Feeding the Future, a review of research priorities for farmers and growers up to the year 2030 which was commissioned by four organisations at the heart of UK food production: RASE, AHDB, the NFU and AIC. There has also been action from GFS partners, with NERC launching a Knowledge Exchange Programme for sustainable food production and teaming up with BBSRC to develop a new industry focused initiative on sustainable agriculture.

By and large, the new initiatives focus on co-ordinating the demands of farmers so they become more effective ‘research clients’, or boosting efforts to translate research from academia and journals into language and conversations that directly reach primary producers.

Welcome as this is, the lesson from other disciplines and other countries is that we can set our sights higher, involving the intended beneficiaries much more fully in decisions and the research that is pursued in their name.

Peer-to-peer learning

Medical research funding shows how extended peer review can involve those with a stake in science even more fully than respecting their demands as ‘clients’, valuing the knowledge that users and beneficiaries can bring to decision-making.

Perhaps the best-known example is the Alzheimer Society’s Research Network. It involves 200 dementia sufferers and their carers directly in shaping a substantial research funding programme, setting research priorities, reviewing applications, sitting on selection panels, monitoring projects and spreading the word. They’ve run the scheme for years now with a community who face clear challenges in participating, and it seems to be working a treat, investing tens of millions of pounds and yielding important results.

Back in agriculture but in the global south, farmer-led alternatives to traditional extension services suggest there’s another way of making sure new knowledge is practically relevant, besides changing the language and locus of discussion. In farmer field schools participants learn simple but effective DIY research skills, sharing know-how peer-to-peer, for example to identify and encourage insects that feed on serious pests. The focus here is less on translating research for farmers than helping them pick up the language for themselves.

Applications welcome

The challenges and opportunities facing agricultural research in the UK are at least as different from those facing the smallholders in Asia, Africa and Latin American who have pioneered farmer field schools, as they are from those in medical science.

At the Soil Association we think there are lessons to learn from both these examples. Under our Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme, jointly with the Organic Research Centre and supported by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation we’re experimenting with research funding and knowledge exchange inspired by these approaches.

Our new research fund, which has just announced its first call and requires expressions of interest by 10 February, centres on challenges in sustainable production put forward directly by farmers, ranging from tackling weeds that dog low-input systems to advancing techniques for pasture cropping – drilling the next season’s crops directly into the clovers and other plants that build fertility in a rotation.

The process match-makes applicants with interested farmers to design projects together, and involves other farmers alongside scientists in reviewing research proposals. This extended peer review in no way dumbs down the science – the winning research will need to be top-notch scientifically and practically relevant to people at the sharp end.

We have also been piloting ‘field labs’ to help small groups of farmers team up to try techniques and technologies that interest them, which are structured to provide a hands-on crash course in designing effective trials. DIY experiments will never substitute for larger-scale hard science, but farmers in the UK test and tinker all the time, so honing their research skills makes more of the time and money they are already investing. We’ve started eight field labs so far, with producers testing new ways of cracking challenges like maintaining sheep fertility on red clover, reducing antibiotics in dairy and eliminating peat from seed propagation.

The fund and the field labs focus on upping the performance of low-input, agroecological systems and their productivity, environmental benefits and nutritional quality. As organic and non-organic farmers can learn from each, both schemes are open to all. And as they’re experiments in their own right, we will be monitoring progress carefully.

To get involved or find out more please contact our Research Manager, Euan Brierley at  ebrierley@soilassociation.org

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About Tom MacMillan

Dr Tom MacMillan is Director of Innovation at the Soil Association.

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