Second call from Soil Association ‘field labs’ seeks food growers with innovative ideas to test. Tom MacMillan reports.

Tom MacMillan

Back in April on this blog, I made the case that public funding for agricultural R&D should do more to support innovation by farmers.

The past few years have already seen welcome steps to help farmers become more vocal ‘research clients’, with the industry’s priorities increasingly reflected in the research agenda. But farmers are so much more than just clients, buying and using the bright ideas and technology that scientists have come up with. They have their own ideas; they develop and adapt techniques and technology, and many trial new approaches informally before they adopt them fully across their business.

Farmers interested in conducting studies meet at Duchy Home Farm, Tetbury. Image: Soil Association

Farmers interested in conducting studies meet at Duchy Home Farm, Tetbury. Image: Soil Association

This innovation by farmers is crucial. It is an integral aspect of agricultural research and development (R&D) and, because farmers have every incentive to find cost-effective solutions that rely on renewable resources, potentially good for the environment. It also takes time, money and skill.

Yet it is a hidden investment, with little dedicated support.

Grass roots science

That’s why, through the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme, we have been piloting ways of supporting innovation by farmers. Our ‘field labs’ help them learn practical research skills that make the most of time and money they already invest in trying new approaches, and encourage grassroots innovation. The programme’s research fund is led by farmers, who set the priorities, shape the projects and, alongside scientists, peer-review the proposals.

Field labs have now started on a dozen topics, involving over 300 farmers, with more in the pipeline. One project funded under the first research call has already reported, and we have just announced the second call.

The field labs have tackled challenges ranging from improving animal health while reducing antibiotic use in dairy herds, to finding commercially viable substitutes for peat in seed propagation.

The initial feedback from the farmers involved is that they not only come away intending to try out other new approaches on their own farms, but also enthused about engaging with scientists.

Backing informal R&D by farmers is a boost for formal research, not a threat to it.

Try and try again

The first research project to report was at Whitmuir Farm, near Edinburgh, working with researchers from the University of Edinburgh to see whether including biochar with pigs’ feed helped them grow and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. While they did not find evidence of a significant effect, the farmer has been inspired to repeat the research under his own steam with more animals.

A pig being weighed as part of the biochar project at Whitmuir Organic Farm near Edinburgh

A pig being weighed as part of the biochar project at Whitmuir Organic Farm near Edinburgh. Image: Whitmuir Organics

The three other projects funded in first call are testing the effectiveness of cover crops such as buckwheat and caliente mustard in controlling couch grass, replacing herbicide strips with green manures in cider orchards, and trialling perimeter planting to manage flea beetle in brassicas.

We surveyed the 70 scientists who had expressed interest in the research fund. Of the 23 who responded, all but four of whom had not been funded; a third said they would work more closely with farmers since becoming aware of the fund.

Building capacity

The second research call is now live. This time we’re focused on three big priorities: arable weed control, alternative protein feeds and growing healthier produce. Again, researchers applying to the fund need to show they’ve developed their project with farmers and growers.

In parallel we’re running a second competition for farmers and growers, offering £2,000 to support field lab hosts. The deadline for both is 5 December 2013.

We’re fortunate to have support from the Prince of Wales’ Charitable Foundation to try out these new approaches. And while we’re doing at a reasonable scale – over 1,800 farmers have been involved in the programme somehow or other over the past 18 months – we are clear it is just proof-of-concept.

This programme is a test-bed, yet it is a timely one. We hope that the lessons from this initiative and others like it about how to support farmers as innovators will shape the new centres and funding available through the Agri-tech Strategy.

To support innovation for farmers, but not by them, would miss a vital opportunity to boost the UK’s progress towards sustainable agriculture.

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About Tom MacMillan

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

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