Thursday, 15 October 2015

Funding and research help for your farmer groups

Tom MacMillan, Innovation Director at the Soil Association, writes about a new Innovative Farmers support network

As an advisor, some of the best advice you can give farmers is passed on from their peers. Often it’s been learned the hard way – from trying and trying to fix a problem until they’ve hit on an answer that works. But farmers also experiment, trialling, monitoring and analysing. And when they do – whether by design or default – their vets, agronomists or other advisors are frequently involved in discussing what they do, pointing out relevant research and making sense of the result.

That’s the backdrop to Innovative Farmers (, a new support network that we launched this week. It provides research support and funding to farmer groups on their own terms. It recognises that farmers innovate and helps them do it even better.

Through Innovative Farmers we’re providing farmer groups with:

-      Help with trial design and analysis from some of the best research teams in the country – Rothamsted, IBERS and Bristol are among the research partners.

-      Dedicated funding, with plan to give out more than £800,000 in farmer-friendly R&D grants by 2020.

-      A web portal where you can track progress and see what others doing.

-      As importantly as anything, a chance to team up with likeminded farmers to tackle the big challenges facing their business, and together shape the future of the industry.

It builds on three years of practical ‘field labs’ that we’ve run through the Duchy Future Farming Programme. More than 750 farmers got involved in investigating 35 topics. Now we’re opening that up to more farmers and creating a network that can stand on its own feet.

Each group of farmers in the network has a co-ordinator. They’re the gateway to the rest of the network – they unlock that funding and support for their group, and share the group’s learning through the web portal.

Nearly all the co-ordinators who have so far been on our induction day have been advisors – whether vets, agronomists, or specialists in countryside stewardship and rural development. Most see it as a new benefit for their clients and the community who rely on them – a set of resources that won’t suit everyone they work with, but would really benefit and appeal to some. It is also a way to attract new contacts, as we’re investing in promoting the network and bringing new people to existing groups.

We offer co-ordinators £500 per group per year to help offset the added expense of running a group of Innovative Farmers. We don’t pay for their time – this generally needs to fit with the day job – but nor do co-ordinators pay a membership fee. We are also able to help apply for extra funds to the new European Innovation Partnership, which may be able to help and shares much the same ethos.

If you work with a group of farmers and think some of them might like to join Innovative Farmers, please get in touch. Phone 0117 987 4572 or send an email to  

Innovative Farmers is part of the Duchy Future Farming Programme, funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation. The network is backed by a team from LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), Innovation for Agriculture, the Organic Research Centre and the Soil Association, and supported by Waitrose.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Building cross-professional networks

Nuffield scholar Finola McCoy writes in praise of networks and the role of the honest broker.

There is an Irish saying ‘Ní neart go cur le chéile’, which translates as ‘There is no strength without unity’, and it comes to mind when I think about the service provision sector in Irish agriculture.  Farmers will engage with many varied service providers as part of the management of their business - vets, farm advisers, bank managers, engineers, nutritionists etc. In turn, these agricultural service providers rarely engage with, or even know each other. Yet, we are all working towards a common goal - to provide a good service to farmers to enable them to run an efficient business. While Ireland has retained a strong, largely publicly funded research and advisory service i.e. Teagasc, this too can present a challenge. When one organisation dominates the research and extension space, this can create a perception that the ‘peripheral’ extension services e.g. vets, private consultants etc. are less important or influential, placing little value on the knowledge resource within and creating a divide between the 'central' and 'peripheral' organisations. In the 300s B.C. Aristotle said ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. What if we were to apply this to the agricultural service provision sector? If it worked as a whole could it be more effective than the sum of its parts? What are the barriers to building this whole? What is needed to initiate and sustain it? These are some of the questions that I have ruminated upon, and with the opportunity of a Nuffield scholarship, have been able to explore in more detail. 

The initial title of my study was ‘Building Strong Professional Teams’, with a focus on looking at how on-farm professional teams can work. However, I soon realised that while these on-farm teams might be very effective, to some degree they may also be idealistic. They can be very formal and structured, and not always practical; one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. However, one of the building blocks to creating teams is an existing network between people. Without networks people don’t get an opportunity to get to know and trust each, and understand what skills and strengths they can bring to the party.  Over time and in the right circumstances, service provider networks could grow into on-farm multidisciplinary teams.

I started by looking at and learning from agricultural organisations and projects, including Landbridge UK, that have either used a multi-disciplinary approach to achieve their end goal, or where the end goal itself has been to develop networks between service providers. It became apparent to me that service provider networks can offer many benefits. As well as providing clients i.e. farmers, with more holistic, comprehensive services and a broader cohesive knowledge base, the network members benefit from knowledge exchange and upskilling, business referrals and social interaction with other professionals. Industry benefits from an improved feedback loop to research and development.

However, it would be idealistic not to recognise that there are also barriers to building networks, and working as a team. Finding time to participate in a network, as well as support from the service provider’s parent organisation/company can be an obstacle. Competition between professionals can also be a challenge, particularly when initiating networks. Many professionals have a ‘healthy’ suspicion of other professionals working in the same region, and may worry about losing clients or business. However, the reality is that this suspicion is often born out of ignorance of and isolation from other professionals and in general, the positive outcomes from networking outweigh the real challenges and the perceived threats.

It appears that one of the most effective solutions to many of these barriers is the identification or establishment of ‘an honest broker’. This broker could be a person, or a body e.g. Landbridge UK, and is a relatively impartial third-party, bringing people together mainly for the greater good, and without a vested interest. Brokers can build trust between the various people, and by objectively analysing the needs of the various parties within the network can identify their requirements and stay relevant. Brokers need funding however, and this can be a constant challenge, as their behind-the scenes role conceals their impact and may limit support.

For Ireland, I believe the most important step now is to promote the benefits of creating cross-professional networks, identify an honest broker and start nurturing those cross-professional networks through multi-disciplinary activities. Without unity, the fragmentation continues, and the opportunity to maximise our potential remains untapped.

The final Nuffield report on “Building Strong Professional Networks” will be available in winter 2015 on


Monday, 6 July 2015

Ecosystem Services: Taking the Next Step

Matt Lobley from the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter, reflects on their recent symposium on the future direction for ecosystem services.  (Click on the links to see slides from the presentations.)

What’s the current evidence on ecosystem services and where do we go from here?  The Centre for Rural Policy Research’s symposium held in June was designed to explore innovation around ecosystem services and the ecosystems approach.  With around 50 academics and practitioners and a range of engaging speakers the discussion was lively.

Professor Michael Winter started the day off by questioning whether an Ecosystem Services approach necessarily implies sustainability. He did this by reviewing work on the Defra-funded Sustainable Intensification Research platform before going on to explore the relationship between sustainable intensification and ecosystem services. This was followed by Professor Duncan Russel’s presentation on the factors that facilitate and hamper the implementation of ecosystems services. The problem, it seems, is that whilst decision makers sometimes reach the rational high ground, much decision making actually occurs in the “swampy low ground”. In other words, the world of policy making and implementation is complex and often involves muddling through. Duncan’s research has revealed a range of societal, institutional and individual enablers and barriers and shows that possessing “more knowledge” or championing a new idea does not necessarily mean that it will be embedded into policy making and help implementation.

Next up was Professor Richard Brazier who described his work with Charles Cowap on understanding the value of the internationally important habitats, Culm grasslands, for ecosystem services. Once more widespread, like many habitats the area of Culm has been significantly eroded and fragmented and Devon is home of over 80% of the remaining Culm in England. Compared to intensively managed grassland Culm soils are characterised by higher soil moisture, organic matter and carbon content. It is estimated that the loss of water and carbon value from Culm grasslands, which have been converted to intensively managed grasslands since 1900 is £32.3 million, and that work undertaken to date by Devon Wildlife Trust to restore Culm grassland has a potential benefit of over £9 million. Richard concluded by saying that such figures need to be combined with data describing agricultural productivity in order to understand whether recreation of Culm grasslands is viable at the landscape scale.

Dr Rob Fish presented an overview of his experiment in public dialogue designed to understand what people make of the ecosystem services agenda. Working with publics in Birmingham, Glasgow and Exeter, this project drew on the work of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment to engage people in extensive discussion about ecosystem services and the ecosystem approach. Despite some initial scepticism the direction of dialogue was cautiously positive and the more participants applied and learned about it, the more positively they tended to view the framework.  

Laurence Couldrick talked about the future of payments for ecosystem services and the work of the Westcountry Rivers Trust, with over 2000 farmers and covering some 150,000 ha. He stressed the importance of partnership working, monitoring outcomes and the benefits that can flow from better information and understanding. This was followed by Nick Kirsop Taylor’s assessment of Biodiversity Offsetting. Nick argued that while rumours of the death of biodiversity offsetting may be exaggerated it may well “disappear” as part of the new Government’s agenda. He outlined various possible futures for biodiversity offsetting including that of becoming a zombie policy.  “The autopsy may have to wait a while, but maybe not too long…” he concluded.  Finally, Lisa Schneidau  from Devon Wildlife Trust rather bravely attempted to sum up the day and identify next steps, identifying topics for further discussion, including the importance of communication, and the need for an integrated approach.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

An inventory of advisory services in Europe

Katrin Prager (James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen) reflects on the prospects for farmer support provided through advisory services and highlights some of the findings from the EU project PROAKIS
At the end of a project I always take for granted the knowledge I acquired. Because I have integrated all new information into my existing knowledge I assume that everyone knows what I know at that stage. This is probably what makes it difficult to sum up what new findings were produced. Nevertheless, I will try to highlight what stands out for me from the PROAKIS project.
Agricultural advisory services exist in all European countries but take different forms, ranging from public to private organisations, often including hybrid arrangements with farmer-based and non-governmental organisations. The eight partner organisations in the PROAKIS project compiled an inventory of not only advisory services, but the broader Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation System (AKIS), within which they are embedded. This had not been done before.
When in the past an AKIS was about transferring knowledge from research to advisors, who then passed it on to farmers, they are today seen as a system where knowledge is exchanged between different people and organisations from the first, second and third sector (see example diagram).

Example of AKIS diagram for Denmark

What became obvious through compiling the inventory was the immense diversity, aptly illustrated in the  27 posters featuring an AKIS diagram - we created one for each country that was a Member State in 2013. Forcing this diversity into a classification is inherently difficult. Nevertheless, my observation from looking at the map of main advisory organisations is that the dominant organisation in most of the Eastern European countries is public, while farmer-based organisations play the main role in many Scandinavian and South Western European countries. Only the Netherlands and Estonia are dominated by private advisory services. In countries with a federal or strong regional structure such as Germany, the UK or Italy, a mixture of organisations is dominating the advisory scene. Overall, there is a trend towards commercialisation and the privatisation of advice.

Innovation is becoming increasingly important in the agricultural sector. Recognising that innovation requires knowledge, we found AKIS diagrams a useful tool (email if you would like a copy of the article) to visualise relevant actors and explore the knowledge flows between them. Some issues around knowledge flows were commented on in an earlier blog by Sean Ryan. Agricultural or rural networks are one means of enhancing the sharing and adoption of innovation. In the project, we studied four different networks, some of them initiated from the bottom-up, others top-down. We found that such networks can support innovation, but they need to be embedded into an existing advisory system. This emphasises that they cannot be used to counter (public) disinvestment in advisory infrastructure.

There is another benefit of having a public presence in the AKIS, and in advisory services in particular. Although the market can meet demands for agronomic, book-keeping and ‘form-filling’ advice expressed by farmers, environmental issues and broader rural development are unlikely to be part of this scenario, because of their mainly collective benefits that rarely translate into private (financial) gain. The farmer has no incentive to request and pay for public good advice, therefore this is where publicly-funded advice has an important role to play. In addition, without the state maintaining an overview of the advisory landscape and monitoring what advice is provided by whom, there is no way of knowing whether farmer needs and societal demands are being met.

So what are the prospects for farmer support through advisory services? The outlook is positive in those countries where the importance of advisory services is recognised politically, with strategies and associated schemes backed up with funding. Prospects are also good where diverse formal and informal networks exist between advisors, farmers, researchers, consultants, and other relevant actors. Where these components are missing, the consequences will be felt in the future, or are already becoming apparent.



Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Working outside our comfort zones to deliver impact

Julia Cooper, Lecturer in Soil Science in the School of Agriculture at Newcastle University explains how researchers and partners have been collaborating in an innovative workshop on strategies to improve Nitrogen efficiency on farms. 


Simon Henderson, who farms organically near Wooler, hosted the event.  He is trying to minimise soil loss on his sandy land by using a diverse range of cover crops and reduced tillage methods.  The objectives were two-fold: on the one hand we wanted to transfer research findings on how to improve on-farm Nitrogen efficiency to the 15 farmers and farm advisors who took part, but we also wanted to learn more about the best ways to transfer knowledge to end users. Following on from a previous event in Etal, we decided to go "powerpoint-free" and deliver all information in smaller, more interactive groups. Five knowledge transfer stations were set up indoors and outside, covering: precision farming (James Taylor), Nitrogen modelling tools (Julia Cooper), cover crops (Niall Atkinson,  Agrovista), soil structure (Paul Muto and Stuart Moss, Natural England), and first-hand experiences using cover crops (Simon Henderson). Small groups of between two and five people circulated around the stations, pausing for 10-15 minutes at each one. This was followed by a walk around Simon's fields, with some digging of holes and testing compaction with the penetrometer.  This interactive approach was very well-received and outcomes will be fed into a guidance note on pathways to impact for agronomic research.   The day also helped us to build some very good working relationships with Catchment Sensitive Farming (Natural England) and the Environment Agency and we expect to collaborate more closely with them in the future on knowledge transfer activities.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

CROPROTECT: web-based knowledge exchange for crop protection

CROPROTECT is an ambitious new project which plans to revolutionise knowledge exchange for crop protection by making use of 21st century web-based technologies which mean that practical information about crop protection can be shared and exchanged very easily. It is developing and providing a two-way web-based free knowledge exchange resource through which farmers and agronomists can get specific information relevant to their needs. In this blog Toby Bruce from Rothamsted Research, who is the contact for the project, explains what it aims to achieve and how it will develop.


Farmers face a continuous battle against pests, weeds and diseases. To ensure efficient production, pest management solutions are required for crop protection. These challenges have been managed primarily with pesticides for the last few decades but now alternative solutions need to be delivered. Crop protection is getting more difficult, not only because pesticides are being restricted by legislation but also because the remaining ones which are still available are less effective as pests, weeds and diseases evolve resistance to them.

Farmers are caught in a difficult situation because of dependency on pesticide. Their crops have been bred in a pesticide treated background and without the pesticides crop losses to pests, weeds and diseases mean that both yield and quality can be seriously compromised. Currently pesticides are being lost at a much faster rate than they are being replaced with alternatives. As well as novel control solutions, farmers need better information about what can be done.

Alternative approaches are often more complicated relying on a combination of resistant cultivars, biocontrol, agronomic practices and rationalised, better targeted pesticide use. Information about integrated pest, weed and disease management is scattered in disparate places which are hard for busy farmers to track down for every pest, weed and disease threat they face.

The capacity to share information via the internet is tremendous and access is increasingly via mobile devices. These have the potential to reach a wide audience in the farming community, to provide rapid updates and to interact more with the users. In the internet age, availability of information is not the main constraint, there is more of an issue of accessing relevant information.  CROPROTECT hopes to provide content which is relevant to the users by interacting with them, asking what their priorities are and encouraging feedback. Because electronic documents are living documents and can be adjusted unlike printed documents, there is an opportunity to continuously refine the information provided as the system evolves. The project is funded by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Innovation Club (SARIC) which is  a joint BBSRC and NERC initiative to support innovative projects that will provide solutions to key challenges affecting the efficiency, productivity and sustainability of the UK crop and livestock sectors.

We are very keen to develop CROPROTECT in partnership with farmers and agronomists and are working with the Association of Independent Crop Consultants (AICC), Hutchinsons, Agrii and the NFU to ensure the system is appropriate for them. We are also very pleased to have AgriChatUK, a leading online forum for agricultural discussions, supporting the project. Indeed, part of the inspiration for the project is from the vibrant community of farmers using twitter. When I wrote the proposal, I was thinking of reaching the thousands of farmers and agronomists and other stakeholders who are active on twitter as followers of @AgriChatUK or members of #clubhectare and who interact this way. The levy boards HGCA and HDC (under the AHDB umbrella) are collaborating with us in developing CROPROTECT.

We started the project in November 2014 and the second version of the website is now live. This is starting to give information about management recommendations for pest, weed and disease targets (the first version was for user registration only). The targets being prioritised are as specified as being of concern by the pioneer users of the system. Registration is free and quick but we do ask users to specify what their main pest, weed and disease targets are so that we can unsure the system meets their requirements.

CROPROTECT accounts are free and we encourage farmers and agronomists to join and try it out! It is designed to work on smartphone browsers and will also open on a desktop screen. The system is evolving and it is early days in the project so there is more to come. To make login easier users can now login via twitter and we are planning to make the system available as a smartphone App in the near future.