Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Farm Business Survey team at the Northern Farming Conference in Hexham

Charles Scott, Manager of the Farm Business Survey at Newcastle University writes:

The Farm Business Survey team attended the 5th Northern Farming Conference held at Hexham Mart on Wednesday 13th November.

A well attended conference got under way under the chairmanship of Newcastle graduate Robert Sullivan (Partner, Strutt and Parker Farming Department) with a strong opening speech from Allan Wilkinson; Head of Agriculture at HSBC. Allan impressed upon the conference the increasingly volatile global marketplace that UK producers must adapt to and warned of over reliance on a support regime under ever increasing budgetary constraints.

An inspirational delivery from Nuffield Scholar and Sussex dairy farmer Joe Delves followed with a strong focus on attitudinal and mindset approaches to farming.

The conference welcomed the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who delivered a very upbeat and optimistic Keynote speech that covered progress and future action on TB control and eradication and hinted at future possibilities of policy devolvement from Brussels. The Secretary of State welcomed forthcoming European national food labeling - that would encourage greater consumption of domestic produce, and announced a new Countryside Stewardship Scheme (detailed in a later session delivered by the Regional Director of Natural England).

A technical delivery from Agricultural Engineer Tim Chaman followed the break. Tim extolled the virtues of Controlled Traffic Farming, where all vehicle wheelings are restricted to tramlines at all times - precision guided and working-width-compatible implements, on reducing soil compaction and consequential beneficial impacts on yields.

Local egg producer and 2013 Farmers Weekly Poultry Farmer of the Year Richard Tulip (Lintz Hall Farm) then presented the success story of the expansion of the family business to becoming the largest poultry farm in the North East with all the allied marketing, sponsorship and brand building activities that must go hand in hand with increasing farm output.

Following a splendid lunch, MD of Hexham & Northern Marts Robert Addison, chair for the afternoon sessions, introduced Rob Aubrook the North East Regional Director for Natural England. Rob outlined the details of the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme which will have 3 tiers, the highest of which will be similar to the current HLS scheme but would no longer need to be underpinned by ELS options. He recognised that in the past the relationship between farmers and Natural England was not always perfect but this is improving by taking farmers' opinions on board and working together to deliver the schemes' intended outputs.

Consultant and Adviser to the Agricultural Law Association Geoff Whittaker delivered a lighthearted and myth-busting view of various aspects of EU agricultural law, which can often, unnecessarily he says, provoke resentment and mistrust, but which are regularly the result of language interpretations and varying law codes across the member countries.

John Henderson (Branch President CLA Yorkshire)'s impassioned speech on the merits of Share farming followed. John could not understate the value of share farming agreements to both; allow an easier path to new entrants with limited access to capital, and facilitate an easier and more dignified exit for leavers from the industry.

The final delivery was from Lowther Estate Director of Farming and 2013 Farmers Weekly Farm Manager of the Year Richard Price. Richard outlined the Estate's farm strategy to return the farms to profitability in a sustainable and locally responsible manner, stressing the importance of teamwork and local engagement (with Estate tenants) in supply chains and business operations.

Following questions on the afternoon sessions the conference was closed and delegates encouraged to continue to review the day at the bar or over a splendid array of tea and sandwiches.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Improving knowledge exchange in arable farming

Sean Ryan, Defra’s lead on the Agri-Tech Strategy reflects on a recent workshop exploring knowledge exchange in the arable sector and how it brought new insights to his work
What’s the difference between knowledge transfer and knowledge exchange? Knowledge transfer is one way – someone has a bright idea which then needs to find its way into practice. Knowledge exchange assumes that everybody in the supply chain – farmers, researchers, agronomists, suppliers - has valuable knowledge and experience; the flow of knowledge is much more multi-track than the idea of knowledge transfer would allow.  It sounds much more appealing, doesn’t it, particularly in the world of agriculture where practical expertise is so important.
A well-run workshop is a great way to understand the current debates and concerns in a sector and knowledge exchange certainly comes into that category.  So I was delighted, to receive an invitation from the Agricultural Industries Confederation to a workshop in Peterborough on knowledge exchange in arable farming on 23rd September.
I work in Defra on the Agri-Tech Strategy ( which is about promoting technology and innovation to make farming more productive and sustainable. The workshop brought some new perspectives about how our work relates to other activities that are already encouraging innovation in the sector.
We got off to a good start by working in groups on mapping knowledge/information flows. This provoked a lively discussion in the group I joined which had agronomists, academics and other experts. In fact this was so absorbing that our facilitator forgot to write anything down so we had a bit of a scramble at the end of the session.  After some scene setting presentations, there was further discussion about possible ways of improving knowledge exchange, helped by an illustrious panel from Newcastle University, Innovate UK, Rothamsted, HL Hutchinsons, Syngenta and AICC.
One theme that came up several times was that the link between commercial research and the farmer worked satisfactorily because there are commercial and/or contractual  reasons for that to happen. However, there were issues with public sector research. Some people thought that that the gap between farmers and researchers had got wider in recent years. Others thought that there were some signs of improvement. There were already positive changes in the way that research councils and institutes were already trying to engage with farmers. The Agri-Tech Strategy is about joining up academics and farming businesses. Some people thought that the Centres for Agricultural Innovation that are being set up under the Strategy should have knowledge exchange built into how they operate.
We also talked about involving farmers in commissioning research and the role of levy boards both in terms of their efforts to ensure the research they support is relevant and in involving them in prioritising research.
For me the main benefit of the workshop was that it helped me understand better the contributions that different types of organisations make to knowledge exchange and the challenges that each faces in doing so.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Plugging the gaps in the knowledge exchange system

Dr Paul Neve, Senior Research Scientist at Rothamsted Research reflects on the growing significance of knowledge exchange in his research
As a researcher working in the area of herbicide resistance and weed management, I worked for a number of years in Australia and I have collaborated with researchers at US Land Grant Universities. When I was part of a University research group (the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative) in Perth, Western Australia, knowledge exchange (extension, communication, outreach ….. call it what you will) was an integral part of the group’s work. Amongst a group of about 12 researchers, two full-time staff members worked full time on knowledge exchange. These important members of the team coordinated a KE strategy for the research group, organising farmer events, press releases, research bulletins etc. Importantly, they worked closely with researchers on a day-to-day basis, digesting latest results and distilling these into practical management advice for farmers. Groups of farmers and agronomists regularly visited the university to learn about latest research and provide feedback to researchers – were we asking the right questions? During visits to the US, it has become clear to me that many agricultural researchers have a ‘direct line’ to farmers and ‘extension’ is a key, and clearly recognised aspect of their role as an academic.


But it has been obvious for some time that the agricultural research community in the UK has become fragmented. Much excellent research is conducted in universities and institutes, but lines of communication have become a little fuzzy, often resulting in poor translation of ‘pure’ research into applied outcomes.  So I was very pleased to attend the recent Landbridge organised event ‘Building on a solid foundation: improving knowledge exchange in arable farming’ at the Marriott Hotel, Peterborough.  It is encouraging to see that groups such as Landbridge, AHDB and AICC are addressing this important issue and identifying ways to improve knowledge exchange in the arable sector.  This workshop clearly established that independent agronomists and distributors form a key link in the chain between research, interpretation and implementation. I hope that the workshop organisers can synthesise suggestions and ideas that delegates were putting forward into some actions and recommendations that will help to remedy the situation. The signs are promising. Increasingly researchers at Universities and research institutes such as Rothamsted are being encouraged to demonstrate the impact of their research. Fundamental knowledge published in high impact scientific journals is important (very important!) and a clear indication of the scientific strength of individuals, institutes and countries. However, it is clear that the job is only half-done if these scientific breakthroughs do not result in the ‘on the ground’ impacts.


Finally, by way of a shameless plug, the BBSRC-HGCA funded black-grass resistance initiative ( , kicked into life this year. More details can be found at the web site. As part of this project we have established a stakeholder group, consisting of groups such as Landbridge, the HGCA and distributors. We will also set up farmer focus groups for two way exchange of information about herbicide resistant black-grass. Through these channels we hope to ensure effective knowledge exchange and a two way flow of information. We look forward to working with Landbridge and other members of our stakeholder group in the future and learning important lessons about effective KE along the way!

Why farmers need agronomists – but which kind?

Agronomist and Chair of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants, Patrick Stephenson, reflects on the roles of independent and distributor agronomists in knowledge exchange 
Who advises farmers?   I took part in a group session tasked with finding the current method of delivering KT to farmers and growers at the Knowledge Transfer meeting in September. The discussion revealed a complex and varied number of organisations/groups/individuals who delivered advice either directly or indirectly to the farmer. The strongest delivery system highlighted by all five groups was the agronomist. It became apparent that any future successful system must involve this trusted on farm relationship.   The delivery of KT at the farm gate, in most cases requires the cooperation of the agronomist to ensure that uptake is good and effective.

But are agronomists a single homogenous group? I was attending on behalf of (AICC) the Association of Independent Crop Consultants. This body represents individuals and groups who deliver on farm advice with no sales related returns. The farmer buys the advice at face value usually in a payment per hectare or per visit. This accounts for approximately 40% of the arable area and consists of 244 advisors, a small proportion of farmers are self advised, the remaining area is covered by a wide group of distributor agronomists.

Distributor agronomists receive a proportion of their individual income from the amount of product they sell.   So there is a big difference between the delivery of an independent agronomist and a distributor agronomist. Non independent agronomists spend the majority of their face to face farmer contact time on sales related discussion how much where and when. The independent agronomists divide their time between a wide sweep of agronomic issues, cultivation, rotation environmental, farm management and planning.

The major distribution companies have invested heavily in near market research primarily geared on product efficacy and added value sales. AICC members have invested heavily in both near market research (product comparisons) and transitional research. The commercial KT is self funding as new products or ideas, in theory, have an added economic value which gives the grower an immediate return. This is not always the case for transitional research or environmental improvements. These messages are much harder to deliver and usual contain some negative economic effects for the grower at least in the short term. But this advice is often the most important and relating it to sales often dilutes or negates the overall message.


Monday, 29 September 2014

Thinking afresh about impact and how it's achieved

School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development Director of Research Jeremy Phillipson reflects on the constant requirement for "impact" - both from the research funders and from that person who wants to chat to you on the train.


We hear so much about “impact” from research now that it threatens to become part of the wallpaper for academics.  But there are occasional situations that really bring it home.  Many of my colleagues will, I’m sure, have faced that situation of sitting on a train when someone asks you what you do and you admit you’re a scientist at a research institution.  And you just know that this will lead to a series of tricky questions, which in all probability will include a rant about taxes paying for researchers and their value and relevance. Of course, we respond by pointing to impacts of research, and how we aim to achieve these by engaging with the people who can benefit.  Research has to justify itself but being put on the spot can be uncomfortable.  It’s true that we can tell the person on the train that things are changing. Success in getting a research grant increasingly depends on producing a convincing Pathways to Impact Plan, setting out how the research will engage industry, professionals, policy makers and others, and how they will benefit. But, like anything else that is prescribed by research funders it’s very easy to make producing those kinds of documents an automatic part of the process.  There’s a danger that writing the plan becomes an end in itself, rather than a means of achieving that all important “impact”.


So I have been trying to think anew about ways of achieving real impact in the past few days, prompted by a presentation I would be giving at a workshop in Peterborough.  The event was being organised by Landbridge, the knowledge exchange network that we have launched here in AFRD, and for this particular workshop we were working in association with the Agricultural Industries Confederation, the Association of Independent Crop Consultants and the Home Grown Cereals Authority.  Landbridge aims to bring together farm and land advisers – including veterinarians, agronomists and crop advisers, ecologists, land agents and many others – with researchers for mutually beneficial knowledge exchange. This is a particularly timely endeavor as the Government’s strategy for agricultural technologies and plans for new Centres for Agricultural Innovation rely heavily on translational research and require effective mechanisms for knowledge exchange.


But how do we achieve fruitful relationships?   When Philip Lowe and I were directing the Rural Economy and Land Use programme from here in Newcastle we didn’t start from the usual assumption that the researchers would do the science then feed it to the people who needed the results. We decided that we needed to take a step back from focusing on impact as an end product and look more closely at the process of research.  We also realised that scientists needed to draw much more on non-academic sources of expertise. There are many experts who are not scientists. And outside their own fields, scientists may be quite inexpert. However, we emphasise science as a mode of thinking and we pay much less attention to expertise: the skilful deployment of knowledge, skills, experience and other technical capabilities. But expertise is what underpins innovation and problem solving.  Relu was based on this philosophy of expertise exchange. A primary objective of the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme was: “to enhance the impact of research on rural policy and practice by involving stakeholders in all stages”. Stakeholders were involved in the overall design and governance of the programme, shaping its scientific direction and knowledge transfer strategy, and also in the formulation, assessment and conduct of its individual projects. Overall, more than 4000 stakeholders were involved across 90 projects. From this experience we distilled the following principles of expertise exchange.


The first principle is to engage stakeholders throughout as active partners in research, to help establish its focus, priorities, conduct and dissemination. We found that practical efforts of upstream engagement could lead to real benefits, in terms of the quality, relevance and take-up of research.


The second principle is that expertise exchange relies on an inclusive approach, whereby everyone who is interested in a problem should be engaged in its resolution – that includes public institutions, organised interests, industry, and others across the public, private and third sectors.


The third principle is that expertise exchange can occur at any time during the life of a research project, through varied mechanisms. This can include formalised knowledge transfer based upon intellectual property contracts, as well as soft knowledge exchange, including informal networks, and the transfer of warm bodies between research and practice.


The fourth principle is that expertise exchange must be reciprocal between researchers and stakeholders. Both must be open to new perspectives, otherwise the relationship can become rather one way. But critically the opening up of the research process to stakeholders recognises the contribution of their expertise in the focusing, conduct and application of research projects.  


Landbridge epitomises the learning that came out of the Relu programme.  Within research concerning land use and the rural economy, farm and advisers are key elements in this process of knowledge exchange.  Farmers and land managers rely on them for their expertise.  They don’t just include agronomists but also professions such as vets, land agents, ecologists, and many more.  Events like the one we hosted in Peterborough are the living embodiment of knowledge exchange and the principles outlined above.  But the event was also a reminder to me that as researchers that we have to consider afresh, with each new research application, how we can build knowledge exchange into the process and how enriching that process can be for the research and for achieving that elusive “impact”.


Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Addressing the ‘knowledge gap’

Dr Julie Ingram, Senior Research Fellow at the Countryside & Community Research Institute reflects on the landbridge workshop and her involvement in a European project which is attempting to synthesise and convert agricultural research outcomes into suitable formats for farmers, advisers and others in the supply chain.

I attended the Landbridge workshop Taking Stock of the Links between Research and the Land the British Academy on 1 May.
The context of the workshop was knowledge exchange between land professional and researcher. In particular it was looking at how to make communication between research and advisers more effective. One of the emerging themes at the workshop was the so-called ‘knowledge gap’ between researchers and advisers. This has been attributed to past changes in funding and policy, which were intended to make research more responsive to users’ needs, but have led to what some feel is an increasing disconnect between research and practice.
Participants at the Workshop thought that this gap is exacerbated by the large number of research providers (public and private) and their extensive research outputs which makes it difficult for advisers to find relevant information. The nature of the outputs was also considered to be problematic with scientific reports and peer reviewed publications often being too lengthy and written in complex scientific language. Commercial sensitivity, copyright issues and cost also prevented some advisers from accessing outputs.
A recently launched European funded project called VALERIE (VALorising European Research for Innovation in agriculturE and forestry) aims to address some of these issues. It is based on the rationale that many EU and nationally funded research projects in the fields of agriculture and forestry provide excellent scientific results but that outreach and translation of these results into farming and forestry practices is limited.  VALERIE over the course of the next four years  will:
          Review and summarise knowledge - from national, international and EU research projects and studies - for innovation in agriculture and forestry
          Convert research outcomes with innovation potential into suitable formats for end-users (farmers, advisers, and enterprises in the supply chain)
          Consult stakeholders in ten case studies to identify knowledge gaps, assess technical and economic viability of innovative solutions and to reveal barriers to uptake
          Develop a ‘smart’ search engine for agricultural and forestry knowledge and research outputs, for use by farmers, foresters, advisers and researchers. This ‘Communication Facility’ (“”) will not only make new knowledge accessible to the end-users, but will also enable them to share their knowledge, experience and views with peers across Europe. Continuity is ensured by embedding it in the European Innovation Partnership NF Platform
For more information:

(Re)Connecting science and professional practice

Sue Steer, land agent and Chair of RICS Countryside Policy Panel gives her thoughts on the recent landbridge workshop

My profession in general has not had strong links with the scientific research communities; apart from those surveyors employed in the old Ministry of Agriculture, who worked daily with scientists with access to an immense network of scientific knowledge.  This wealth of research information was largely gathered through the Experimental Husbandry Farms, which were strategically located nationwide to serve the different systems of agriculture. This network of knowledge, built up over many decades with the corresponding  means of dissemination  was swept away by the government in the interests of (short term) economy in the late 80s and 90s. There was a unanimous feeling of regret at the workshop that this system of coordinated  research, dissemination via the specialist land advisors to the farmers and land managers and back to the researchers (plus the opportunity to demonstrate results on the farms), had been so comprehensively dismantled. I read in Farmers Weekly this week that Defra are seeking to dramatically  increase the use  of private companies to undertake research ;  if this is correct it is likely to be detrimental to the research which does not have a direct financial return, (but should be carried out in the public interest).
An erudite Keynote Address by Professor Ian Crute , Chief Scientist, AHDB set the standard for the day, using examples of his own research he explained the challenges of establishing the direction of research with competing interests and tight funding. Many diverse interests can have common objectives and Ian considered that co-ordination of these common aims to help deal with the challenges and opportunities of managing land in a more sustainable way for the future was immensely important.  Jeremy Phillipson followed Ian with a useful summary of the Landbridge Project and the potential for rural professionals as key intermediaries.  The key is knowledge exchange which should be a two way approach with those working in the field feeding back to the researchers as well as vice versa. The question is how can this be done in a coordinated way as well as not just driven by the requirements for economic growth but in the interests of future well-being? This should be the role of government to consult widely and set research objectives and priorities even if it needs to enter into partnerships with private interests.
Two panels one of rural practioners and the other a specially selected group of researchers involved in the rural knowledge exchange field provided the workshop with a comprehensive overview of their personal experiences and in projects which they are involved. All the presentations were valuable and demonstrated the wide range of activities being undertaken and approaches to knowledge exchange.  I hesitate to single out one presentation however, in view of the focus on Scotland this year, I feel justified in mentioning Julie Fitzpatrick’s talk on the history and work of the Moredun Research Institute. It was established by a group of forward thinking farmers in 1920, to help find solutions to improve the health of livestock. Those involved with land management and farmers are still very much involved with the work and coordination with the scientists and pay an annual subscription. It struck me as an excellent model of knowledge exchange.

We must inspire and focus on skills

Jonathan Brunyee, National Trust tenant farmer, agri-environment consultant and farm business management lecturer at the Royal Agricultural University reflects on the Landbridge workshop held on 1st May.

What an exciting and worthwhile event.  But how do we turn all the activity and knowledge that gathered in the room into something meaningful for advisers and farmers on the ground?
Although I am now part of it, the world of academic research remains a dark and mysterious place. While I find it intriguing and inspiring, I also find it a somewhat daunting and competitive world.  It’s one that I feel is sometimes too disconnected and distant from day to day land management.
Our first challenge. Somehow we must, first of all, make research (the process and outputs) more accessible and useful to those of us, maybe the less traditionally academic and more practical people like me who are actually within our universities and colleges.
We, as lecturers, must disseminate and translate, and most importantly, inspire. This is an uphill battle If we don’t feel part of the research body or see its relevance.
Traditional academic research isn’t the only area of research we discussed. I have been involved with quite a few consultancy research projects on the ground over the years.  Projects that have looked at conservation grazing, biodiversity decline, rural enterprise, CAP reform etc.  These are often short and sharp pieces of action research work, with defined outputs and recommendations.   But how often do these pieces of work sit on shelves, and do not get used or shared? How often was the research a duplication of something that has been done before?  How often was the brief so poor that the client didn’t get what they needed?
And maybe this leads me to our second key challenge.  Working land professionals and clients must get better at identifying their research needs - the things that will really make a difference – the ‘so what’ question. We must recruit and manage the right research or consultancy team, and utilise and share the outcomes.
We must break down the barriers between researchers and clients. The co-creation and delivery of research can only result in better outputs and translation on the ground.
Our third challenge is probably the most important. For research to mean better practice, it must inform and lead to improved skills and training at the coal face.  And this depends on having training strategies, good/inspiring trainers on the ground, varied programmes (CPD, short courses, distance learning, group, one to one etc.) and a delivery budget. 
Most of us learn by doing and reflecting, not by reading journals or attending lectures.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Knowledge exchange: a two-way street

David Caffall, Chief Executive of the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) reflects on the role of the agri-supply industry in linking research and practice.    

The recent workshop, hosted by Landbridge on 1 May, brought together key components from within the knowledge exchange pipeline, ranging from experts involved in R&D and professional’s delivering advice at the coal-face to farmers across the country.

Whilst the focus of the discussions during the day centred on the role that the land professions could play in linking the laboratory and the farm, it is important that we don’t lose sight of a vital mechanism which already exists to effectively connect researchers with farmers and vice versa.

Over the years businesses across the agri-supply industry have made significant inroads by developing collaborative relationships with Research Councils, levy bodies, leading universities, veterinary schools and Centres of Excellence. They also invest over £45 million each year in their own near-market research (including field and animal feeding trials, laboratory studies and farm pilot studies), to explore the innovative potential from research conducted in the public sector. This ensures that the latest science is readily available to their extensive army of professional advisers for translation onto farms across the UK.

Just a year ago AIC published it’s Ring of Confidence model[1]  which demonstrates the trusted relationship that farmers have with their professional advisers such as agronomists/crop advisers, feed advisers, seed representatives and grain traders. This relationship means that advisers provide a feed-back loop back to the R&D community and shows how the channels of communication have been opened up so that knowledge exchange is very much a ‘two-way street’.

Engagement with the R&D base to drive the translation of science onto farms has to be a priority as knowledge transfer is simply only one half of the story. We need to draw on the experience of existing models that best effect a knowledge exchange with feed-back loops which aren’t closed and facilitate the exchange of knowledge from researcher to farmers and farmers to researchers.

[1] AIC (2013) Value of Advice Report

Closing the circle?

Agronomist Patrick Stephenson gives his thoughts on the links between research and practice following the landbridge workshop on May 1st.

Newcastle University via the Centre for Rural Economy hosted a landbridge workshop and discussion on the link between research and implementation. I was a panel member as a practising agronomist commenting my thoughts on how research findings are delivered to the farmer and grower to improve production systems and outputs. Other speakers included veterinary, environmental consultants and farmers. From an agronomic perspective research and innovation are practiced daily by farmers and growers around the country. The use of the most recently developed pesticides; precision farming and environmental land management by farmers and growers are all the outcome of research done previously by scientists. What are the issues if this is deemed not to be successful? Agriculture has been a recession hit industry for some 20 +years this has also coincided with the Governments withdrawal of money from work deemed to be “near market”  has meant that the downstream users of generated research have no attachment to the science . If we add to this the reverse analogy namely detachment of researchers from the end user, and the lack of opportunities for the free flow of information through the whole chain from scientist to advisor to practitioner to consumer and back, then progress will not be made. Science and research will remain trapped in a spiral of research justification and papers long lost in the archives under who cares? Can we do anything about this? In my opinion yes! The researcher has to be aware of the end user NOT the research funder but the target audience. Each project, thesis, and program should seek to have links in the relevant subjects for example:-
Issue of compaction on re-instated soils
This could have a soil scientist, an agricultural engineer, a utility company and an agronomist
Natural resistance to Saddle Gall Midge
This could have an entomologist a plant breeder, geneticist, and an affected grower.
I can feel researchers screaming at the screen reading this saying we do this already. Unfortunately, if you do then the end message is being woefully lost. Researchers must once more be in the spotlight not consigned to the backroom; to do this requires integration throughout the industry. Only then will we understand the science and research and be advocates of it. Science must be presented as accessible and important not a sound bite on the national news.
Organisations that could help facilitate this need pulling together, could landbridge be the answer? Possibly but it certainly could be a catalyst.
Was this meeting useful?  Yes.
Could something be done?  Yes
Will something evolve? Who knows?

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Making the Link – Research and Practice

Chloe Palmer, farm and environment adviser, reflects on the landbridge workshop ‘Taking stock of the links between research and the land professions’ and what this means out in the field

It has always been tough for farmers and advisers to find time in their increasingly hectic schedules to keep themselves updated on research findings. 
So the event at the British Academy on 1st May organised by Newcastle University’s Landbridge Network was a welcome opportunity for me to hear and discuss how links could be improved between research and practice to make it easier for those on the front line to influence and gain access to land-based research.

Practitioner panel discussion featuring Tony Pexton (2nd left)
and James Husband (1st right)

Tony Pexton OBE summed up the challenge ahead by referring to his son Will and the needs of their family farming business in East Yorkshire. He can see how climate change, rising costs and declining resource availability will mean the future farmer’s job is a difficult one. Research will always have to be one step ahead to provide the answers, but then those findings must also be made available in an easily accessible format to those who need them most.
I was recently lucky enough to interview a family at a state of the art dairy unit in Nottinghamshire. The unit is managed by the two sons and daughter in their twenties and this team of forward thinking, highly intelligent and committed farmers are driven by the desire to continually improve the performance of their dairy herd.
Not content with relying on the extensive experience of their family and neighbours, the Bacon family work closely with their own vets and the veterinary team at the University of Nottingham. This allows them access to the latest findings to help them tackle mastitis and to improve their management of dry cows and fertility.
They also have an excellent relationship with their dairy consultant who considers how nutrition, housing and the management of groups of cows might help to increase yield.
James Husband, a Dairy Consultant speaking at the Landbridge event in London referred to the challenges facing dairy farmers but also recognised the role of the much belied supermarkets. Mr Husband pointed out the supermarkets are a key driver of higher standards in many aspects of dairy production and they are also promoting the flow of information between researchers and practitioners.
This view was confirmed by the Bacons who are delighted that as a member of the Sainsbury’s Sustainable Dairy Group, they are supported by their buyer to strive for continual improvement in all aspects of cow welfare and environmental efficiency.
The discussions at the British Academy are hopefully just the start of an exciting initiative which will see better links between universities, research establishments, advisers and their representative bodies and of course, farmers. Better communication between these groups is imperative if the industry is to continue to benefit from the best and most relevant research findings which will be so pivotal to the future of food production in the UK.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Taking stock of the links between research and the land professions

Fiona Mannix, Associate Director Land Group at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors gives her reflections on the latest landbridge workshop which aimed to identify how knowledge exchange might be improved between research providers and the land professions

On 1 May I had the pleasure of attending a Landbridge workshop at the British Academy. Landbridge, who we are keenly involved with, is a knowledge exchange network for researchers and rural professionals who advise farming and land businesses. The workshop was titled Taking Stock of the Links between Research and the Land Professions.
Landbridge believes that improving land management is imperative to such objectives as food security, sustainable development and the management of environmental change, and land professionals are vital to this process. In recent years the land professions themselves have recognised both the need to update their own knowledge and skills through programmes of continuing professional development, and the demand from land managers for more specialised advice. At the same time, research funders have begun investing in major research programmes into land use challenges. But a gap still exists between research and practice and we lack effective models for knowledge transfer and exchange.

The government’s Agricultural Technologies Strategy  notes that the UK has strengths in research vital to agriculture and related technologies and innovative and dynamic farmers. What are less clear are the priorities for the advice and service networks that support agriculture and what role the land professions could play in linking ‘the laboratory and the farm’.  Shortcomings can range from how land professionals are able to engage with research (be it public or private; basic, applied or strategic) or find out about research findings, to how the professions are placed in relation to research decision making and agenda setting. Knowledge exchange between the professions and researchers needs to be improved so that land professionals are better sensitised to the latest research, while research has to be more responsive to the contemporary challenges of land management and professional practice.

The workshop was chaired by Sue Steer, Chair of the RICS Countryside Polices Panel and a member of the Landbridge advisory panel. The day opened with a number of presentations on a range of topics and some personal views of the issues involved in linking research into practice from a range of people including agronomists, vets, farmers, environmental and agricultural consultants were expressed. Lunch was followed by more presentations which explored different models, strategies and contexts of linking research and professional practice. These were followed by a practical exercise which involved six tables with facilitators, of which I was one.

The overall aim of the workshop was to identify how knowledge exchange might be improved between research providers and the land professions and the key questions addressed by the tables included:

How are research agendas responding to the needs of the land professions?
What knowledge exchange approaches and mechanisms have been adopted and how could they be improved?
How can agriculture and land advisory professions expertise better inform public and private research priorities and programmes?
Participants at the six tables were tasked with discussing a number of specifics. At my table we were tasked with ultimately highlighting the top five constraints currently preventing professions’ expertise from informing public and private research priorities and programmes and the top five priorities for action which will allow better links and communication so that expertise from professions and industry can inform research priorities and programmes. Personally this was a very worthwhile exercise with some very solid suggestions coming through for future actions.
All who attended felt it was a valuable and much needed event with some key issues raised and, most importantly of all, some strong solutions mooted and action points developed by all tables that can be followed up on going forward in order to ensure that research and professional practice are as closely linked as possible. All feedback is currently being collated by Landbridge and will be disseminated via RICS Rural Practice Update in due course.
RICS Rural Professional Group and Countryside Policies Panel look forward to continued engagement and involvement with Landbridge. Landbridge is administered by the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University. RICS Land Journal regulatory features research findings from the Rural Economy and Land Use programme based at the centre.

This blog is reprinted from a comment piece posted on the RICS website on 7th May 2014:

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Linking the laboratory and the farm

Professor Dianna Bowles, Chair of the Advisory Group of the new Farmer Scientist Network of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society (YAS), summarises the context of the Network and how it will work to benefit farmers and the rural environment.

The YAS has a track record of innovative strategies to support British farming and funds a substantial grant and education portfolio. With its large national membership, networks and reputation for supporting excellence in agriculture, the Society is ideally placed to provide a gateway of information flow between the farming community and the research community of scientists and technologists.
The latest initiative is the setting up of the Farmer-Scientist Network – and a new opportunity for farmers and scientists to talk with one another. There are many new technologies and scientific breakthroughs to benefit agriculture, whether the livestock or arable sectors. Through meeting and discussions, emerging problems facing farmers can be raised, solutions suggested and opportunities for innovation identified.
The new Network has an Advisory Group of farmers and scientists to steer its activities. These have proven track records of expertise and success that they can bring to the discussions, as well as extensive and broad ranging contacts in their own sectors of activity throughout the UK and beyond.
As opportunities for actions and problems needing solutions become identified, an Advisory Group member in the relevant sector will assemble a specialised team of relevant expertise to address the issues. The team could involve business expertise, technologists, researchers or any specialists needed to benefit the discussions, design a creative way forward and go out to gain funding to make change happen.
We look forward to working closely with the science and farming communities and helping to ensure sustainable productivity for agriculture in the years to come.
For further information on the network see

Monday, 17 February 2014

Systemic solutions at the landscape-water interface: don’t be put off by the title!

Kate Russell of the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers explores the role advisers can play in supporting the management of land and water following the recent landbridge-sponsored workshop ‘Systemic solutions at the landscape-water interface’

Despite the unlikely venue, and a title that might have seemed off-putting to some, a day at Bristol Aquarium discussing ways to secure value from non-market “ecosystem services” proved to be time well spent.

There is a great deal of policy interest in finding ways to incentivise farmers and land managers to deliver goods or services, such as peat restoration or improved water quality, which are not typically paid for by traditional markets. With competing demands on a smaller rural development budget, policy makers hope that others – such as water companies – will step into the breach and offer new funding streams.  However, despite the focus on need driving the debate, less thought has perhaps been given to how those services will finally be secured – what would make it attractive for a landholder (with the many issues that bear on him) to sell the use of his land in such ways?

The opportunities may be most obvious where there is a clear cost saving for the private sector and examples offered to delegates included the use of integrated constructed wetlands as an alternative to traditional (and costly) water treatment works and the use of agronomists employed by a water company to advise farmers on specific actions to reduce nitrate or metaldehyde pollution in target catchments, so removing pollution at source. The lesson here was that where there is a “buyer” with an identified need, it can be possible to incentivise “sellers” to meet that need.

We at the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers can see the prospect for commercial deals to be done in the market place where there is sufficient common ground between the parties, with the need for professional advice on their options. A commercial deal would be a more practical and sustainable long term solution than relying on funding through schemes such as the (now effectively closed) Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, which is being used to fund some of the examples quoted to delegates. Those schemes are time limited (HLS has been long at 10 years) yet the agreements needed here may run for much longer.  Moreover, the funds do not come directly from the “buyer” – what does that say about the buyer’s commitment? Changes to land management which deliver hydrological benefits can have very long term implications for land use and so are better dealt with by a longer term agreement with the buyer paying directly for the services provided to them.

Our day at Bristol Aquarium could not hope to provide all the answers to these and other important questions – such as “how do you value a healthy water catchment?” – but it was useful in bringing together, in stimulating debate, academics and policy makers with those who are involved in advising farmers and land managers. I hope to be part of the continuing conversation on this topic so that we can try to develop practical win-win solutions, husbanding and harvesting the environment to benefit farmers, the wider community and the future.

Kate Russell
Central Association of Agricultural Valuers