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.