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.

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