Five reasons to invest in farmer-led research

Since its inception in 2012, Innovative Farmers has developed a proven model for engaging farmers and researchers to collaborate and co-design on-farm trials - farmer-led research has come out from the fringe and is now a growing discipline within industry and academic networks. Still the only programme in the UK pioneering and facilitating a culture of innovation and research amongst farmers, our approach recognises farmers as developers and primary beneficiaries of agricultural research, and no longer solely confined to being expected purchasers of market led R&D investments.

Here are five reasons we believe on-farm innovation, as pioneered by Innovative Farmers, is vital for the future of the UK’s agricultural economy.

1) The ecological challenge ahead

There is an overwhelming consensus that we face urgent converging climate, nature and health crises. The role that our farming, land use and food systems play in tackling these is vital, with farmers’ decision making, skills and resources at the forefront. Good news! Farmers are up to the challenge and have a uniquely detailed and holistic knowledge of the natural environments they manage. Supporting innovative practices developed from the ground up by farmers and land managers makes it more likely that these practices will be adapted to their specific conditions and in harmony with their environment. This increases the inclination and opportunities for farmers to engage, adapt and innovate towards working with nature and delivering positive outcomes for human health and the natural environment.

2) Food security and recent unprecedented disruption to our food systems

The UK’s farming community is enduring a period of significant uncertainty. The Covid-19 pandemic has put our complex relationship with nature even more in the spotlight, highlighting the impact of degrading ecosystems and the fragility of our supply chains. At the same time key aspects of the post-Brexit policy agenda remain unresolved as the UK departs the European Union risking lower farm business profitability and increased threats from imports. As we face climate and market turbulence and uncertainty, farmers’ capacity and skills to innovate are more important than ever to their survival and success. This is just as true for the resilience of the UK’s food systems which ensure our country’s access to healthy, sustainable and nutritious food.

3) Farmers are still regarded as consumers, not collaborators, of research

Farmers are largely excluded from mainstream research yet are the end users and implementers; paradoxically, farmers have a strong tendency to innovate. In a recent Innovative Farmers’ survey 71% of farmers who responded said they have run experiments on their land before joining the programme. Their innovative ideas, their experimental intuition, and their drive and determination to improve still fails to be fully harnessed within the current research and trial development system. This is demonstrated by the fact that two out of five (40.1%) of the farmers who answered our survey said their tests (outside of Innovative Farmers) lacked a formal experimental design.

Without a replicable structure, outcomes are less trustworthy, more difficult to share and replicate, and uptake is less likely. In addition, the financial risks for farmers in trialling new innovations and technologies on their own is often disproportionately high. The result is that what farmers learn through their experiments stays on the farm. If farmers help drive the direction of research, with more co-design and funding at the start, it is much more likely that effective and relevant innovations will be derived, creating real change on the ground, and at a faster pace. As one farmer in the survey put it; “Farmers are more likely to believe and trust other farmers, especially if the methodology used has been supported by professional researchers”.

4) Not enough funding available for sustainable approaches and competition

Farmers have extremely limited access to funding for practical research that matters to them. Commercial trials focus on products and inputs further designating farmers as consumers. Research focusing on systems-level solutions, and not products or specific technologies, is underfunded and undervalued, ignoring much needed research into more climate friendly farming techniques at the whole farm scale. Public investment in agricultural research is currently not aligned with the principle of ‘public money for public goods’ and its governance largely excludes farmer and citizen participation. The UK spends around £350m a year on agricultural research and innovation, but an estimated <1% goes to practical projects led by farmers. Transformational change in farming will require a shift in investment towards innovative solutions for sustainable systems. Putting 3% of the £350m UK agricultural research and innovation budget towards these projects could help support upwards of 400 projects involving, and led by, 10,000 farmers a year.

5) Lack of accessible data and relevant research leading to poor take up of findings on farms

The current pace of change is too slow to tackle the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. Conventional research timeframes delay the adoption of new practices and often fail to be translated into farmer focused, practical guidance and technical advice. Therefore, farmers are lacking evidence and practical advice on how to implement climate and nature friendly farming practices. Our analysis shows that farmers who are involved with Innovative Farmers are likely to make changes to their farming practices. Almost half of farmers said they made changes to their farming practices because of field labs, and over a quarter more are thinking about them. Through our website and KE dissemination programme we have been able to share real time the experience of our triallists so other farmers can learn along with the field labs.

Towards a farmer-led future

Farmers are in an exceptional position to develop and implement practices that would help us address the climate emergency we face. They understand and want to address these global challenges but need help in doing so and evidence to support decision making and change on farm. Expert opinion is not always enough to give them the confidence to act and invest in new ways of doing things that could deliver this necessary change. As one of our survey participants expressed “farmers have so much to offer the industry when they have a means of conveying their ideas and knowledge”.

Innovative Farmers provides a unique opportunity for farmers to develop and share ideas and innovations that, when shared with a wider network of peers, and working together in a practical way with researchers, would support delivering far more effective and lasting change. By leveraging the support of Innovative Farmers, farmers can help others “open the eyes and minds to let people know that British farming is leading the way to a more sustainable way, and understanding… the way we -farmers- live our life”.

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