This week, Cereals 2020 is running online, and it is no surprise that the session I was first drawn to was the DIT Innovation and Tech Theatre: farmer-led innovations (look to the bottom in the Pre-Recorded Sessions section). Chaired by Mike Donovan (of Practical Farm Ideas magazine), there were three examples of farmer-led research activities (Innovative Farmers, ADAS's Agronomics, YEN and Farmer Innovation Groups, and Rothamsted's FarmINN programme). These were followed by a talk from Defra on how the future of R&D funding may look. The speakers described just how valuable it is having farmers front and centre in research, and crucially, it seems Defra are firmly in agreement.
Since field labs started in 2012, our aim has been to showcase how farmer-led research can motivate more sustainable farming practices and facilitate better integration of research and implementation. In early 2018 after an episode of Countryfile highlighted the UK's agricultural R&D, we wrote a piece detailing what the problems were and calling for funding to shift and be more collaborative and farmer-centric.
Field labs were gaining recognition. The Health and Harmony consultation in 2018 mentioned "putting farmers in the driving seat" of research (long standing field lab members will no doubt recognise this phrase from way back!), and the recent publication of Defra's policy progress update (February 2020) described how the intention was for more direct funding for "practical farm-focused projects" and more collaborative R&D. This was starting to sound promising, but still very much in planning, and by no means certain. February seems a long time ago now, so I have been concerned that this interesting development in Defra may have slipped from the agenda.
Defra's Innovation R&D Plans
Ben Rayner from Defra started out his Cereals session talk describing how agriculture performs 3 times less efficiently than when compared to other UK sectors such as manufacturing, energy and water, when looking at Gross Value Added, and that UK agricultural productivity has not kept pace with our main oversees competitors (US, Netherlands and Italy). Defra is looking to invest their way out of this problem. Ben said:
"Government have recognised that...by investing in R&D which encourages innovation that not only encourages increases in productivity but also delivers public good benefits we can make a real impact and improve these figures…Long term investment in agricultural R&D is the best driver for productivity". He said they are “making sure farmers are at the centre of what we do”.
This is positive to hear. But how much of this will be agricultural R&D that farmers can easily plug into?
Encouragingly, it sounds like the agenda hasn't slipped. I finished watching the panel feeling quite positive that there is real momentum for a central support system for on-farm research, as Ben laid out Defra's plans for R&D from 2022 through three funding strands:
- Strand 1 looks to be supporting short term, small scale farmer-led projects, not too dissimilar to field labs. They will be limited in scope, and it is not yet clear if groups of farmers can work together on a problem like they do in field labs, but the funding sounds to be quite targeted and flexible to the needs of the farm.
- Strand 2 are for longer term and larger scale projects, probably linking large agribusinesses together with researchers, investigating current problems. It sounds collaborative but definitely a step removed from farmer-led research.
- Strand 3 will be for more strategic, transformational or incremental research looking ahead to solutions affecting us in 10 to 30 years time. Defra promise this will still be collaborative.
Making sure farmers interests are at the heart of innovation projects
Whilst this is a shift in the right direction toward farmer-centred research, there are still issues to consider. Could an interesting topic researched in Strand 1 grow and move into Strand 2? The concern of 'double funding' with public money may make this impossible. But would this work for farmers and could it stymie impact? We have found that Innovative Farmers has been a useful support, a safety net, for those projects whose funding has finished but momentum amongst the farmers has gathered and they want to continue. In fact, Daniel Kindred gave an example of this in his talk in the session - their European funding for ADAS's Farmer Innovation Groups has finished and a group are continuing to work together in a field lab. The timelines of funding often don't align with the timelines farmers work in - the research just gets promising, you've given a lot of your time, and then *slam* the funding door is shut. I've had conversations with farmers and businesses who are put off engaging in projects for this very reason. We need to be sure that the practical reality of researching on-farm is catered for.
A confusion I always find myself in is where UKRI (the research councils and InnovateUK) and Defra's funding objectives overlap - strand 3 as described feels somewhat in the former's territory. Can the two work together? I expect Defra will need to be diligent in ensuring strand 3 funding is still highly applicable and meaningful to the farming community.
Keeping the conversation going
In the Q&A discussion, the session panellists talked about who farmers listen to and learn from. Getting the right channels to farmers is important but, fundamentally, this funding should be about giving the space, time and support to do, not just listen to, research. Real change, deep learning, long term adaptation, and increases in sustainability are best generated when you do something yourself in your own fields and animals. We've come a long way and the landscape of farmer-centric work has improved considerably in 8 years, as this session has demonstrated.
Mike finished the session by asking if we all talked to each other as farmer-facing initiatives, which we do and collaborate frequently. Likewise, the Innovative Farmers team, and many other organisations involved in farmer knowledge exchange and applied research have been talking to Defra for some time to advocate for R&D plans where farmers are front and centre. It feels like we are nearly there but we must not be complacent and need to be sure this funding from 2022 really does what it says on the tin for the farming community, and for the public good.