- New RISS lead Colleen McCulloch has been part of the farmer-led innovation 'scene' since 2013
- She ran Soil Association Scotland Field Labs while researching sheep in Mongolia
- Colleen says RISS is a bridge between policy and people on the ground
- She says the key to RISS facilitation is forming a group that feels like a group
- She's looking forward to more RISS groups forming, progressing and scaling up
It’s appropriate that Colleen McCulloch has ended up as head of the Rural Innovation Support Service, as she has been supporting farmers in innovation since 2013. She joined Soil Association Scotland to run Field Labs, back then a fairly new concept.
The start of the farmer-led innovation ‘scene’
Field Labs bring researchers together with groups of farmers who have something they want to test on-farm, and RISS partner Innovative Farmers now run a whole network of them. “Back then was the start of the innovation ‘scene’,” she says, “of the farming industry starting to think about more participatory approaches.”
For two years she ran Field Labs looking at controlling rushes without chemicals, or green manures, or controlling leatherjackets. But whenever she could, she’d take off to her parallel life in Mongolia. “I’d gone to Mongolia as a volunteer researcher in 2009 to collect data on wild sheep, and I fell in love with it. The people, the nature, the wild, open landscapes.”
“I can take a goat from bleat to plate in a couple of hours”
From a farming family, Colleen had studied agriculture at SAC then worked on farms whilst training in ecology, gaining a Masters in 2010. In 2015, she tried to leave Soil Association Scotland to move to Mongolia properly and complete her PhD. “I probably lived in a yurt (called a ger in Monglian) for a year and a half altogether. I learned all the traditional cooking, and I can take a goat from bleat to plate in a couple of hours. But mainly I was researching grazing relationships between native/wild and domestic sheep species.”
Picture: Colleen and her ger
But then, in a tale as old as time, she returned to Edinburgh one winter and fell in love. The yurt became less appealing, and in spring 2016 she returned to Soil Association Scotland once more, before leaving to have her son Magnus in September 2017. By the time she was looking to return to work, in June 2018, Soil Association Scotland was looking for a RISS facilitator.
Farmers are natural problem solvers
“I was keen that the Soil Association did more farmer-led work,” she says. “Farmers are the ones on the ground who know how policy works in practice. Someone at the top level doesn’t always know what the practical issues are for farmers trying to produce food sustainably, and farmers are natural problem solvers - it’s how they work.
“RISS seemed a good mechanism for linking big policy ideas about reducing carbon footprints, or increasing biodiversity, with the people on the ground who would implement them.”
She set off facilitating three RISS groups – cow with calf, the veg pilot group and Ayrshire rural skills. “I could see that the strength of RISS was in facilitating – letting groups of farmers come up with ideas, rather than advising them.
“They have so much knowledge already, it’s about using their existing expertise and bringing in more where necessary. I learned so much at every session.
Picture: Digging a soil pit whilst pregnant
"The challenge is really to rein in the scope. There are so many great ideas, but you can't do them all. And also that farmers are really busy - it can be hard to get them together."
The key to good facilitation is forming a proper group
The key to good RISS facilitation, she says, is to get the group to feel like a group from the start. “It’s important that they feel like they’re working together. I spent time letting them get to know each other, on a farm visit for example, so they could chat about the farm. We talked about people’s motivations for being in the group, so we could co-create a common purpose.
“I’ve had lots of feedback that they got a lot out of their group work, but almost as much from the social, networking element, finding out about each others’ farms. Some side collaborations sprang up out of that.”
Colleen became Soil Association Scotland’s Head of Farming Programmes in Autumn 2019, and RISS lead in March 2020, taking over from Soil Association Scotland’s by then deputy director David Michie.
She reflects: “I’m most proud of the fact that the cow with calf and rural skills groups have gone on to the next stage and are still working together. They wouldn’t have got to that next stage without RISS. I’m really looking forward to seeing their ideas, and those of the other groups, progressing and scaling up.
“Going forward I hope that RISS gets the recognition and continuing support it deserves, so that it can continue to help Scottish rural businesses innovate, collaborate and thrive, on our journey to a greener and more resilient Scotland.”