Farmer-led research crucial to sustainable farming

A decade of field trials has shown that farmer-led research could improve the health of thousands of animals, eliminate tonnes of harmful chemicals, and save the farming industry millions of pounds.

Now in its 10th year, the Innovative Farmers network is celebrating the success of more than 120 field labs that have placed farmers in the driving seat of agricultural research, with the network connected with around 12,000 UK farmers.

From the outset, the network has enabled farmers to investigate solutions to their own challenges, on their own farms. It also provides open access to trial designs and findings through its website, newsletters, and social media channels, so that other farmers benefit from the research in the UK and further afield.  Run by the Soil Association, Innovative Farmers is part of the Duchy Future Farming Programme, funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund through the sales of Waitrose Duchy Organic products.

Results from the last 10 years has shown that putting farmers at the centre of scientific trials like this bolsters research into sustainability and sparks positive change on farms, with the model garnering interest globally.

Helen Browning, Soil Association Chief Executive, said: “In a decade we have catapulted the notion of farmer-led innovation into the mainstream in the UK. The model has been a real game-changer in showcasing how farm trials can lead the way in tackling important issues. It has created a true community that would not have been possible without the creativity, determination and collaborative spirit of the hundreds of farmers and researchers who have dedicated their time and resources to explore new ideas.

“With half of surveyed farmers saying they made changes to their farming practices because of field labs, and the majority saying they had learned something new, we know that farmer-led research is crucial to sustainable farming."

“Farmers know their land and the complexities of the challenges they face better than anyone, so it’s essential that research is designed with them, so that the results are meaningful and easily shared with other farmers."

“Farming is facing mounting pressures as the climate, nature and health crises demand more from farmers and land managers. We must find solutions today to some of the greatest problems facing agriculture. Innovative Farmers has had great success so far – now we need more government investment for farmer-led research on a larger scale, to help us speed up the adoption of innovative, sustainable practices.”

To mark the 10th anniversary, the Soil Association has calculated the benefits that could be delivered if some key field labs were scaled up to more farms across the country:

  • A trial that launched last year is testing the benefits of silvopasture - a practice of combining trees with livestock. While this trial is still in its early stages, data collected in the Soil Association’s Agroforestry Handbook suggests that trees can help to reduce disease in sheep and cattle, as well as reducing lamb mortality and boosting availability of grass forage. If more farmers trialled this practice and it was then rolled out across just 10% of British sheep and cattle farms, the lives of up to 46,000 lambs could be saved per year and feed cost savings of £8million could be made across the UK.

    • The farmers investigating intercropping, the practice of growing two crops alongside each other, found the method was able to reduce weeds by 74%, while increasing yields by up to 30%. This suggests that if conventional farmers grew beans alongside cereals, the need for weedkillers and artificial fertilisers could be significantly reduced. If just 10% of the cropped areas across the UK adopted this method, it could eliminate the need for up to nearly quarter of a million kilos of herbicide. It could also deliver UK-wide savings of up to £30million in artificial fertiliser each year, which in turn could result in a reduction of 300,000 tonnes carbon dioxide emissions associated with fertiliser use. 

Mark Lea, Green Acres Farm, took part in the intercropping field lab, and is now working with Innovative Farmers to trial growing a permanent living mulch as an understory for his crops. He said: “Having researchers to come and measure has been a game changer. Before being involved in field labs I wouldn’t have really measured anything. I would have just looked at the crop and I’d be going on gut feeling. Now we’re working with a lot more precision, and this helps us develop our understanding and also allows us to share that understanding with other farmers.”

Dr Belinda Clarke, Director, Agri-TechE, has worked with Innovative Farmers from the researcher side on several field labs, including one assessing how best to use anaerobic digestate as an alternative to nitrogen fertiliser and is a member of the steering group.

She champions the importance of farmers for scientific research, saying: “Before Innovative Farmers there just wasn’t as much opportunity for the proactive engagement of farmers in research projects that I think is necessary. Over the last decade I have seen time and time again the benefit of researchers talking to end users to get a steer about where their research should be going. Farmers are natural innovators and Innovative Farmers has shown in spades how modest amounts of money are really having a catalytic effect when it comes to changing UK agriculture for the better.”

Any farmer interested in improving the sustainability of their farm can get involved with Innovative Farmers field labs and ideas for field labs are welcome from farmers, researchers or organisations working with and supporting farmers.

Sign up to Innovative Farmers and receive a monthly newsletter with opportunities to get involved in the farmer-led research network. 


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