The Royal Agricultural Society of England has endured a turbulent time since the closure of the Royal Show in 2009. Its chief executive David Gardner tells Philip Case about his plans to get the charity back on track
The RASE has had a difficult few years with the demise of the Royal Show, financial constraints and significant changes in leadership. How is it perceived now?
Among the farming community there is still a huge amount of goodwill for the RASE. People feel very warm about us, but they are not quite sure what we do and what we stand for. The RASE has had quite a difficult decade. We became best known for staging the Royal Show, which we carried on running until 2009 when we couldn’t afford to carry on. Since then, we have decided to take the RASE back to its roots.
What are your ambitions and vision for the RASE?
I want to take the RASE back to centre stage in terms of UK agriculture, helping to co-ordinate the world of agricultural innovation through to adoption out on the farm. This will involve working in collaboration with others and looking for opportunities to run joint events to take new technology out to the industry.
I want to put in place a knowledge transfer initiative on behalf of the industry. We are positioning the RASE at the front end of the technology adoption curve and picking up niche subjects so that we are not just replicating what others are doing.
What specific work are you engaged in right now?
We are working on precision livestock farming, including the use of sensors and information and communications technology to collect information about individual animals and the herd or flock as a whole, mapping from space and unmanned aerial vehicles, anaerobic digestion and soil organic matter. We are also developing a new technical-based website, which will include a news feed of new technology coming out of the agricultural research centres.
My background is in farm management. I am a farmer and I talk a farmer's language
What specific skills and experience do you bring to the table?
My background is in farm management. I worked at Co-Operative Farms for many years. I worked in the combinables, dairy and fruit sector, so I have a fairly broad knowledge of agriculture. Three years ago, I completed a Nuffield scholarship looking at transformational technologies, including genomics, functional foods, non-food use of agricultural products, mechanisation and robotics. But I think the RASE was mainly interested in me because I am a farmer and I talk a farmer’s language.
What will we see that’s different about the RASE under your leadership?
I hope farmers will see the RASE is listening. We are very enthusiastic about working collaboratively. Our new technical-based website is due this spring. We will be running a number of farm-to-farm visits and seminars around the country to roll out technical work and research we have done.
GARDNER IN A MINUTE
- What was the last book you read? The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – fantastic, couldn’t put it down
- Which is your favourite sports team? Leicester City FC
- What’s your favourite holiday destination? The coastline, mountains and deserts of the south-west United States
- Where and when was the last time you got drunk? Really drunk. Many years ago at a Christmas party
- Tell us something about you that would surprise people? On holiday I would rather camp out in the wilderness than stay in a seven star downtown hotel
- Are you by nature a pessimist or an optimist? An optimist
- If your life had a theme song, what would it be? Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
- If you weren’t involved in agriculture, what would you be doing? I’ve never considered doing anything else but I like photography
What do you see as the big challenges facing UK agriculture?
We have got to rise to the challenge of producing more while reducing the negative impact on the environment. We also need to increase the extent to which we enhance the environment. These three challenges will be driven by technology, especially precision technologies that deliver the concept of producing more for less.
They have the potential to reduce the amount of inputs we use in terms of seed, fertilisers and chemicals. Precision livestock technology will reduce antibiotic use, for example. I think we will slowly see genomics have an impact on our ability to produce more, either with or without GM.
The Royal Show fell apart in 2009 after 170 years. Does English agriculture merit a national royal agriculture show, considering the Scots, Welsh and Irish all have one?
It was very sad that the Royal Show closed. Certain aspects of the show have not been fully replaced by others, but a large part of its technical remit has been picked up by the specialist events. The rise of other specialist events reflected what was going on demographically in agriculture through the 1980s and 1990s, with farms becoming bigger and more specialised. We have no plans to reintroduce a general show like the Royal Show, but we are always looking for opportunities for specialist technical events.
Now the Royal Show is no longer on offer, is there any point in being a RASE member?
Membership numbers have been declining since the closure of the Royal Show. They are fairly static at the moment and we would hope to see an increase over the next 12 months. My role is to build a compelling membership offer. We are launching an individual membership offer this year, which will be based around access to the work we are doing and various events we are holding around the country.
Currently, individual membership is £30. We are not planning to change that. Our corporate membership offer will be between £50-200 per company, based on head count. My aspiration is to sign up every corporate business that supplies new products and services into UK agriculture. Membership will include access to specialist solicitors and accountants, a patent attorney and a tax credit specialist for innovation on favourable terms.
Celebrity chef John Torode resigned as president of the RASE in February 2009. Do you need a celebrity to lift the profile of the organisation now?
I am proud to reveal that Sir John Beddington, currently the government’s chief scientist, is our new president. He formally started on 1 January but will not really take up the role until he finishes with government in March/April.
While he is perhaps not a celebrity in terms of Brian May or Jamie Oliver, I do think he is a very significant and charismatic figure in terms of agriculture and agricultural research. His Foresight report was a seismic moment for UK agriculture, a real game-changing moment for the whole sector. I hope he will help raise our profile and move the RASE forward.
What do you think the spending priorities should be for agricultural R&D?
We need to rebuild the ability to take basic research into applied research and then eventually through to knowledge transfer. We need to rebuild the base of some of the skills that will do that. I think it’s a great time for school leavers to get into biotechnology and similar disciplines associated with agri-science.
There is so much we don’t know about soil biology. There is a huge amount of work to be done in terms of how soil biology and chemistry, and the physical nature of soils all interrelate.
How should farmers handle our soils in terms of crop rotations, and returning crop residues to the soil, adding composts, digestates and green manures? How do we handle those soils in terms of making them as productive as possible and also protecting the environment in terms of soil erosion and the loss of soil particles?
If we are going to achieve the necessary yield increases that the Foresight report set out, we will need a technology revolution on the scale of what happened in 1945-60 in this country. Do we have the knowledge transfer and extension services to replicate it?
No. I think extension in this country is weak. It is strong in places; the UK’s agronomists do an excellent job. We are very well served with advice on what to spray on a particular crop. We are also well served with dairy cow nutrition, for example. But in other areas we are very weak.
If a farmer wanted to put up a new grain store, where would he go for an independent view of whether he should be putting in a continuous flow drier or an on-floor store? There are a whole host of subjects that are not presently covered by knowledge transfer resource in the UK. The RASE is working with others to develop that capability.
More on this topic
Read our interview with DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson
Philip Case on G+