28 April 1995

Whats in it for members?

ARC aims to lead data field

Local trials operator or leading supplier of information to arable farmers? ARCs position in the industry is changing, as Charles Abel reports

&#8226 Still expanding. Aims to be top arable info provider.

&#8226 16 trials sites, four regions.

&#8226 1300 members, representing 10% of UK arable area.

&#8226 Charity status means total reinvestment in service.

&#8226 24,000 agronomy trials a year.

&#8226 Variety work now accounts for just 10% of all trials.

&#8226 Input comparisons, systems trials and agronomic advice key areas of development.

OVER 10% of the UK arable area is now farmed by members of Arable Research Centres. And in some counties almost two-thirds of the farms with over 100ha (240 acres) of cereals are members.

That makes ARC a national force in farm advice. "We are surprised to find people are now saying we are the leading information source to consult on arable data, not ADAS," comments director Mike Carver.

The organisation now boasts 1300 members, served by 16 local trials sites. And it continues to grow. "This year since October our membership has increased 5.5%. It is staggering."

ADAS changing to a paid-for service has helped, he admits. "We thought it would take about two years for farmers to realise information was drying up. Now we are seeing a growing realisation of its value."

But two key factors have won ARC its dominant position. First is its network of trials sites. Geared to the needs of local growers they also provide feedback to ensure ARC work is practically relevant.

Equally important is ARCs charity status. As a provider of an agricultural education service it pays no tax and is free to reinvest profits without having to make returns to shareholders.

There are downsides though – an inability to borrow from banks, raise venture capital or claim grants. "But on balance the status is beneficial to the company, its members and thus the industry."

Subscriptions make up a large part of ARCs annual budget, supplemented by contract work and central research funding. For several years ARC has had HGCA funding for joint projects with other institutes. But last autumn saw a big HGCA grant awarded to ARC for minimum-pass husbandry trials, the largest res- earch grant it has so far received. Central to ARC work is flexibility. Each centre decides its own trials programme, through a farmer-based technical committee. That means ideas get translated into trial plots quickly, comments Dr Carver.

For example, the Hampshire trials site is evaluating 14 approaches to establishing winter barley this year.

"If there is a new theme it is integrated crop management – integrating inputs and techniques to boost profitability as well as benefit the environment," he adds.

A new ARC service is training. Requests prompted it to run courses on topics such as physiology, malting barley and cropping sequences for trade and farmers alike. "We have put 400 people through courses. It helps our finances a lot."

With sights set on expansion into the north, ARC is close to national coverage. "This was the concept from the start, to reinvest and get a national position. It is tremendously dangerous recommending national advice from a regional base," concludes Dr Carver. &#42

So what do members get? "Access to the largest independent source of data in the country, in an interpretable form, with the back-up of ARC interpretation if needed," says Dr Carver.

Detail is not lacking. ARC briefing notes on new fungicide Opus (epoxiconazole) run to five sides. "We have done more independent trials on it than anyone else."

Information is generally mailed. First off is the 24-hour results service, providing local harvest results within a day of cutting wheat, barley and oilseed rape. Hot on its heels are the ARC descriptive lists of winter wheat and barley varieties. This year 36 winter wheats are being evaluated.

Seasonal advice is also mailed out as regional ARC Agronomy updates. "We have a database of results so can look at a current problem and advise how best to cope with it," explains Dr Carver. That is supported by field days at trials sites every two weeks during the main growing season.

Membership costs range from £235 a year for growers with up to 100ha (250 acres) of set-aside and combineable crops to £500 a year for growers over 400ha (1000 acres).

Plotting their future… With members accounting for 10% of the UK arable area, ARC is already a national force, says Mike Carver (left).