Agronomists are key to farming knowledge transfer

Untainted advice for farmers 
The Association of Independent Crop Consultants has seen its membership grow significantly in recent years, so that it now covers almost half of the UK arable advice market with more than 200 members.

CEO Sarah Cowlrick points out this rapid growth reflects the need for independent advice and stresses that AICC members are taking part in knowledge transfer every day.

“We have an established network of advisers who have a vital input in the farm’s agronomy and the economics and strategy of the business.”

The independent agronomist is sought after because the advice is untainted, she adds. “That’s something growers value. There are no sales targets to consider when an independent agronomist steps on to the farm.” 

More people with the skills to translate research findings and communicate them at farm level are required to ensure the £160m Agricultural Technologies Strategy is delivered successfully.

That’s the view of most industry experts involved in knowledge transfer – a vital part of the government’s plan. They point out that the UK has an enviable record in plant science research, but often fails to ensure the results are communicated to growers in a way that helps them to increase productivity.

“We need more applied, relevant research and qualified people to explain the results to farmers,” says Bill Clark, commercial technical director of NIAB TAG. “At the moment, the gulf between research innovation and good, practical advice is far too wide.”

He accepts this imbalance can’t be solved overnight. “Applied research is a skill and we’ve lost most of our capacity in this area. Translating research results requires the right skills, technology and training, as well as people who want to be involved in this activity.”

Tina Barsby, CEO of NIAB TAG, agrees the missing link is people with expertise. “There’s a need for an authoritative voice, so growers can really trust the advice they are being given. They need to know the latest innovations will work on farm, as well as being cost effective, rather than having to take a risk.”

This is one of the reasons why NIAB TAG’s research work is based on areas that will address short- to medium-term challenges, she says. “We’re looking at projects with a five- to seven-year timescale, not at things that might be relevant in 20 years’ time.”

Heading up one of the few organisations that still has farm advisers as well as scientists and researchers, Dr Barsby is clear about the organisation’s place in the knowledge transfer mix. “We are unbiased, so our advice and information comes without a commercial slant. Much of the free advice being given on farm today is available because it is linked to the sale of products.”

However, as most farmers will go to more than one source for their information, there’s room for others, she points out. “Farmers integrate what they can access from various sources to make their decisions. The very best knowledge transfer happens when there is a two-way flow of information, which is why one-to-one meetings between farmers and their advisers work so well.”

Susannah Bolton, head of knowledge transfer at HGCA, agrees there needs to be more emphasis on the type of research that gives farmers an immediate, competitive advantage, as well as its translation.

“At the moment, the shortfall is that the industry doesn’t always have the right knowledge to transfer. And although there are plenty of advisers out in the field, they aren’t necessarily operating independently and are often in competition with one another.”

However, there is a highly professional, efficient agronomist sector, which does much of the knowledge transfer that used to be undertaken by ADAS, in the days when it was government funded, she says.

“The world has changed since the privatisation of ADAS and the industry has adapted to fill some of the gaps. We’ve seen good-quality knowledge becoming a valuable commodity.”

As a result, there are some overlaps in the current situation, she admits. “They are present because some of the information is compromised. That’s because it may not be independent or it may not be available to all.”

HGCA’s recent decision to have more of a regional focus, with a new team of regional managers and an extension of the Monitor Farms network into England, reflects the wishes of levy payers for more business services, rather than agronomy advice, reveals Dr Bolton.

“When we asked, their requirement was for information that could be used to improve business performance, raise profitability and help with decision-making,” she explains. “There’s no point in duplicating what regional agronomists are already doing, although we are happy to work with them.”

And regional agronomists are doing a very good job, stresses Clare Bend of agronomy services company Agrii, who believes agronomy companies can play a vital role in getting the messages out.

“They’re already advising farmers, based on the latest knowledge,” she says. “There’s a vast network of agronomists across the UK, all of which receive recognised training, and most have got established farmer contacts that are based on trust.”

She is concerned that agronomists could be overlooked as some in the industry call for the recreation of a state extension service, similar to the old ADAS, as the best way of meeting the government’s aim.

“Agronomy companies have been doing knowledge transfer for some time. Many of them do their own R&D, have a considerable knowledge base and keep their agronomists very well informed. Delivering messages to farmers has become one of our specialisms.”

An advisory service based on the existing network of agricultural societies across England and Wales is the idea behind the Royal Agricultural Society of England’s latest initiative, which is being developed to improve knowledge transfer.

The aim is to offer farmers co-ordinated technical support and advice so they can adopt technology and best practice at a faster rate. Each society would develop a specialism and take responsibility for a key subject area, using a variety of methods to share the most up-to-date knowledge with farmers.

Funding is needed in order to be able to launch an advisory service next year, admits project co-ordinator and RASE CEO David Gardner, who reveals there are seven or eight possible funding streams being examined.

“It would be great to offer a free service to farmers,” he says. “But the reality is there may have to be an annual fee, or charges for farmers to attend certain events.”

Centres of excellence would be established, he reveals, starting with three and building up to about 10 after three years. “The agricultural societies are well placed to deliver what’s needed. It’s time we pulled all the research together and made it available in a form farmers need.”

Knowledge transfer – some key players 

HGCA – The levy body already has an extensive knowledge transfer programme, including conferences, factsheets and other publications, farmer meetings and events. This year HGCA is rolling out the Monitor Farm concept in England, with eight commercial farmers hosting events.  

RASE – The Royal Agriculture Society of England is looking to establish an extension service based on the national network of agricultural societies becoming centres of excellence. The aim is to have 10 centres in three years. 

NIAB TAG – NIAB TAG has a combination of farm advisers, scientists and researchers. It holds open days and events and produces publications and online info.  

Agronomists – There is an army of agronomists advising farmers across the UK, helping to bring the latest research onto arable farms. They include independents, agronomy service companies and distributors agronomists.  

LEAF – Linking Environment And Farming promotes sustainable food and farming and has a network of more than 40 demonstration farms, hosting open days and events.  

Soil and Water Management Centre – Harper Adams University has established the centre, offering advice to farmers on managing soil and water.

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