If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Then again, HGCA’s research and development strategy faces considerable challenges, and likewise some unprecedented opportunities for real change.
“We want to focus more on outputs, moving away from the bottom-up approach that has dominated in the past,” says head of HGCA’s R&D and knowledge transfer Susannah Bolton. “We hope our new research strategy will be more focused on key areas where we can make a difference and respond to the changing needs of growers.”
A much closer relationship with levy-payers is the vision, and this starts with a heart-felt call to growers to get involved with the current review – give your views on what HGCA should research and how it should convey the results.
But this is an organisation that has been likened to a super tanker – once set on its course it takes a monumental effort and a great deal of time to shift it. Can growers really expect greater involvement will be rewarded with a more responsive HGCA?
“We’ve never had such a thorough consultation,” says Dr Bolton. “There are great opportunities to work with other sectors under AHDB, to look differently at the way we deliver knowledge transfer (KT), to work more effectively and to build a stronger working relationship with organisations such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
“We also want to work differently with the whole supply chain, take greater account of the needs of grain buyers. What we’re aiming for are more profitable farm businesses.”
The talk of strategic alliances comes partly from HGCA’s strength that it is the foremost and most trusted organisation for delivering research-led results direct to growers. With the greater weight leant to it by Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) – “Ian Crute will be instrumental” – HGCA can tap more readily into a wealth of arable research that was previously out of reach, and use its considerable KT talent to turn this into practical advice.
But a shift in government funding reveals a potential weakness. “The LINK programme has come to an end. This effectively used to double HGCA’s investment in research. There is £13m available for crop protection through the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), but it’s a different process. It does not allow for the iterative process of project-building that we had with LINK.”
The difference comes in intellectual property (IP) rights. Under LINK, commercial partners had to share their knowledge. That meant sharing information with competitors that could be commercially sensitive, limiting the scope of projects in some cases. Under TSB they keep their IP rights. This helps smooth the path of commercial involvement in projects, which is good news for the progression and funding of research. But it could be counter-productive for grower-facing HGCA that wants results publicised as much as possible.
“Losing LINK won’t affect our funding. It just reduces our ability to gear the levy up,” explains R&D committee chairman and Kent grower Andrew Cragg. The KT budget – the bit that growers experience – will remain largely unaffected. HGCA may just have to work a bit harder and smarter if it wants to continue to double the value levy-payers get from its research budget.
But growers can expect to see a move away from research-led projects to grower-inspired themes, notes Mr Cragg. “It’s a slight change in emphasis – we want a pull from levy-payers as much as a push from research.”
The committee is farmer-dominated anyway, he points out, so has tended to back initiatives with a strong practical link. “Growers shouldn’t expect a magic bullet, and we’ll still support strategic projects that appear to have no immediate grower benefits. But we’ve had considerable success with KT-led projects.”
This is where a knowledge gap has been identified and HGCA has worked to put together a programme to fill it. “I think most growers agree HGCA does a good job on KT,” comments R&D committee member and Rosshire grower David Houghton. “It remains at the top of the heap for priorities and we want to do as much as we can to ensure levy-payers can access HGCA knowledge in whatever way they want.”
The HGCA Recommended List stands as a shining example. “It’s a great success, although we recognise the cost is substantial and always look for improvements. But there are other opportunities, such as biofuels, where a little bit of funding could give us the edge. We need levy-payers to look at their businesses and tell us where they think these opportunities lie.”
HGCA Research: One project that’s flown…
Project name: Be Precise
Duration: September 2008 to January 2010
Cost to HGCA: £50,000
Total cost: £128,000
Aim: To provide growers with the information and knowledge to make informed decisions about whether precision farming techniques are appropriate for their farm system.
Result: 1197 growers attended BePrecise events. General awareness and understanding of precision farming moved on. Feedback received was “quality delivery of a complex subject”.
The success here was in pulling together existing knowledge and working with industry partners to deliver it through a coordinated, independent programme of events and publications. Very little new research was actually commissioned – growers just needed a source of advice they could trust so they could make an informed decision about whether the tens of thousands of pounds of potential investment would reap rewards.
“Be Precise took us out of our comfort zone,” notes Mr Cragg. “We didn’t have much of our own information we could deliver to growers, so brought in industry partners. It was thanks to the attitude and dedication of those involved that it was a success. It’s a great example of how HGCA can galvanise the industry and get real benefits for growers.”
Others that have flown: a proactive stance on mycotoxins ensured growers were prepared and that controls introduced were practicable. Sustainable Arable Farming For an Improved Environment (SAFFIE) raised concerns initially, but has helped shape practical arable options for Entry-Level Stewardship and the Campaign for the Farmed Environment.
and one that’s been less successful
Project name: Challenges from climate change for disease management in sustainable arable systems (CLIMDIS)
Duration: October 2008 – September 2010
Cost to HGCA: £40,000
Total cost: £502,000
Aim: To inform industry practice and government policy on likely effects of climate change on the severity of disease epidemics in UK arable farming systems.
The jury’s still out on whether this project it will actually deliver tangible results to farmers. Project partners claim the crop-growth modelling under scrutiny will give the industry “strategic guidance for policy development, adaptation of disease management, crop breeding and fungicide development”. But with climate change the goal posts will always be shifting. Perhaps growers have more pressing needs, and there are other projects that would deliver more direct benefits.
Around 20% of research investment is in longer-term projects, and HGCA is keen to know if this level is appropriate.
“There are projects that many growers may not be happy with that fall into the ‘need to know’ rather than ‘want to know’ category. Where HGCA is the exclusive funder we can knock a project on the head if it’s not going to deliver,” points out Mr Cragg. “But it is important that we always keep an open mind and give projects that may appear tenable in the first instance a fair wind.”
Others that were less successful: Remember when DESSAC decision support system was going to bring the virtual agronomist on to your farm? The project proved too big, unwieldy and growers simply weren’t going to buy into it. The previous precision farming project, completed in 2002, was panned as a waste of resources with few conclusions of any value – perhaps it was just ahead of its time?
What the growers say
Andy Barr, 627ha combinable crops in Kent
Likes: Minimum pass husbandry notes
Dislikes: Nitrogen Guide
“Topic sheets are good, but they’re not accessible enough – information is a bit piecemeal. I get frustrated when you go to a marketing event, expecting to get advice and they stop short of giving it. HGCA works best when it discovers a gap and delivers something of value. I’d like to them do something co-ordinated on no-till.”
Keith Challen, 1400ha combinable crops in Nottinghamshire
Likes: Be Precise, mycotoxins
Dislikes: lack of min-till information
“The R&D available on min till in the UK is very limited – you rely on what’s happening elsewhere in the world. Even Be Precise, although definitely good, was not cutting edge research. I find the information flow good – if you show interest, you get plenty of stuff sent to you.”
Peter Snell, 400ha combinable crops in Dorset
Likes: Nitrogen guide
Dislikes: Too many OSR varieties on the Recommended List
“Variety trials are good and often taken for granted – we need as much independent information as we can get. But it needs to be more concise, and there are too many OSR varieties. I’d like to see more research on foliar-applied liquid fertiliser to oilseed rape.”
Research Funding by Topic Area (2007-2010)
Improved varieties – Recommended List
Knowledge Transfer – Communications
Varietal evaluation and breeding (non RL)
Crop management and nutrition
Grain for milling
Grain for feed
Grain for non-food uses
Harvesting and storage
How to get involved
Growers will be able to pick up a questionaire at the HGCA stand (No 305) at Cereals 2010 on 9 and 10 June. Alternatively, visit http://www.hgca.com/rdactivities.htm or request a paper copy of the questionnaire by calling 024 7647 8730. Or you can have your say on our forum. Just click here.