Improving the AHDB: What growers want from the levy board

Sort out the organisation’s structure, embrace the latest digital technology, update critical information more frequently and improve communication, suggest growers when asked what improvements they would like to see from the AHDB.

At such a critical time for the farming industry, farmers stress that there has never been a greater need for up-to-date, independent information that helps with decision-making and secures the future of their businesses – even if that means making some tough choices.

See also: What AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds spends its levy cash on

Steep rises in input costs, fears about fuel supplies, extreme market volatility and supply chain uncertainty, all intensified by the Ukraine crisis, are being felt at the farm level.

This is driving fears that poor decisions will increase farmers’ exposure to risk.

Against this background, AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds could be helping levy payers more, according to some.

In such a fast-paced situation and with so much at stake, the flow of fresh information seems to have paused – and it couldn’t be at a worse time.

The exception is the highly regarded Market Intelligence team, which continues to issue daily bulletins and reports, and was singled out by our sources as being an invaluable source of information, analysis and insight.

See also: What key activities does AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds provide?

Communication

Much of the AHDB’s output is well received by levy payers, who appreciate the breadth and depth of information and accept that they must select the bits that are relevant to their needs.  

However, the website comes in for criticism, as does the sporadic nature of other communications.

While growers appreciate that there are rules for using personal data, they get frustrated by continually having to supply their contact details to receive notifications and invitations to events by email – and then not getting them.

In short, staying informed is a constant challenge and something they have to work at.

As far as the website is concerned, the main gripe is that information is not very easy to find and speed of access is slow.

Markers on a cereals trial plot

© Tim Scrivener

As some pointed out, it’s far quicker to use Google to find the details they need than it is to wrestle with the AHDB website.

Digital formats have taken time to appear, only to be underwhelming when they finally arrive.

Mobile apps for everyday tasks and business operations are an essential part of their toolkit now, so growers are keen to see AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds recognise that.

Publications are praised for being well-researched and useful, albeit scarce in recent months.

The Recommended List should be updated more frequently, they stress, especially given recent variety breakdowns to disease.

What About the Recommended List?

One of the AHDB’s most valued resources, the Recommended List, is used frequently by growers and the wider industry and has always attracted both praise and criticism.

While recognising that it has to meet the needs of a range of end users, farmers say the value they get from it has decreased in recent years as the number of varieties listed has increased – many of which have little or nothing to offer over existing choices.

Having 38 winter wheat varieties and 27 winter barley varieties is seen as excessive and working more in favour of the plant breeders than farmers, especially as some varieties don’t have any seed available and aren’t supported by the seed trade.

Farmers’ greater use of establishment methods with very low or no soil disturbance was also mentioned frequently, as analysis of variety performance under these regimes will be increasingly relevant and useful to most.

While recognising that efforts have been made to update disease resistance scores as problems have arisen in the field in the past few years, the feeling is that they should be revisited more frequently – perhaps quarterly – once a problem has been confirmed.

“Some of the data revisions have simply been too late to help us,” reports one grower. “Let’s get this information out swiftly, in a digital format, so that it’s available before we have to make spraying decisions or buy next year’s seed.”

Knowledge exchange

Arable farmers want knowledge exchange and are very supportive of the Monitor Farm and Strategic Farm programmes.

Alarmed by the rumours that it may be wound down, they stress that the social value of meetings can be as important as the business value.

It hasn’t escaped their notice that the well-respected knowledge exchange team has virtually disappeared from the AHDB and that many familiar faces have left the organisation.

As a result, they are keen to welcome new staff members into these roles and continue the two-way flow of information and shared learning that knowledge exchange activities provide, as well as maintain the communities that have been formed.  

Groups of farmers challenging each other on technical excellence has been a good way to learn, they add.

“Setting our own agenda means the information gleaned from each meeting is relevant and timely, as well as addressing specific regional issues.

“It’s also an independent forum, which allows open dialogue without any commercial influence.”

Discussions between farmers are often just as useful as the event speakers, says a regular attendee.

“Given that we are all being encouraged to collaborate more and work together to deliver what Defra wants, it’s a shame if the focus is shifting away from that.”

For those who regularly attend, fresh messages are required for Monitor Farm meetings, they report.

Simply repeating topics and speakers that have been done previously doesn’t address current challenges.

Business support

The business groups that have arisen from the Monitor Farm programme are praised for their role in helping to improve the financial performance and resilience of farms.

The central focus of these, benchmarking, has helped participants understand their costs of production and find ways to make efficiency gains, as well as make comparisons with others, stress participants.

For some, the information doesn’t go quite far enough, highlighting the need for more detail and better financial understanding as Basic Payment Scheme reductions continue and new agricultural policy is introduced.

“Business skills are going to be needed more than ever before,” points out a farm manager.

“The level of understanding of important financial subjects such as depreciation and tax needs to improve across the industry, and these groups could really help with that.”

Continuity

Whether it’s down to restructuring, new strategy, a change in priorities or staffing issues, continuity has been lost and it is missed, report levy payers. 

It means engagement with growers is falling and there is a danger that the organisation will simply end up preaching to a small number of the converted, rather than extending its reach, they warn. 

The stop/start nature of some projects is an issue – as it often results in the loss of a cohesive community, such as when a Monitor Farm handover takes place and its location moves.

Webinars haven’t been able to fill the void, in most instances, even though levy payers have engaged with them and recognise the efforts put into staging them.

Time limits, topic choice, lack of interaction and insufficient technical detail were all mentioned as limiting factors.

Help shape the future of farming

The AHDB is asking levy payers to take part in its “Shape the future” survey and outline the following:

  • The main challenges facing their farming sector
  • What work the AHDB should be delivering
  • Who should be on the sector council

Growers have until 12pm on the 31 March 2022 to register to have their say. Feedback will be gathered during April. 

See the AHDB website for more information.

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