Agri-Tech East’s mission to get farmers and researchers communicating
Getting two groups of diverse people talking is always difficult, even more so when they are both driven by different goals. Farmers and agriculturalists focus on innovative technology in order to achieve good harvests to try to maximise their returns. Plant scientists however want to understand the underlying biology of their research of interest. So these two groups have different driving factors of profits and principles. Working together is therefore immensely challenging. One way to tackle this is to improve the dialogue between the two groups by identifying the common ground.
I have just begun my PhD into improving nitrogen use efficiency in forage crops. As an iCASE studentship the project is written with the practical future aims outlined explicitly. My studentship is funded by the British Association of Green Crop Driers (as well as the bulk from the BBSRC). I’m required to work closely with them to meet the project expectations whilst also producing a well-rounded thesis. Although I have completed four molecular plant biology projects in the past two years, I have no previous agricultural experience having grown up in a suburb in Newcastle. The closest I’ve come has been speaking to family friends who own chickens and grow vegetables rather than large-scale career farmers. I envisaged as early on as my interview that I might struggle with this part of my work so jumped at the chance to go to the mid-November Agri-Tech East REAP conference in Cambridge. Agri-Tech East is an agricultural-technology cluster organisation, the first of its kind in the UK. It aims at increasing the production of land through promoting innovations in bioscience, ICT and engineering with the farming community. Their main focus is delivering conferences, agricultural shows and seminars for both farmers and researchers alike.
The day started off with some quick introductions by both Agri-Tech East’s director Belinda Clarke and the share-holder group’s chair Julius Joel, before catapulting into a chaired panel session with three influential grain and vegetable producers of the UK; Tim Whitehead of Vine Farm, Royston, Brian Barker of EJ Barker and Sons of AHDB Cereals and Oliseeds, Stowmarket and Andrew Francis of Elveden Estates, Norfolk. I quickly realised what was in store.
There was a brief taster from the farm managers which largely focused on urging others to try innovative technology on their estates, especially in the area of precision farming using smart technology. Hands quickly flew up: How can meaningful and fool-proof technologies be developed when there is such a communicative barrier between scientists and farmers? And how can young researchers, the future of the agricultural science industry be coaxed on board?
I was one of the hands. I have been experiencing such barriers on my visits to funder’s farms. When I ask my funders what crops they grow they generally reply with the commercial name of the variety rather than its species. Their response tends to be the same for their fertilizer application programmes. My confusion obviously lies with my scant prior knowledge of their working life, and it’s a problem and is clearly something that I and probably many others in my situation need to address.
A lot of farming is based on past cropping histories and anecdotal information on performance from past years and from other farmers. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that. Most hunches in any field of work do pay off and a lot of producers supplement this with their own analysis of their crops. But, this is difficult on the ears of a young researcher. ‘Data, data, data’ has been drilled into me throughout my science education, and although required to form policies by bodies such as DEFRA it is not always the best way to begin thinking about a problem.
Not only is the way we think about agriculture different, we also use different terminology. This was also picked up at the panel sessions. Researchers can unconsciously and sometimes too frequently throw around words like ‘gene’ and ‘transcription’ as if the fundamental principles of these terms are second knowledge to any member of the public. Farmers also frequently use terms which are unknown to a young researcher and are openly bemused when you ask about it. I was met with much amusement when I asked what field margins were; for anyone interested a field margin is the herbaceous border around a crop, usually managed for wildlife and subsidized by the government. Moreover, anyone like me who struggles with farming terminology should make www.farm-direct.co.uk their first port of call – it has quickly become my saviour for email correspondences!
Help with communication is at hand and Agri-Tech East is trying to solve these issues by defining clear spaces for such conversations to be had. This dialogue highlights the pressures felt from both sides to hopefully begin building stronger understanding and ties between one another.
Even if this dialogue is successfully developed, there’s still the problem of indirect obstacles to collaboration. For example, government is not always keen to fund plant research for agricultural problems when they have other priorities for the tax payer’s money. Pressure from both sides may be needed to change this. Moreover plant science isn’t sexy within biological sciences at the best of times for young academics. To then push for research in UK agriculture such as practical approaches to fertilizer use rather than high-profile work in disease resistance such as yellow rust in barley which are more likely at present to be published, is even more challenging. And, if that was not difficult enough, how to build a trust with young farmers who could potentially be providing the funds for it?
One of Agri-Tech East’s side branches, the Young Innovator’s Forum is taking this challenge head on by organising events and visits for young farmers and researchers alike to understand each other’s way of life and viewpoints. So far this has been immensely successful, but only time will tell if this initiative will continue into the future and contribute to changes in the industry culture. I for one very much hope it does.
The views and opinions in this article are of Nicola’s. Nicola is a PhD student at the John Innes centre, she is on Twitter as @NicolaCapstaff
For more information:
And young innovators farmers at http://www.agritech-east.co.uk/growth-for-young-farmers-and-researchers/