Everyone who works with farmers knows that they experiment – some irrepressibly. Research into innovation systems tells us this matters – that it is where some of the best ideas in farming come from.
Yet farmers do this with remarkably little support. Academic knowledge about trial design and interpretation can seem like a parallel universe, where the standards of evidence, protocols and research budgets are all equally outlandish. Indeed, to farmers, it sometimes feels like formal research comes too much and too late.
That’s why, this week, we launched Innovative Farmers (www.innovativefarmers.org), bringing progressive farmers from across the industry together with some of Britain’s most respected agricultural research teams.
The network offers research support and funding to farmer groups on their own terms and at their initiative. It recognises that farmers innovate, and helps them do it even better.
It builds on three years of experience running the Duchy Future Farming Programme, in which we have run practical ‘field labs’ on 35 topics, involving more than 750 farmers around the country. We adapted participatory methods of learning, R&D and co-design pioneered in international development, guided by a steering group of scientists and farmers chaired by Prof. Charles Godfray.
Innovative Farmers boosts this with new farming industry and research partners, extra funding and a web portal, where the farmers and researchers involved can track and share their progress.
To join as research partners, institutions commit in principle to some of their researchers providing at least 24 hours of in-kind support per year to a farmer group where we can find a match. This is enough to help with a basic field lab – usually a simple trial – covering a bit of desk research, a couple of site visits and some simple analysis.
The most crucial role for the researcher is to help the farmers understand how the methodological choices they make will affect the confidence they can have in their findings. How much will they want to rely on it? What kind of protocol and time input can they really commit to?
What’s in it for the researchers and their institutions? First, access to funding. Over the next five years we plan to give out more than £800,000 in small grants, only available to researchers we’ve matched with a farmer group. At £10,000 per project, the funding may seem peanuts by research standards, but easy-access support for this kind of practical work with farmers is hard to come by.
Second, the researchers get a structured, monitored and cost-effective pathway to impact. By asking a small number of questions of every participating farmer at regular intervals, we’re able to provide them and the research partners with insight into farmers’ priorities, and quantified reports on what they are learning and the reported impact. In time, we’ll even be able to benchmark across the network. This could boost research applications, enhance early-career CVs and, in the right circumstances, even contribute to the REF.
We’ve set out the benefits from researchers at https://innovativefarmers.org/get-involved/benefits-for-researchers/. The universities involved so far are Bristol, Exeter, Coventry, Reading, Harper Adams and Aberystwyth, alongside specialist agricultural institutes such as Rothamsted. If you’re interested in joining them, please get in touch by calling 0117 987 4572 or sending an email to email@example.com.
Dr Tom MacMillan, Innovation Director, Soil Association
Innovative Farmers is part of the Duchy Future Farming Programme, funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation. The network is backed by a team from LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), Innovation for Agriculture, the Organic Research Centre and the Soil Association, and supported by Waitrose.