Agri-Tech Week 2014 saw hundreds of people from the farming, agri-business, research and investment communities coming together across the east of England in a series of events to create connections, foster collaborations and build networks.
Kicking off the week was the “Innovation for Agriculture East” workshops at Trinity Park in Ipswich, by kind permission of the Suffolk Agricultural Association and in association with FramFarmers. With a keynote address by Guy Smith, Deputy President of the NFU, the scene was set for a series of discussions about technology translation and water for agriculture.
Trust, technology and translation
When asked who they trust most to present information about new agri-tech innovations, the role of the independent broker emerged loud and clear in the translation workshop.
Yet the role of commercial interest as being placed to invest in new innovations was noted – bringing a new product to market is usually not for those with faint hearts or shallow pockets.
Social media, as well as the agricultural shows and trade press also featured, alongside word-of-mouth and the importance of demonstrations of new technologies, to enable people to make their own judgements. Barriers to technology translation included the fact that innovators need to be better at communicating, the mis-match between fundamental and applied research, and also the lack of inter-operability of new systems with existing ones.
Ways to improve the situation included closer working with politicians and funding agencies to present the case for connected, long-term (>25 years) commitments to research and innovation, as well as better connectivity of all the players in the ecosystem.
A vision for water – supported by technology
Delegates in the water for agriculture workshop explored the key challenges, namely volatile weather leading to too much or too little water; soil and cropping variability means there is no single solution. Soils generally have poor water holding capacity and delegates felt the current water licensing regimes are too inflexible.
With a call for a long-term (25 years) vision and clean actions, farmers agreed they need a clear voice on the economics of water. Some lessons can be learned from outside the UK, however there is a critical need to understand how soils and water perform, and to use new technologies – such as new cultivation techniques, genetics, water saving technologies and real time information to manage water efficiency.
Realising our Economic and Agricultural Potential (REAP)
We knew Agri-Tech East’s inaugural REAP conference at NIAB in Cambridge the following day was going to be a busy one – the event was a sell-out a week before the conference. It was great to be such a hot ticket in town, but huge apologies to those who were not able to join us this year. Over 50 % of the delegates were agri-businesses (Including farmers), and we were proud to showcase 8 businesses through our Start-Up Showcase. The Producers’ Panel featured expert growers describing their challenges, and it was clear that it was news to some of the non-agri businesses that literally hundreds of crop protection chemicals are being made unavailable to growers. We were also excited to announce GROW, the UK’s first national agri-tech business plan competition and our thanks to William Kendall, Suffolk farmer and entrepreneur, and founder of New Covent Garden Soups for formally declaring the competition open. We are delighted that within 48 hours we received the first application (from someone not at the conference). The power of social media!
A summary of the conference is available to view here.
Debating with Royalty
The next day saw Agri-Tech Week move up the A11 to the Norwich Research Park’s beautiful new Centrum building. The Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association and its President, HRH the Earl of Wessex presented a lively debate entitled “What has science done for us?”, hosted by the wonderful Anna Hill, from the BBC’s Farming Today programme.
With a panel featuring Drs Paul Nicholson and Rachel Wells from the John Innes Centre, and Norfolk farmers Poul Hoveson and Robert Salmon, a lot of the discussions focussed around the importance of data and extracting most value from the data. It was a coincidence that this topic should be discussed the same day that the national panel was meeting to select the successful consortium to lead the new Centre for Agri-Informatics and Sustainability Metrics – there was no shortage of ideas and hopes for being able to collaborate with the new Centre around data collection, management and interpretation.
And finally on the farm
The final day of Agri-Tech Week dawned wet and windy, and it was a relief to kick off the high heels and don flat boots for a visit to Lodge Farm in Westhorpe, seat of EJ Barker & Sons and the latest of the HGCA Monitor Farms. The Powerpoint projector was still in evidence in the large barn where delegates gathered, but it was the only time during the week it was overlooked by 3 huge tractors! Lodge Farm has been selected from a field of 120 applicants to be the 4th farm in the east of England to be one of the HGCA’s 24 Monitor Farms.
The focus is on collaboration, cooperation and sharing, with an emphasis on farmer-led knowledge transfer. With a steering committee and an arable business group formed around the farm, the idea is to bring together a cohort of the most innovative farmers to explore and adopt new practices or systems to improve their businesses.
With an innovative keypad voting system, delegates were encouraged to begin the process of sharing information with a series of questions about their thoughts and methods around growing winter wheat and oil seed rape. With the first question (to test the technology) being “If a pig goes ‘Oink’, a cow goes….?” I’m sure we shouldn’t read anything into the fact that only 78 % selected ‘Moo.’ The 15 % who chose the ‘To The Butcher’ option were clearly thinking either about return on investment or a juicy steak, but to the 7 % who pressed the ‘Cluck’ option – maybe stick to growing crops! Once the voting got serious, it was a great way to anonymously gather collective views of the delegates, and the collaborative spirit started to emerge in the coffee breaks where people were starting to share and compare responses to the various questions.
Some great insights into views on new technologies were revealed – 46 % use variable seed rates and haven’t looked back, over 50 % feel they are only just keeping blackgrass at bay, and nearly a fifth were losing the faith about growing oil seed rape in future. Slugs and snails won the dubious honour of being the most prolific pests throughout the year, but pest control in general fared poorly in the question as to what impacts yield of winter wheat most – with disease control and seedling establishment scooping around a third of the votes each.
One of the most telling results was in response to the question as to whether farmers did soil conductivity testing (which gives an indication of the levels of nutrients available for uptake by the crop).
While a third of delegates analysed their soils this way and found it interesting, a massive 60 % admitted they didn’t know how they would use the information gained from such data.
This theme of data management and interpretation was a recurring theme throughout the week. Gathering data actually isn’t the rate-limiting step – it’s accessing it, sharing it, and understanding what to do with it when you have it, and what different it makes to your research programme or your field of crops.