A Conversation with...
Dr Jennifer Banfield-Zanin is Senior Project Manager and Head of Sustainability and Entomology, at CHAP partner Stockbridge Technology Centre in Cawood, North Yorkshire. Here she talks about her work, developments in regen ag and her passion for trees, books and board games
An entomologist by training, I now oversee not just the entomology- but also the sustainability-focused trials at STC as a Project Manager. This involves work at all scales and across a range of invertebrates and crops, in both field and glasshouse spaces, and working with lots of different kinds of stakeholders. It varies between looking at ways to control pests, improving the environment for beneficial organisms, or supporting commercial viability of crop production that incorporate ‘environmentally sensitive’ techniques. I also do my best to support the site with insect identifications, and maintain STC’s insect cultures.
I change one or many variables in trials, and then I count and measure things to see what happens as a result. The results can then be used to try and either improve or further develop techniques that can help support farmers in growing their crops.
The variety. There is always something new to learn, although the steep learning curves required some getting used to! I often find myself at the end of projects with more questions than when we started, and some of the work really puts me in ‘kid in a candy store’ mode, which I think is the best bit about science. I enjoy speaking to and learning from different industry stakeholders as well as academics, and using the knowledge gained to ensure that we’re delivering research that is truly applied in nature and relevant to growers. Some of the projects we have worked on have been at the leading edge of innovation, which is always exciting.
Intercropping is the practice of growing two or more different crop or plant species together in a mixture, as a ‘plant team’. These can be either fully mixed and unstructured, or can be either spatially or temporally structured, such as through use of alternating rows or relay cropping.
It is particularly interesting to me, because research has showed that greater diversity of plant species can lead to all sorts of benefits, delivering not just environmental and biodiversity improvements, but also economic and gross margin gains for growers when they are well-managed.
As a specific example, pest populations can be regulated by altering how apparent crops are to invading insects by using multiple different plant species: the increased complexity of resources supports not only the populations of the pest-regulating natural enemies, but also those of pollinators. It was then a fairly natural progression that from a purely entomological interest I got hooked on the broader system.
The short of it, though, is that my then boss, Dr David George, secured a few projects on it, and I got to run them, so you could definitely say he was my ‘fixer’ in this regard.
The main intercropping systems we have primarily worked with, have involved the use of clovers as a ‘living mulch’, or a green understory left in place in the field across the year. Clover is a great little plant; it not only helps improve soil structure but, as a legume, it can also play a role in fixing nitrogen into the soil directly from the atmosphere.
On the other hand, there are implications in terms of competition against the cash crop, and this can drive yield penalties at harvest.
We have been using the CHAP Strip-till and Precision Field Scale equipment capability to strip-till rows into our clover mulches, into which we then drill the crop. This tries to support the crop in early establishment and allow it to ‘get away’ from the clover to mitigate the decreases in yield, while still keeping some of the benefits you get from minimum tillage approaches. More work is needed here though, as when conditions allow the clover to recover really well it can catch up quickly and suppress yields again.
On the opposite end of the scale, there can also be challenges in terms of weeds getting a foothold when clover recovery is hampered by weather conditions.
I think in the future, we will see greater use of Precision Agriculture Technologies, for example to mow the clover in-crop and help keep not just clover competition down, but also manage any particularly nasty and perennial weeds (like thistles) if they do get in, while still limiting the need for other inputs.
There has definitely been an increasing interest. There has been, and still is, for that matter, some remarkable work being done on the subject. The most interesting of these are, I think, grower-led and grower-inclusive examples, so this is an area which is developing rapidly and is clearly highly applied.
There are still key challenges to overcome that need looking at, not only in terms of balancing the clover management – so that you get the most benefit from it without decreasing yield too significantly – but also in terms of managing some of the potential pest, disease and weed questions while limiting inputs.
I think innovations already in the pipeline, and the trials work being led by growers make the future outlook of the field a bright one, though, and with much being made of ‘sustainability’ at the moment, hopefully these developments and grower-led initiatives will also be supported more broadly.
If I had to change career, I would probably go back to forest entomology – trees and their insects make fascinating systems! I can’t imagine doing anything other than some kind of biology or ecology, but at a push if I had to leave them outright, I would probably end up as a librarian.
There’s always something going on at home, and I enjoy pottering about with my family. We’re all avid bibliophiles, so there’s lots of reading and we’re often found perusing the stacks, or visiting our favourite bookshops when we can. Give us a good board game or ‘interlocking brick system’ any day of the week! Colleagues might be surprised to learn that, in younger days, I achieved black belt in Taekwondo, although my knees now mean I unfortunately can’t keep up anymore.
I think one of the biggest challenges faced by industry at the moment is how to contribute towards achieving net zero and environmental sustainability goals, while also maintaining production and profitability so that farming businesses can remain not just sustainable but also economically viable in the long-term.
There are some incredible innovators in industry though, and I expect that once their ideas have been field-proven we will start to see them trickling down into wider commercial production.
I also hope to see a greater diversification of crop species, rotations, and growing ‘systems’, with varieties bred to perform better in more complex tapestries so that production can be maintained.
Another big change has been the shift away from conventional standard chemistries, driving interest towards more integrated and bio-rational programmes for pest, disease and weed control, that take a broader and more holistic approach to management at large scales, quite literally starting from the soil up.
To find out more about Dr Banfield-Zanin’s work with CHAP, have a look at our case study Precision approaches for sustainable soils, or find out more about CHAP’s Field Scale Precision Equipment and other equipment and projects at Stockbridge Technology Centre.