A Conversation with...
Emma Kelcher is one of the new breed of farmers: breaking away from the stereotypical image, she is young and female. We spoke to her to find out what drives her passion for growing food and finding solutions to the problems of climate change and the loss of actives.
How do you generally introduce yourself and the work you do?
I am a professional agriculturist; my job involves technical farming in vegetable production. My job title is Technical Manager and I work for a leading-edge fresh produce business in East Anglia. I walk crops (carrots, parsnips, potatoes and onions) daily, looking at crop growth, soil health, soil moisture, pest and disease spotting, crop and produce quality inspections. I enjoy the fact I help provide vegetables for the end consumers. No two days are the same, and the great outdoors is my best friend. I have a drive and passion to provide the best vegetable crops within East Anglia that are sustainable, profitable and to use technology to its full advantage.
How would you describe your day-to-day job to someone who is not a scientist/farmer/researcher?
When someone asks me what I do my first answer is…I look after vegetables…. You then get the eye roll, or the nose turn as to say what? However, I then say I look after vegetables mainly potatoes for making crisps, Mc Donald’s fries, frozen chips and also your baked potatoes. I then add that I also look after onions, carrots and parsnips, which you will find in soups, ready meals, even your parsnips for Christmas.
What do you like most about your job?
Everything about my job is enjoyable, the great outdoors, the people I work with, the teamwork. Every year the system is the same, but you have different challenges, mainly down to the weather implications such as a drought, or too much water. The next challenge can be disease and pest pressures, again mainly stemming from climate change.
If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?
Well I’m afraid there are two things I would currently change. First, the public perception around agriculture: what it fully involves and how exciting the industry can be, and that there is more to producing food then just being a farmer. Second, I would like to reduce the amount of waste produced within our fresh produce supply chain: one way to do this would to be use more automation for crop inspections through harvesters or grading lines, to allow efficiencies in field harvesting and factory usage, allowing us to deliver product to the consumers when they want it.
What do you think will be the biggest area of focus/biggest change in your area of agriculture over the next five years, and how do you think this will affect the work you do?
Soil is one key element for providing food: it does not just provide food, it provides an eco-system, so protecting and understanding soil health will stay high on our agenda. Being based in East Anglia water is always high on our agenda too. The climate crisis is being talked about a lot in our industry: how we are going to be able to grow vegetables in the ever-changing world is something we are going to have to consider. As an industry we are already considering schemes like being net zero by 2040 launched by the NFU in September.
I ask the question as to what seasonality looks like to consumers? You can access anything in a supermarket, any day of the year, as an agriculture industry, should we be considering more seasonality in our supermarkets to allow for less waste?
We don’t just face day-to-day challenges in farming, there are also global challenges: technology will play a large part in feeding the world. We have already seen major improvements in plant breeding, IPM and use of water resource, which still continues today. However, we now have the challenge to optimise nature and resources, that can be streamlined throughout the whole planet. I see this being achieved through technology transforming our agricultural business and data sets, allowing it to become more accessible to all. We are already seeing new technologies in bio-pesticides, bio-stimulants, gene editing and robotics within the fresh produce chain but understanding it quickly and utilising it is key to making big differences in the industry.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about entering your field of research?
In vegetable farming, well all farming in fact, it is all about the attention to detail. Both farming and technology are fast-paced and require quick solutions to drive things forward. Have a love for the outdoors, enjoy working within a team and on your own, be able to make quick decisions based on data analysis and weather.
I personally thrive on teaching the younger generation that have drive and enthusiasm to learn about vegetable farming. It does have its moments and there are times when you discover a problem and cannot always find the solution there and then. But for me, finding the solution, however long it may take, is what drives me more to produce high quality vegetables.
Research is important in food production, it takes years (approx. eight to ten years) for varieties to make the growing portfolios to help products hit our shelves. From a farming perspective it has to:
The question is do you need to be a farmer to be in vegetable farming? No. Far from it. We need chemists, physicists, biologists, soil specialists, consumer behaviour specialists, field specialists, machinery operators, data analysts, engineers, health specialists, vets, the list is endless. When it comes to being involved in agriculture, the future of farming does not just depend on farmers.
Tell me about someone who influenced your decision to work in this area?
My influence came from starting off in potato research trials in Cambridge with Cambridge University Farm over a university summer, and the whole team there inspired me to follow my career path in potatoes. They are a team I still speak too; I attend their events and I cannot thank them enough for starting me off in the big wide world of potatoes.
Given a chance, who would you like to be for a day and why?
Ruth Hinks, why wouldn’t you want to play with chocolate every day and make the largest flying Scotsman out of chocolate?!
What would you like to be remembered for?
As a woman in agriculture with a passion and fascination for vegetables and their role in feeding the world.
What five words would you use to sum up your personality?
Dedicated, Enthusiastic, Energetic, Meticulous, Driven