A Conversation with...
Lucy Plowman is the Technical Liaison Officer at our partner Stockbridge Technology Centre. She works closely with the staff at STC, looking after the CHAP capabilities and helping to promote the work being done through those facilities. Here she tells us about her day-to-day work and what led her to a career working with plants.
My job is Technical Liaison Officer at one of CHAP’s partner sites, Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC). It’s a relatively new role so I’m still discovering the finer details, but generally my job is to provide an interface between CHAP and STC: assisting and bringing together both sides to facilitate conceptualisation, planning and successful delivery of research projects.
I look after the CHAP capabilities on site at STC: the Vertical Farming Development Centre, Advanced Glasshouse Facility and Field Scale Precision Equipment. This work is heavily operational, involving maintaining the facilities and organising the projects, but a large part of my role is also promoting them as fantastic resources providing commercially relevant research platforms to trial upcoming and disruptive innovations within the agri-tech sector.
I also work closely with the innovation team, keeping an eye out for both funding and research project opportunities, and staying up to date with relevant areas such as Controlled Environment Agriculture, intercropping and biopesticides. The most exciting part of my job though is helping out with the practical work during trials, when I get to don my lab coat and be a scientist!
Every day is different, and depends on my ever-changing to-do list! I try and get out of my office and into the capabilities when there are projects to keep an eye on, but typically I’m kept busy behind my desk.
Recently I have been working on trial preparations in the VFDC as part of the GelPonics project, exploring a novel hydroponic substrate to improve sustainability of vertical farming. I have also been involved in another project STC and CHAP are partnering on, which is investigating the potentially significant energy savings of a greenhouse insulation system, where I helped to plan and prepare for a stakeholder workshop to find out what the innovation could mean for growers.
More generally, I might be focusing on media content, attending events, meeting with researchers or exploring potential avenues for projects with the rest of the CHAP team: all to make sure our capabilities are best-placed to help anyone looking to undertake commercial or grant-funded projects that will improve efficiency and sustainability of crop production.
The diversity. Not only do the capabilities at STC cover quite different areas of agriculture, but the projects CHAP are involved with are always really varied, so the things I work on also change day to day – there is plenty to keep me occupied!
I also enjoy how close my job is to industry: CHAP work across the industry from big players in agriculture, to agri-tech SMEs, and to the end-users (farmers and growers). It’s really exciting to see how research projects translate into real tangible solutions, that could have a big impact within the industry.
Getting to drive through the beautiful Yorkshire countryside every day is a definite highlight too.
A passion I have outside of work, but that’s still deeply integrated with farming, is for pollinators and native plant diversity. I would love to be involved in a project looking at how agriculture can work with and ultimately benefit our ecosystems and natural biodiversity, such as exploring how crop diversity can improve plant, soil and insect communities compared to conventional methods. The strip-till that is part of CHAP’s Field Scale Precision Equipment would be great for this, allowing creation of diverse plant teams in the field through intercropping, in contrast to the typical monocultures we see today.
I’m also keen to work on projects looking into biopesticide development and Integrated Pest Management approaches as that is a really interesting area of research.
Anyone that knows me knows I’ve always wanted to work with plants! This developed throughout university, specifically into an interest in crops, and in answering the important question: how to sustainably produce more food for a growing population?
I do what I do because I want to help find the best ways to solve this problem, and to help minimise and reverse the harm intensive agriculture has been causing since the 1950s. My year in industry, which I spent at another CHAP partner ADAS focusing on plant protection product research, confirmed crop production was the area I wanted to pursue.
At school my biology teacher, Dr Bolton, was an early influence, which meant I decided to follow my interest in plant science at the expense of my other love at school, art. The people I’ve had teach me along the way since have only confirmed I’ve made the right choice! These people include my mentor Dr Kate Storer, Crop Physiologist at ADAS, and my masters supervisor at the University of York, Associate Lecturer Dr Tim Doheny-Adams – both of whom are passionate and lovely people.
One of the biggest challenges for me is staying up to date with the latest technology in the industry. There is so much movement at the moment in agri-tech development and it’s hard to keep on top of! An area I’m less experienced with as well is digital farming, involving emerging technologies such as AI, sensors, drones and robotics. It can be a challenge to understand but I want to dip my toe into this area because there is so much to learn.
The boom in successful vertical farming setups that we are currently seeing will be one of the biggest changes for agriculture, transitioning not just how we produce our food but also how that food is supplied to consumers.
Vertical farming is set to continue increasing drastically worldwide over the next few years (437.5% increase from $3.12 billion in 2019 to $16.77 billion in 2027) and this additional route to food production could benefit traditional field agriculture by reducing some of the pressure put on our land and soils.
Another big change I think we’ll see is the decreased reliance on using standard chemistry to protect crops, which is failing more often due to increased resistance. Instead biopesticides and IPM approaches should be the replacement, shifting away from prophylactic and excessive treatments towards more sustainable biological measures.
I’ve never eaten red meat before (a result of being a very fussy eater as a child), with the exception being one mouthful of Zebu during a trip to Madagascar.