Bright idea to trusted tool: the role of farmer-led innovation

The best ideas and smartest solutions will languish unless farmers have the confidence to give them a go. Farmer-led innovation and research can provide the bridge to trusted application and market success, writes Tom Allen-Stevens, Oxfordshire farmer and technical journalist.

“Trust me – it’ll make your crops grow better.” If these words were true every time they were uttered to a farmer, there’d be no hunger.

That’s not to say there aren’t some mind-bendingly revolutionary innovations that have come to market. You could even argue the pipeline of smart solutions waiting to come onto farm has never bulged as much as it currently does, with digital, AI, bio-solutions and genetic advances all offering benefits previous farming generations could only dream were possible.

But in truth, a farmer has at most about 40 opportunities – the number of harvests in which they’ll have an influence – to find out what works in the particular soil, climate, marketing environment and societal framework in which they farm. When there’s so much pressure on each one of those harvests, so much at risk and when the reward for getting it right is not exactly overgenerous, you can forgive a farmer for viewing innovation with scepticism.

Farmer-led innovation

There is however a tried and trusted route to get smart ideas out onto farm, into the hands of farmers and into the trusted fabric of good, progressive on-farm practice: farmer-led innovation.

The British On-Farm Innovation Network (BOFIN) has been set up to recognise the value of the work done by farmers who carry out their own on-farm trials. These farmers look to work with scientists and industry experts to co-create innovations. They’re keen to share the results with other farmers and seek a scientifically robust way to progress farm practice.

The concept is not a new one and there are numerous examples of scientific discoveries and well researched changes in practice that have been honed through this route. Typically a scientist will work with a group of farmers to reach a common aim. Crucially the farmers are engaged and help shape the project, as well as carry out some of the work and monitoring involved. The scientist or research team guide the project and ensure the work is done to a standard that will bring reliable, repeatable results, which preferably will be statistically significant. The involvement of the farmers results in hands-on experience which can then be shared with others.

Successful farmer-led projects

The ASSIST project (Achieving Sustainable Agricultural Systems), led by UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in partnership with Rothamsted Research and British Geological Survey is a good example of a major project involving a network of farmers. AHDB routinely carries out this work through its Strategic Farm network. Innovative Farmers (IF) and Rothamsted’s FarmInn are also good examples.

Of all of them, IF probably leads the field in this area. This is true, farmer-led innovation in which a group of farmers have a common aim or outcome they wish to achieve or practice they wish to investigate. IF brings them together in a Field Lab, with a researcher, and helps find funding. Importantly it works to publicise the results and with 123 Field Labs now concluded or in progress across all farming sectors, this builds into a massive resource freely available to farmers to help them identify new ideas and practices and bring them into their own farming system.

BOFIN works with IF to bring new ideas onto the farm, and many farmers in the network participate in IF Field Labs, but it differs in two key areas. First, with BOFIN the inspiration or initial concept is less likely to come from the farmers themselves. This gives scientists and industry innovators the opportunity to suggest a concept or idea for a trial to a group of farmers and gauge the response. There are two projects in particular currently underway – one on slug-resistant wheat and another looking to gauge interest in growing GM blight-resistant potatoes.

Another key difference is that BOFIN works to ensure the work the farmers themselves carry out is valued, that it is recognised and that it makes a positive contribution to the progression of UK agriculture and to farm-based science globally.

A core aim for BOFIN is for farmers to be rewarded for the public good they provide through the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, for example, and we’re working with Defra to explore how this can be achieved.

What BOFIN offers to farm-based science

If you have an innovation or field-ready idea that you think would appeal to farmers and you’re looking for a small group to test the proof of concept, we can put this idea to the farmers in the network. If it’s one that appeals, we can bring the interested parties together to plan how the idea progresses.

The advantage of this route is that, should the trial prove successful, you will not only have the data, but an enthusiastic group of progressive farmers who can help roll the concept out to a wider audience, as well as help shape it and define its practical application. There are caveats – this is co-creation, so it is ultimately up to the farmers how a concept is applied, and you may lose control over the direction in which it’s taken. What’s more, the whole essence of farmer-led trials is to share the experience, so don’t expect commercial sensitivities to be kept secret.

Anyone interested in exploring this way of working can join BOFIN. There are no obligations and no charges or fees involved. Whether an idea flies or dies with farmers in the network depends entirely on its merits, rather than the size of the business that lies behind it.

The opportunity is to lift the perceived barrier that exists between the lab and the field, to smooth the passage of an innovation from small-plot theory into commercial practice, and to put a bridge over the valley of death where so many good ideas can so easily perish. That bulging pipeline of smart solutions suggests we stand at the threshold of the fourth agricultural revolution – farmer-led innovation can provide the trust and the confidence needed to take the step and explore.

Tom Allen-Stevens is an Oxfordshire arable farmer and Editor of Crop Production Magazine (CPM). He has been an agricultural technical journalist for over 20 years and has also been Manager of LEAF’s Open Farm Sunday and a Director and then Chairman of Oxford Farming Conference. Tom has a passion for science and innovation in farming, leads the Gene-Editing for Environmental and Crop Improvement initiative (GEECI) and launched BOFIN in September 2020. He carries out his own on-farm trials and has one underway currently assessing the value of various forms of wild bird cover.

If you have any questions about becoming a member of CHAP, or would like to reach out to the CHAP team to discuss other project opportunities, please email us at enquiries@chap-solutions.co.uk

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.