In 2012 when the Soil Association first launched the programme (then as the Duchy Future Farming Programme), the ambition was to create a ‘laboratory’ for farming innovation with farmers in the driving seat of research.
A network of innovators
And over the past seven years we have created a network of over 1,000 inspiring and committed farmers and growers co-designing trials with the research community and collaborating with industry bodies. The practical knowledge coming out from this network is not only answering today’s questions but informing the farming practices and business priorities of tomorrow.
The model of farmer led research has demonstrated that it can yield the greatest benefits as it addresses the key challenges that farmers face in everyday business decisions. What comes out is relevant to farmers because they are not simply end users of a product driven trial but an integral part of the research process.
But don’t just take my word for it. In the latest field lab journal we published some of the feedback that farmer led research has received from the farming community.
David White, a farmer from Cambridge and member of the alternatives for terminating cover crops field lab told us;
“We all do our own experiments, but what farmers really need is programmes like Innovative Farmers to put a little bit of the science behind it and help us get some meaningful results. Then it’s not only me believing my personal feelings on what works, there’s science to back it up and that’s brilliant.”
And John Richards, a farm manager at Riverford Organic Growers and member of the hot water seed treatment field lab said;
"I think farmers have often got the answers. They have techniques that they’ve learnt for generations. And this is where Innovative Farmers is really helping because it’s actually bringing those structures and disciplines in and helping farmers to do it in a proper way, which then you can actually look back and learn from it."
These testimonies show the value of the model and how important it is to work with farmers rather than just for them.
A model for the future of agricultural research
There is still far more that could be done to perfect the agricultural research process. While our model has been piloted, tweaked, developed and adapted, every new potential field lab idea brings together a unique set of opportunities to build our understanding of what works.
Here’s what we’ve learnt makes the best field lab:
1. From the ground up
Field labs work best when the idea is truly ground up from the farmers that take part in the trial.
2. Independent facilitation
Through effective facilitation farmers and researchers can co-design a field lab which opens up trialling and research methods which fit into a working farm while providing robust data and conclusions.
3. Managing risk
With trials come risk – if this can be shared across the group and with the help of some funding this opens up the potential for triallists.
4. Building our knowledge
Make the most of existing knowledge and networks through our delivery partners Soil Association, LEAF, Organic Research Centre and Innovation for Agriculture as well as our funders and sponsors including AHDB and Riverford Organics.
5. Quality Assurance
Ensure the trial is the best it can be by carrying out due diligence and quality assurance with input from our independent steering group.
Without doubt Innovative Farmers has been a catalyst for showcasing and encouraging more farmer-led research. This year we will be focusing on shaping the future strategic direction of Innovative Farmers. We will be continuing to make the case for public funding for our vital place in delivering Agricultural R&D in the UK as well as responding to the need to help farmers transition to agroecological farming practices.
Thank you to Waitrose and Partners and our funders The Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund who have supported us along this journey of discovery and opened up the potential of on-farm trials to a growing community of farmers, growers and researchers.
• Trials launched as part of Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme with funding from the PWCF.
• Soil Association launches Innovation Research Fund.
• Launch of Innovation Award in association with Nesta at the Soil Association conference.
• Network grows to more than 2,000 farmers engaged in the programme, of which 450 are participating in field labs.
• Launch of Innovative Farmers and new web portal with LEAF, ORC and IfA as delivery partners.
• Programme secures industry backing with sponsorship from Produce World, Robin Appel and Anglia Farmers plus grant funding from the Garfield Weston Foundation.
• Shropshire sheep grazing orchards field lab featured on BBC Countryfile
• Network hosts its first Innovation Day.
• BBSRC provides first tranche of funding for the programme.
• AHDB supports Innovative Farmers with a grant to launch eight new field labs.
• Riverford Organics sponsors the first of three field labs.
• Co-hosted event with RAU on mechanical (herbicide-free) weeding.
• Rural Innovation Support Service launched in Scotland inspired by Innovative Farmers model.
• Roundtable convened to develop consensus on strategic case for supporting farmer-led innovation and clarify scale of ambition.
• BBC Countryfile feature discussing the importance of farmer-led research and Mole Valley lupins field lab during the year.
• Innovative Farmers involved in H2020 project LIAISON as best practice example.
• 2nd Innovative Farmers Network Day.
• Pip Archer from The Archers joins the herbal leys for dairy field lab.
• Innovative Farmers is invited to participate in panel discussion at Oxford Farming Conference.
• AHDB awards over £200k in funding to support a further 11 field labs.
• The network prepares to launch its 100th field lab.