RISS: three years of collaborative innovation

As Scotland's Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) comes to an end, Senior Farming Programmes Manager at Soil Association Scotland and RISS lead, Dr Bruce Pearce, writes...

As we come to the end of our current funding cycle, I’m very proud to look back and see what RISS has achieved in the three years since we launched.

Financed by the Scottish Rural Development Programme and launched by Rural Economy Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing at the NFUS AGM in February 2018, RISS set off to do something new.

It would be a truly bottom-up, farmer-led service, that would involve service users (farmers, crofters and land managers in Scotland) in service design. They would find solutions to challenges collaboratively, and those solutions would be transferable to others, making not only their own businesses more resilient, but, with them, the whole food production sector in Scotland.

And those solutions would incorporate the challenges of climate change, making the sector more sustainable.

The way RISS would achieve this would be through facilitation. Each farmers or group of farmers with an idea would be allocated an ‘expert facilitator’ from one of three partners  – lead organisation Soil Association Scotland; SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College, and farmer co-op organisation SAOS. Scotland Food and Drink and the UK’s Innovative Farmers would also be involved in the steering group.

The keys to RISS: collaboration and facilitation

The facilitator would scope existing work, bring in the right people, organise meetings and get the group to an actionable project plan, at which point RISS would bow out. The facilitator would be open-minded as to the best course of action and take the group through a process of exploring options and collaboratively deciding how to proceed.

This approach brought great results, particularly for groups that existed already but were stalled, such as the Hill Sheep group. This large group across Scotland and Ireland had been unable to decide on a course of action, until facilitator Poppy Frater of SAC created a survey that brought consensus and allowed them to move forward.

Picture: Raising the baaa for Skye mutton

Or the Organic Oilseed Rape group: David McClelland of processor Norvite had been in talks with farmers in the north east since 2015 about growing oilseed rape organically for animal feed, but says: “We didn’t really get anywhere until [SAOS facilitator] Jim Booth came along in 2018.

"He helped us organise the study trip to Sweden that got things going, we got the funding for the farm trials and now we’ve formed an organisation that means we can share the risks of growing organic oilseed rape between us and the farmers.”

RISS has allowed farmers to work with a wide range of experts and industry members, including other farmers, biologists, ecologists, geneticists, engineers, data scientists, retailers, processors, policy makers, manufacturers, tech companies and marketeers.

I believe there aren’t many other programmes in Agricultural Knowledge and Exchange Systems (AKIS) that take this bottom-up, collaborative approach and indeed RISS was chosen as the leading UK example of farmer-led innovation, for the EU’s LIAISON project.

Responding to the climate emergency and biodiversity loss, Brexit and Covid 19

Sugar beet used to be grown in Scotland for animal feed, but one group is exploring reviving that industry for sustainable fuel and chemical production instead. On Arran, the Net Zero Arran group of farmers is benchmarking to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and also working with producers, manufacturers and others to reduce waste and packaging as part of the Arran Economic Group.

Group member Alistair Dobson of Arran Dairies says: “It’s a huge opportunity for the food and drink sector, even more so during the pandemic. If we can transparently reference our environmental credentials it will give us an advantage nationally and internationally.”

Farmers in the Clyde Valley Waders group worked with the RSPB and SAC Consulting to monitor and protect wading bird populations, leading to the RSPB receiving Nature Scot funding to improve farmland habitats for these endangered birds.

And other farmers, having identified pulses as a sustainable crop for Scotland, have worked with the James Hutton Institute, processors and buyers to establish how a supply chain for growing pulses for human consumption could work. Farmer Elizabeth Massie says: “Pulses aren’t that developed in Scotland yet, but to get a crop growing that requires less fertiliser, that you can sell, and is better for your soil, seems like a no brainer to me.”

Picture: Kym McWilliam of the Flowers from Scotland group

Did you know that 90% of cut flowers we buy in Scotland are imported from Africa, via Holland? Yet daffodils, dahlias, tulips, peonies and many others grow just as well in Scotland, as you may have noticed in your garden. Cue the Flowers from Scotland group, bringing together growers and horticulture industry members to promote the value of ‘grown not flown’ flowers.

Cross-industry co-operation

A group of north-eastern farmers received Scottish Government Knowledge Transfer and Innovation (KTIF) funding for their ongoing work with a data company and processors to build a distributed ledger platform that will assure the traceability of gluten-free oats for consumers.

Two groups formed to tackle the huge threat that Potato Cyst Nematode (PCN) poses to the Scottish, and indeed global, potato industry. One focussed on bringing together all the industry actors; the other on the science. The latter group worked with UK and Dutch researchers to develop a chitin-rich compost, made from shellfish waste, that enhances the flora in the soil and supresses the pest. They also worked with precision agriculture company Soil Essentials and Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) on improving related soil sampling. “The group was farmer and supply chain-led,” says facilitator Helen Glass of SAOS, “and I’m proud of how they co-operated, and grabbed the baton to set up meetings with academics and innovation centres.”

The future of Scottish farmer-led innovation

In Scotland, 98 per cent of our land mass is classed as rural and around 70% of our land is farmed. The food and drink industry is worth 14 billion a year to our economy: clearly, how we produce food is crucial to our country’s future.

Innovation, or creating value from ideas, has a huge role to play in finding new routes to sustainability and resilience in the agricultural sector. Yet currently only one percent of UK spend on agricultural R&D goes to farmer-led innovation. We would say that percentage should be increased, and should go to services like RISS, which put farmers at their centre.

The not-always-glamorous role of the facilitator, who assigns tasks, plans meetings, communicates next steps and keeps everything moving towards a project plan is crucial.

Farmers are best-placed to have ideas about agricultural innovation, but they don’t have time to develop an idea, or access to the people they need to refine it and take it forward. The well-connected and expert facilitator is the key to turning an idea into an innovation.

At Soil Association Scotland we are proud to have led the Rural Innovation Support Service, to have worked productively alongside our partners, and to know that so many innovative groups and projects are continuing thanks to start they got from RISS.

> Read about all these RISS groups on the group news page

> See the full list of RISS groups

> What is RISS? Back to homepage 

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