Stones or Beatles? Oasis or Blur? Cereals or Groundswell?
It’s a lazy way to categorise farmers but I’m not the first person to compare and contrast the diversity of ideas showcased at the two leading events for arable farming. An even cruder test would be to ask if our farming problems will be solved by the wizardry of gene editing or by following the prophecy of a soil health guru?
In most previous winters I’ve been like most agronomists who sit through presentations on fungicide responses and resistance shifts. This winter Bill Clarke slipped off the top spot in the charts and there won’t be many agronomists who haven’t been engaging with webinars on soil microbiology and regen ag. Many of us are re-learning the empathy for soil and crops which had been demoted during a time when synthetic interventions have ruled. We’ve been busy putting names to things we thought we knew but couldn’t explain or quantify. Whether an understanding of concepts like the effects of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus on soil aggregation will help us to achieve more resilient soils remains to be seen. The language may be new to some of us, but the practices have their origins in good farming, and what has been will be again. Amongst this excellent work is some material which I have found much more challenging. Having listened to John Kempf’s webinar on total immunity of healthy plants to pest and disease attack, I found myself trying to keep my mind open without letting my brain fall out.
We are on a more determined route to a more sustainable future now than at any time in my career, precisely because the systems which we have adopted are falling down more frequently. It’s easy to be hard on your younger self and I now look back with a wry smile to 1997 when I discovered that all I needed to do was get drilled up by the end of September and pick an appropriate programme of sprays to deal with any problems. In fairness to that arrogant youth I was right for a few years, but a system propped up on inputs has started to crumble very quickly, particularly when rainfall distribution has challenged the system further. It seems appropriate that the word humility is derived from the Latin humus for earth. Humility is perhaps something we should apply to our farming now to balance some of the hubris of recent decades.
The species diversity that is part of many farmers’ approach to more sustainable farming Is not the only diversity worth considering. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to look around at worldwide agronomy through a Nuffield Farming Scholarship study tour and taking influence from a diversity of sources has been a good experience. One that sticks in my mind was at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security where I heard a delegate from Rwanda describe farmers as priests in the marriage between food security and climate change. If I could live up to that description, it may be as close as I get to working in the clergy, but it reminded me that not all the answers will come from middle-aged white blokes in checked shirts like me.
Sustainability is defined for my purposes as those methods with which we can continue into the future, profitably and with acceptable external costs. Farmers had been adapting their systems for a long time before they discovered the need for an agronomist to navigate the complexity of crop protection choice. Agronomists play a part in the decision-making on farms but the principal role for which we originally trained and took instructions from our clients is diminishing; we need to continue to bring something to the table before our chair is removed. There is still a job to be done in organising a sensible crop protection programme, but as that programme becomes simpler and less effective, our skill set needs to evolve.
I was humbled last autumn as I realised that some of the most important decisions my customers were making were those which I’m not well qualified to help make. In two situations a few days apart, I contributed to the decision on whether or not to drill in poor conditions. In one case I said drill and the other I said don’t. As you might have predicted, both were drilled and, on reflection, I think I was wrong in both cases. It demonstrated to me that some of the things I need to do now are different from those I needed 20 years ago and I’m better qualified for the latter than the former.
So, an agronomist needs to adapt just like our customers do. This realisation seems to have hit home recently, and it’s been rewarding to see agronomists from the independent and trade sector alike raising their game regarding training and application to a rapidly evolving reality. Our customers want as much input from us on the way to integrate stewardship scheme options to their arable rotation as they do on herbicide regimes. Advising customers to build more resilient systems by growing fewer cash crops and more species rich pasture doesn’t come easily to all agronomists but alongside the adoption of new technologies and conventional chemistry it’s the blend between Cereals and Groundswell which will be increasingly important to get right.
At Agrii we have been developing an approach to this new normal, pulled together by our Green Horizons manifesto. It’s an umbrella which covers our commitments to sustainability, balancing the external costs of how we farm with the essential work of producing food. Of course, the answers aren’t simple or complete but in providing an over-arching direction for our work it will guide what we do. Examples include the commitment for 100% of research to be based on Integrated Pest Management principles, the introduction of Variety Sustainability Ratings based on genetic resilience and work to improve Nutrient Use Efficiency. All this is done with a continuing focus on productivity, as it is still the case that high yields usually maximise resource efficiency. Green Horizons is Agrii’s framework to address these issues and I expect to see more of the same from all sorts of agronomy businesses.
One element of this conversation which affects the whole industry is the unintended impact of agrochemical use. This elephant has been in the room for some time. We have been adopting Integrated Pest Management for many years but one of the indicators of success is the trend in agrochemical use. Results from the most recently published Pesticide Use Survey conducted by FERA don’t tell the story we would like. There is mounting pressure to reduce the unintended impact of plant protection products through legislation. The National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides and part two of the National Food Strategy are just two of the trains coming down those tracks. It’s time for us to grasp the nettle. Agrii have now made a commitment to measure and reduce the negative impacts caused by our use of PPPs. That might not be what was expected a few years ago and shows how far we have come and how quickly things are changing.
The blend of conventional, newer and re-discovered approaches will be what defines the future of the support that agronomists provide, and whether the technologies are showcased at Cereals or Groundswell, they will need to be considered in concert. I’m still only part way through my apprenticeship to this trade so I don’t want to pick a favourite just yet.