Learning from the bottom up

Last week I was at an event where inspiring farmers – in this case Nick Down, David Miller, and Nik Renison – showcased, with the pictures to prove it, some of the brilliant innovations they have pioneered on their farms. And they really were inspiring, with a palpable buzz in the full-house audience as they spoke.

Conferences like this one last week make clear that farmers want to learn from other farmers. Credit: @PhilipCaseFW / Mark Allen Group / Twitter 2022

Moments like this highlight – at least to me – that farmers really want to learn from other farmers. Or consider other examples like Groundswell or Carbon Calling.  Or the farmer clusters that have sprouted like mushrooms. Or the networks of Monitor Farms and Demonstration Farms and Strategic Farms. Or the countless discussions on Twitter and The Farming Forum. Together it seems glaringly obvious that farmers want to learn in this way: from each other.

But if this is so, why is agricultural research conducted in almost precisely the opposite way?

Agricultural research is based on plot trials, not farmers learning from other farmers. Why? Credit: Michael Trolove / Cereal trial plot, Cereals 2010 / CC BY-SA 2.0

There are plot trials in carefully controlled conditions, with replicates, and then peer reviewed results are trickled down to farmers. Surely Liz Truss proved to destruction that trickle down is not the best way of running things? The results of studies and trials are too often irrelevant to farmers who are in different contexts to those the trial was conducted in – on different soils say, or with a different climate. Or they simply couldn’t work at the scale of a real farming system.

What if we could do agricultural research in a different way? What if we could harness the fact that farmers are naturally scientists who have already been experimenting on their fields for decades in most cases.  As Nick and David and Nik all showed, there are new innovations already being proven on farms and, by definition, these are actually working at farm scale. And if we look at all the farms trying new things – i.e., practically every farm in one way or another – between them there are innovations there that any other farm could benefit from.

Can we harness these on-farm innovations in order to help every farm maximise its potential to grow healthy food, profitably, and in a way that restores rather than degrades the land? Can we make farmer to farmer learning the basis of agricultural research?

I think the answer is yes, but to do so we will need to get past some challenges.

  1. Farmers aren’t running replicated trials or monitoring a thousand parameters in every field – is this really valid science other farmers can learn from?

The key here is zooming out. One farm – say an arable farm with 30 fields – is in effect conducting 30 experiments each year. That’s not much compared to a researcher with many tens or hundreds of replicates. But when you start looking at many farms, going back many years, you quickly see that farmers have effectively run thousands, if not millions of on-farm ‘experiments’.

Every crop grown in every field each year is in effect an ‘experiment’ – why don’t we use this as a basis for agricultural research? Credit: Jan Kopřiva  / Unsplash

And while they haven’t been monitoring each one as precisely as a scientific trial, there is still a wealth of information that is usually recorded – from soil samples, to yields, to inputs applied, to tillage practices used – on each of those ‘experiments’. This information is currently just sitting siloed and under-utilised on most farms.

Projects like the AHDB funded SMIS have shown that by looking at this siloed information together it’s possible to uncover new insights that are practically useful for farmers. Things like:

  • On what soil types does sugar beet have the least impact on subsequent yields?
  • What rotation most improves organic matter levels on different soil types?

There are so many potential questions that can be answered in this way. And this one resource of on-farm information can answer many more specific questions than the ‘one problem at a time’ approach of traditional replicated trials can. Added to that, traditional research approaches struggle to look at the long cycle of a full rotation because of time-limited funding cycles. In contrast, looking at the existing information going back over one or two rotations from a range of farms can answer specific questions that reflect on-farm practice.

  • Even if on-farm innovation can be the basis for research, how are the findings any more relevant than in the current top-down system?

Clearly all the initiatives outlined earlier, from conferences to monitor farms to magazines like the one you are reading now, are a good way of disseminating knowledge. And even if new research, like that outlined above, was based on existing on-farm information this would still apply. But this new approach could also enable a new dissemination option – one which more directly links to that original observation: farmers learn best from other farmers.

For example, if we combine information on how all of these on-farm ‘experiments’ have been conducted with the rich array of environmental data that we’re fortunate to have in the UK, we can allow farms to compare themselves against other similar farms based on any combination of variables including farm type, geology, soil type, and climate. This then allows the findings of this new, farm-based research, to be tailored so that farmers are presented with the research that is relevant for each one of their fields.

This new approach could not only uncover new types of insight and knowledge that no plot trial would ever have the scale to discover. But it would also nip in the bud one of the biggest gripes levelled at agricultural research: ‘that wouldn’t work on my farm’. The insights that farmers see could be based on the fields of other farms that are like theirs. They could even be put in touch with those other farmers directly to discuss the findings.

Join the bottom-up approach!

We have launched a new partnership between Soil Benchmark and Cranfield University to build this new model for bottom-up agricultural research. For the approach to work it needs the participation of farmers from across the country, whose fields together cover every major soil type and every major cropping system. We are welcoming farmers from all over England to join us, with 65,000 acres already signed up.

Get in touch if you’d like to get involved, and turn the existing information you’ve already collected on your fields into the research of tomorrow!

Dr Ben Butler is the Chief Scientific Officer of Soil Benchmark, a DEFRA funded start-up working alongside NIAB and ADAS, looking to help farmers learn from the existing data they have already collected on their farms.