The need for more demonstrator farms is a frequent request from farmers. When we ran a workshop last year to identify the most ‘trusted sources of information’ opportunities, top of the list was the desire to see what is happening in the field supported by peer-to-peer learning.
So it is encouraging to see a number of initiatives emerging across the region that will increase the opportunities for farmers to participate in trials and pilots.
The concept of demonstration and field-scale trials has always been popular, indeed back in the 18th Century the go-to place to learn about new crop and livestock innovation was ‘Coke of Holkham’s three day sheep-shearing competition’ which in its day attracted entrepreneurs from far and wide.
One of the most exciting developments currently is the NIAB AgriGate Research Hub facility at Hasse Fen in Soham. Set amidst some of the most productive land in the region, it is a managed field laboratory for industrial-scale research in fresh produce, with a major focus on reducing waste. It is now opening its doors – and fields – for business.
In addition to commercial field-based vegetable research trials with partners such as G’s Fresh, Greenvale AP, Barfoots, Strutt and Parker Farms and Tesco, the facility is also working on research projects which aim to increase flexibility in harvesting schedules.
Of particular interest to vegetable farmers includes work on soil health, the development of new agronomic practices to improve the quality and standing ability of crops, and projects to improve knowledge of crop growth and development in order to inform strategies for managing maturity – especially for salad and brassica crops.
Research on controlled and modified atmosphere storage is also a focus. Ethylene gas is a ripening agent, which occurs naturally in nature, it causes wilting in vegetables and flowers and ripening and decay in fruit. The new research aims to improve the current ethylene scrubber technologies in order to extend the shelf life of fresh produce and preserve freshness.
Other areas of study include the development of new seed mixes to help manage field margins and attract pollinating insects. These swards could also generate revenue by being harvested as feedstocks for anaerobic digesters.
AgriGate has been made possible following a £0.5M investment from the Eastern Regional Growth Initiative and the new facility welcomes commercial partners who are looking to run projects at the facility – they will even help write a grant proposal for public funding and will manage the project.
Other demonstration opportunities include the successful LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) programme which has built up a network of demonstration farms as exemplars of best practice in environmentally responsible farming. A strong network of collaboration has formed as a result.
And also the HGCA’s Monitor Farm initiative provides a great example of farmer to farmer knowledge exchange. It brings together groups of local farmers to share information about the financial and agronomic performance of their businesses, delivering real and relevant experience of best practice.
Participation in research
Trialling new innovations at field scale remains a critical element of the technology translation pathway, Rothamsted and the John Innes Centre have field-based trial facilities to support their research and a number of farmers grow trial plots for crop breeding companies (many of whom are also located in the region), and agricultural chemical distributors.
We often hear of the plea for an independent, dedicated field-based resource where new ideas can be road-tested and demonstrated in the field context. NIAB’s Innovation Farm has proved a fantastic facility to do just this – showcasing some of the best plant genetic innovations in from businesses and universities and regularly hosting visits by farmers, breeders and technologists.
There will be an opportunity to visit trial plots and learn more about the results of trials of new seed mixes at our June Pollinator which includes a visit to the trial plots at NIAB .
Anyone interested in finding out more about Agri-Gate and how to get involved should contact email@example.com.