Taking a group of University of Cambridge academics – from the departments of Plant Sciences, Geography and Land Economy – to Cereals 2019 was a fascinating and revealing clash of cultures. We spend so much time in our respective bubbles, it is always healthy to get exposure to the other worlds – attending the largest farming show in the country did just that!
So, what did we take away from our day out, aside from mounds of leaflets and pens, and a hefty caking of Lincolnshire mud? Here are four key reflections from the day.
This seems obvious, of course, when you are at an event like Cereals. But when you are caught in intellectual academic discussions it is all too easy to forget that farmers are ultimately business people. New innovations must be trusted to make them a profit. Interventions to increase land for nature on the farm must be compatible with profitable farming, otherwise there will be no more farming. And decisions about the use of chemicals are of course made with profit and long term viability in mind.
We came away with a new respect for the number of unknowns farmers must balance. In most businesses you can do the same thing year on year and expect roughly the same outcome. In farming, you can plant the same seed, but have different weather, new pests, or a change in legislation, leaving you with a very different outcome. Managing these unknowns, as well as the wider economic climate, a changing labour market, and a cultural role as custodians of the countryside, makes for a tough business!
The recent ban on neonicotinoids was fairly common knowledge amongst our group, but it was still very interesting to see the practical implications of this ban for farmers. We heard how the quantities of oil seed rape grown in the UK were fast declining and how even those fields that were planted were often devastated by Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle. However, this challenge is driving innovation out of necessity – new rotation patterns are being developed, and even new chemical treatments that could be applied later in the growing cycle, whereby reducing the overall chemical load.
The ever-tightening legislation around chemical use on farms is also driving innovation in use of biologics - both by organic bodies which you would expect to be working in this area, but also by the likes of Bayer and their peers, who we were more surprised about! It was very interesting to hear about Bayer’s new biological seed treatment, which facilitates better mycorrhizal connections in plant roots. This was particularly interesting to those in our group who study mycohorrizal interactions in the lab!
For those of us working in Plant Sciences, identifying genes for pre-breeding programs was fairly common knowledge. However, this work tends to be focused around disease resistance, drought tolerance, or other ‘practical’ growth traits. It was fascinating and eye opening, therefore, to hear from NIAB about just how many different types of wheat varieties there are, for different end uses. Different flours for biscuits, bread, and feed, and breeding for taste or starch qualities, was an aspect of trait selection that we hear much less about. So it was a great reminder of just how many different traits commercial breeders must juggle to get the perfect variety.
Whilst there was much to take in about the current state of farming, thoughts of future challenges were never far away. The state of the showground was a vivid reminder of our ever more unpredictable weather – after months of very little rain, we seemed to have got all that we were due over a matter of days. Smarter water management is only going to increase in importance, so it was great to see the water companies out in force, starting conversations about on-farm catchment management.
The exhibit which really got me thinking on the way home, however, was the Hands Free Hectare demonstration. Developed by Harper Adams University, this was a project which has already achieved two years of yield from a hectare of land, without any human hands involved. This year they are expanding to manage 35 hectares. Whilst I would normally be hesitant about automation taking human jobs, for a sector where there is a massively aging population, and a slim pipeline of incomers, this can only be a positive development. Not everyone will be keen, of course, but for those that are, this could lead to a new era of smarter land management – and that is hugely exciting.
So, all in all it was a very stimulating day, and one that will inform the context for our research for some time to come. It was great to meet such a wider variety of stakeholders, and we owe particular thanks to Bayer and NIAB for tours of their stands. I am already excited for next year!
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