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The changing world of R&D - Why Agronomists Must Adapt - Stuart Hill - Agronomist & Arable Farmer

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Every year the agricultural industry spends tens of millions of pounds on research and development – and this significant commitment does not include the costs to those research organisations or businesses for the amount of time resource allocated to implement the ideas, concepts, protocols and trials themselves.

Increasingly our trial work is problem solving the challenges bought about by the EU regulatory process and significant product revocations. This is reaching a crescendo currently as a wave of re-registrations move through the process eg Diquat, Thiram. Certain areas are seeing a vacuum open up with the dearth of available products available for use, and this is where our Fen potato trial site and Old Leake Brassica demonstration sites come into their own as alternative approaches are trialled.

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Agriculture in reality has always been quite internally focussed. But we, like so many other industries, are beginning to be influenced by some very large and fast developing technologies. The race is on with regards to energy use and efficiency and this will impact us whether its computers, phones, vehicles, tractors etc.

More fundamentally, decision support technologies and data analysis are rapidly becoming engrained in every day farming and this will have an impact on our relationship with growers and advice in future. It is also clear that this change will likely happen faster than the industry has previously experienced. Omnia is an example of utilising a precision decision hub to provide beneficial advice to growers eg costs of production tool to make decisions on more effective land use.

So, in light of this rapidly changing environment we need to ask if it is still valid that new concepts and solutions should continue to be trialled as they are?

Proofing product solutions eg crop protection products has traditionally been based on small plot trials as these broadly give a definitive answer of how the products perform

We are in an era of incremental gains; beyond crop protection products there are a plethora of micronutrients, biostimulants, biologicals and soil amendments on offer. We have to filter these and test the concepts first in more controlled conditions before taking them out into the field situation where a multitude of other factors affect them.

These products are not all about crop protection, they do necessarily directly kill or attack a disease or pest. They support and enhance pathways or processes in the plant that help build its own resilience and plant health. These are a lot less tangible and need more targeting based upon individual farm circumstances and systems. They are not one size fits all solutions.

These new approaches require greater research investment due to the scale and breadth of work required as well as new validation methods which is where new approaches such as YEN and our Omnia based tramline testing come into play. Utilising farm scale equipment and targeting fields and farms we can begin to build data to proof these new plant health options.

Funding is also a challenge. For the last decade there has been a push towards industry-led research. The reality is that this has not happened as we would necessarily have imagined. The research bodies have the structure to understand the resource and complex funding and bidding application process and it is in their interest to source this funding to ensure their continuity of profile in the R&D arena and maintain or grow their structures. This is actually a positive in many senses in that the UK needs to be a desired and chosen source of expertise and research, especially post Brexit, but sometimes the funding can be better applied to avoid duplication and fragmentation.

Ultimately the reason for any research work is to be able to deliver advice or solutions to the grower that support productivity, profitability or efficiency. As agronomists, with new technologies able to provide greater precision and beneficial decision support our approach to testing these theories is changing and with any challenge this breeds innovation. We are embarking on a new era and change is occurring at a faster pace than we are necessarily used to, so adaptability to this will benefit everyone.