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A networking organisation for plants-related research and impact

CambPlants once again attended Cereals with a group of early career researchers (ECRs) from the departments of Plant Sciences and Engineering, NIAB, the Crop Science Centre, Cambridge Zero, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Sainsbury Lab. It was a welcome day out, with a vast number of talks and exhibition stands to attend, as well as opportunities to meet farmers, other researchers, industry representatives, and a myriad other persons and institutions affiliated to the agricultural world.

So, what are some of the things we learnt?

Farmers have to manage multiple challenges in order to keep their farms running, including managing the impact of Brexit on their income and staffing, embracing new technology, and diversifying their income streams to hedge against negative change. Indeed, there was a whole series of talks related to these challenges, and I sat in on one that looked alternative income generating strategies. Kim Walton of Rural Ventures provided a frank overview of the possibilities of pop-up camping on farms, as well as marketing and logistical advice. Kathryn and David Cross from Centre Paws in Norfolk discussed their farm’s gradual transformation to hosting multiple canine businesses in tandem with farming activities. This has been an ongoing process for over a decade, with some of the businesses run by external entrepreneurs. They also discussed marketing strategies, the importance of multiple income streams, and how income from the canine businesses usefully supplements their farming income. The importance of supplementing diminishing farm income was made more explicit to me in conversation with a Yorkshire farmer. Her family owns pig farms, but is struggling to make sufficient income. She works full-time at a charity, as well doing the farms’ administrative work. She and her husband would like to start a small glamping site to increase their income and step back from the day-to-day farming operations, but are currently too indebted to do this. As she put it, ‘I just want to pay all the bills on time.’

The second session I attended covered young farmers and their perspectives on farming. The part that most interested me was the young famers own perspectives on how to inform and promote farms and farming careers to children and young adults. To add to this challenge is the importance of mentorship, and the provision of income during training and for those who would like to venture into farming. These are not easily resolved problems for those who do not come from farming families, or who live in more urban locations. However, suggestions included integrating farm visits into school curriculums and creating greater awareness of farming on social media. So that, to paraphrase one panel member, ‘children don’t think that chicken comes from supermarkets.’

The ECRs had an informative experience:

‘It was a fantastic opportunity to get to know a bit more on the most advanced developments around cereals and relevant agriculture. I learnt not only many different ways to maintain the health of the plants, but also the broad ranges of technologies used to help sustaining and advancing this area. In particular, I was impressed by the talks at New Era Theatre, in particular the business development which strengthens the use of satellite on monitoring the crops (rather than the drones because of the investment return consideration), as well as the research/analytics that have gone into developing decision-making support tools to help the farmers make better and more informed decisions. Overall, I learnt a lot about the aspects around cereals that I have not originally been made aware of before and think this has been an amazing experience.’

‘The day involved visiting lots of different stands and displays and finding out what was going on in the world of Cereals. Although my main interest was about the science research that was going on, I learned lots about the practical side of farming that I usually wouldn't get a chance to learn about. There were also many speakers that talked about the policies surrounding farming and what that means for the future. The talks and stands gave an insight in to the multiple areas of cereals farming and how they are all interlinked, and as a researcher it is great to see how this research applies to the real-world.’

The ECRs were advised to set specific learning goals for the trip, as it only happens once a year and would be one of their premier opportunities to access a variety of persons/institutes involved in farming. It was heartwarming to see their changes in knowledge/perspectives, as can be seen from the short surveys that they completed before and after the trip:

Before After
Knowledge of the state of the art in automated machine control technologies in agriculture, general awareness of key issues facing the industry; technological, commercial, (geo)political. Yes, very useful - watched a number of field trials of different automated and robotic agricultural vehicles covering a wide variety of approaches. Discussed the design and control of the most advanced automated field robot present with staff from its developer.
I expect to gain an insight into the traits which breeders are trying to achieve in their elite cultivars. I learnt what a lady bird looks like through its whole life cycle, what the government is doing to promote woodlands on farms and about an Ethiopian barley project currently being carried out at the James Hutton Institute. I also talked to some of the breeding companies about potential careers. This was useful as I am coming to the end of my PhD and am starting to think about my next steps.
I want to get the knowledge of nowadays technologies applied in agriculture and how large machinery improves the productivity of plant growth and reduces human labour. What impressed me most are the big automatic machines that have been applied to agriculture including seeding, powdering, watering and fertilizing. New remote-control machines can automatically detect the frontier of the land, design the route for operation with the incorporation of new technologies like GPS, high resolution visional sensor, etc.
I am expecting to learn more about agriculture in general. I am a wet-lab scientist but I want to learn what is going on in the field, in real life. Agricultural demonstrations were useful, they opened my mind about how to connect science to agriculture.
I expect to learn about research being conducted by research institutes as well as about recent crop varieties that are on the market. I learnt about the different research going on at the research institutes, universities, and breeding companies that were there. I also learnt a lot from other students and post-docs that were on the trip that I haven't talked to before or haven't spoken to in a long while. Everything met my expectations and some of the knowledge I gained will help me with data analysis and thesis writing.


Images provided by Yeorgia Argirou, Hui Ben and CambPlants.