Is farming advice too compartmentalised?

12 Sep 2013

There has been a bit of a gap since my last blog because we were involved in a car accident when on holiday in France. This resulted in a week’s stay in a local French hospital and then a couple of days in a UK one. It was interesting to note the difference between the two.

All the ward staff in France seemed to be fully committed to our overall care and well-being within a fairly loose structure. They all wore the same uniform; from the orderly to the head ward nurse. Most of the day the orderly cleaned assiduously but also served the meals, often sharing that task with the head nurse.

In the UK there was a more rigid structure; there were those who cleaned; those who checked the cleaning; those who served meals; and those who nursed. Personally I think that the compartmentalised system in the UK is more likely to result in a breakdown in care when under financial pressure.

This set me thinking as to whether we have the right structures in agriculture to serve the well-being of our great industry. Have the support industries become too compartmentalised to the extent that the farmer is faced with an incomplete package of care? Each compartment may well be efficient in achieving its own targets but are individual farmers getting the support they need and deserve?

I fear that the answer to this latter question is that farmers often admit being confused by the different messages from the various parts of the industry, despite all the research being done on their behalf. This is nothing new but the situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

In a recent blog I referred to the reports in the press regarding what to do to control black-grass (Confused over blackgrass). Each report quoted conflicting views, particularly on the role played by different cultivation methods.

It’s easy to say that the cause for this has been a lack of applied research which the Government stopped funding in the late 1980s. This certainly hasn’t helpedJim at the NIAB TAG Blackgrass Centre. There’s still a lot spent on such research but because it isn’t co-ordinated it lacks coherence.

Let’s go back to the issue of cultivations and black-grass on this one. There is much disjointed, short-term and incomplete research on this subject; no wonder different trials come to different conclusions. Using the same level of overall resource to fund a few key experiments where every relevant detail is recorded over a few years would provide clear and definitive conclusions. However, the industry cannot achieve such a co-ordinated effort because of sectional interests.

It would be nice to finish this blog with a few hopeful words as to how we can move forward on these issues. However, we are where we are. In such a situation, individual farmers have to identify sources of information that have been interpreted in such a way as to benefit their businesses rather than the compartmentalised interests of others.

There are some tests that can be applied to the veracity of the information. Boringly, the basic information presented will not change much from year to year and when it does, it has been updated by sound and independent research or field experience that has been carefully interpreted. ‘New’ science is always being presented but what excitingly may appear as a superior technique may not stand up to reviews by informed pragmatic agronomists.

So, it is up to those providing interpreted information to farmers not only to listen to and read the science but also to look at the data presented to see if it will bring any benefit to an individual farmer’s businesses. It is amazing what fresh sets of eyes can generate from a data set generated by a scientist who may have an incomplete overall knowledge of agronomy. Let’s face it; scientists inevitably work in their own compartments.

By the way, one lovely touch about French medical care was that every meal came with a neatly ironed and folded linen napkin! Just a hint of Gallic flair.