Past, present and future of KT

13 Jul 2012

Despite the weather forecast we attended the first day, and sadly the only day, of the Great Yorkshire Show. It was crowded and the weather held until mid-afternoon, and in that rain-break I briefly read about the conclusions of the Defra Green Food Project. So, for me, the day provided a link between the past, present and future.

Many county, including the Yorkshire, and local agricultural societies were established in the 1830-40s; the Royal Agricultural Society of England in 1838 and Rothamsted in 1843. This was a time of greater domestic demand for food from an increasingly urbanised society - but before the steam engine had enabled the opening up of the Ukraine and the prairies and the cheap international transport of agricultural produce.KT in practice at NIAB in 1922 - discussing the impact of drought on potato trials

However, internal communications were rapidly improving through better roads and the establishment of railways. So there was an emphasis on and a reward for domestic food production. Improved communications not only meant more efficient transport of produce but also that farmers could get together more regularly to discuss the latest techniques.

It was really the start of what we now call knowledge transfer (KT), with the agricultural societies and shows playing a key role.

It was also a time of great technical innovation, particularly the understanding of soil nutrients, increased mechanisation and installation of field drainage. Coke of Holkham established better farm practices based on the Norfolk Four Course Rotation which was developed by ‘Turnip’ Townshend on the nearby Raynham Estates.

‘Turnip’ was perhaps the first great agronomist; he worked out how to crop all the land without having to resort to fallows and used the invention of perhaps the first great ‘tyre kicker’, Jethro Tull, in order to drill cereals and turnips in rows. This made it easier to weed crops and soon the horse hoe was introduced.

Coke established model farms, i.e. demonstration units, and open days, and farmers flocked to attend. As always, attendance was bolstered by the offer of a free lunch - nothing changes.

However, Coke complained that his ideas only spread by a mile a year, so KT was a problem even in those days and is a salutary lesson for those still seeking the ‘Holy Grail’ of KT. Some of the issues of KT were evident from Coke’s efforts. His system was great for the light soils of north Norfolk but perhaps less pertinent to heavy soils. I can imagine a couple of heavy land farmers kicking the soil at Holkham and saying it was not for them, but what a great lunch!

The reality is that there is no single ‘one-fits-all’ approach to KT; all that can be hoped for is that it is appropriate, timely and well co-ordinated. Each farmer and adviser is different and requires knowledge packaged in different ways. Some take more cognisance than others of what other farmers are doing; some are more risk-takers than others etc.

Researchers have been known to complain about poor KT preventing their pet projects from being adopted without thinking either about the risks involved or about the ease of management. Sadly, some researchers only present current findings in such a way as to try to secure further funding - farmers and advisers are very good at spotting that behaviour. Indeed, many of those responsible for KT in the past have underestimated the farmer’s and adviser’s ability to judge what they are seeing, reading or hearing and to assess if it is appropriate for their own businesses.

Well, that’s dealt with the past and perhaps a bit of the present. So what of the future? The Green Food Project is all about how increasing productivity can be balanced with improving the environment i.e. sustainable intensification. Now there’s a challenge for KT!

However, the authors fully acknowledge the future role of farmers and advisers in this process and have used the term Knowledge Exchange rather than KT. Other parts of the report suggest that as our climate gets warmer we may be growing more exotic crops such as chickpeas. I hope they’re easier to harvest than field peas or a year such as this will sort them out.

Our personal links with the past and future at the Great Yorkshire Show were reflected in our purchases. My wife bought me a liquorish whirl; a good and now traditional product of Yorkshire. I bought some rather nice olives; a new crop for the UK?

Finally, in this blog I may have overplayed the role of the UK in the development of farming systems. I say this because I was made aware of a salutary lesson a few years ago when visiting a research farm in a part of Australia well endowed with rainfall but not having the ability to get the water away from the fields. So they started to grow wheat on raised beds to increase the ‘freeboard’ for the cereal roots. A young researcher told me that she was excitedly explaining this new approach to some Chinese agronomists who quietly explained that they’d been doing the same for the past 1,500 years.