Lifetime achievement award for former head of NIAB CUF, David Firman

13 Dec 2019
At the recent National Potato Industry Awards the work of NIAB CUF was recognised with two awards. Former Head of NIAB CUF Dr David Firman won the AHDB Potato Industry Award for his lifetime dedicated to research that shaped the sector.

The award was collected by his successor, Dr Mark Stalham. Mark too was celebrating an award of his own – scooping the Agronomy award. As David recently stepped down as Head of the NIAB CUF, it’s time to look back at his career:

An integral part of the Potato Research group since joining in 1984, David succeeded Eric Allen as leader in 2008, supervising the transfer of CUF into NIAB in 2013.

His involvement with potato research began with an undergraduate project on tissue culture at the University of Cambridge. He became the first CUPGRA-sponsored PhD student, studying leaf growth and senescence under the supervision of Eric Allen. Shortly after he developed the measure of days after emergence as the scale for quantifying crop development, superseding the still widely used days after planting. In 1987, he helped developed variety-specific nitrogen recommendations that, along with the concept of determinacy, has led to the existing AHDB nitrogen fertiliser recommendations.

In 1989, he established relationships between yield, light interception and ground cover, which form the basis of the NIAB CUF Potato Yield Model. This model was validated in Colorado in 2005 and won the NIAB CUF the Oxford Farming Conference Practice With Science Award in 2014 and is now being using worldwide.

The cup awarded to David Firman

The AHDB Potato Industry Award given to David Firman

In 1995, he set up the Disease Testing Service at CUF – used extensively by many growers and industry members since then. Pertinently, as we lose diquat as a desiccant, David worked with Syngenta in 1999 developing improved-practice, split dose rates of Reglone, adopted by the industry until its removal this year. Similarly, led by David, his group at CUF developed azoxystrobin (Amistar) as a control agent for black dot in potatoes.

However, probably the most important development of David's career has been the understanding of seed chronological age. This relies on the observation that the number of stems produced after planting is linearly related to the number of days lapsing between emergence of the seed crop and replanting of that seed for ware production. This work developed between 1996 and 2000 (coining the term ‘chronological age’) and ultimately resulted in a comprehensive series of seed rate guides published from 2005 onwards.David raking potatoes

David’s understanding of the fundamental differences between physiological and chronological seed age (and the use of small seed) and how these determine tuber number per plant in the ware crop, has had a huge influence on improving profitable production of bakers and baby new potatoes.

David always championed that good science was the way forward in profitable potato production, and wrote many peer-reviewed papers on potato agronomy with other members of the team. He was involved in, and promoted, research sponsored by the Potato Marketing Board, British Potato Council, Potato Council and AHDB Potatoes.

Anyone who can persuade a farmer of the importance of owning not just a spade and a ground cover measurement grid, but also a microscope, is a special person and will be sorely missed by the potato industry worldwide. We wish him the best for whatever he decides to do next.