East Anglia: Farmers have ‘exciting and bright future’ says RASE chief executive

David Gardner, chief executive of the Royal Agricultural Society of England

David Gardner, chief executive of the Royal Agricultural Society of England - Credit: submitted

An exciting and bright future for the next generation of farmers was predicted by the chief executive of the Royal Agricultural Society of England.

David Gardner, who took over last March, told 40 members of Stalham Farmers’ Club that the industry had huge opportunities and potential.

In a fast-moving 55-minute address, he said that the pace of scientific progress at world-class research centres including Norwich’s John Innes Centre could transform the food and farming sectors.

He said that the RASE, which was established in 1837 just four years before Stalham Farmers’ Club was founded, was looking forward to help meet the challenge of growing more food and especially energy crops.

Mr Gardner, who joined Co-op Farms in 1981 as a management trainee, said that government has now recognised the importance of funding plant-based research at centres on the Norwich Research Park and Rothamsted in Hertfordshire. “They had got very good facilities and they’re world-class. They’re as good as anywhere in the world.”

However, practical delivery of research, knowledge transfer, to farmers on the ground has failed. “The problem with our agricultural research is that over the past 30 years or so, applied research and knowledge transfer has been completely demolished. It is almost non-existent in this country.

“The experimental husbandry farms that many of us grew up with, have been shut down or sold off.”

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“Basic research is not tumbling down into applied research and then getting out on farm where people would use and make use of it.”

Mr Gardner said that last autumn a high level group of Whitehall civil servants visited the RASE’s headquarters at the National Agricultural Centre to discuss the knowledge transfer challenge. This group then met its neighbours, the NFU and Prof Ian Crute at the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.

Whitehall officials were extremely well aware of the failure to link science research and practical farmers. He said that they had “a really good grip of what was wrong.”

“It came as no surprise to me that chancellor George Osborne’s autumn statement included £600m for science,” he added.

There was every possibility that agricultural research could benefit from some of this extra funding. “It is going to be a really exciting time. There’s going to be more and more money flowing through and more information flowing on to the farm.

“What’s really staggering. We’re right back in centre stage. Government sees agriculture and food production as an area of the economy which will lead us out of the recession. And if you think where we were only six or seven years ago, when we were a discarded interest on the radar of government, we’ve come a long way.”

“For the young people here tonight, it is going to be a really exciting time for your generation. We’re wanted, farmers are back in fashion. We’re seen as the custodians of the countryside whereas 30 years, we were the pariahs. What we’re producing is wanted, it is a great place to be.”

Mr Gardner said that some industry experts have suggested that the skill to translate science to farmers has been lost. “The RASE is in the process of becoming involved in promoting this area of knowledge transfer. The RASE began very much with practice with science, taking knowledge out to farmers when it started more than 170 years ago.”

Mr Gardner said it lost its way when it became the ‘Royal Show Society” but since the closure of the Royal Show, it had to re-define itself.

He said that Henry Cator, who was among the audience and is chairman of the RASE’s council, had been one of the leaders of this process.

“It went back to its roots in terms of knowledge transfer. My role at the RASE is to put in a knowledge transfer imitative and to pick science up and take it out to the industry.

“We’re positioning ourselves right at the front of the technology adoption curve. We’re picking up niche subjects that others are not really covering. There’s plenty of scope. We’re also working on soils and particularly soil organic matter,” he added.