Reflections on strategies to engage farmers in on-farm experimentation in SolACE

The SolACE farmer networks are one component of the multi-actor approach to innovation development and implementation within the project. As no two networks are the same, these networks provide a unique opportunity to identify optimal ways of engaging with farmers in co-creation of innovations.

Farm manager explaining the practises around management and conventional growing of potatoes to some of the farmer network participants at Elveden Estates, Suffolk, England. Photo: Sara Iversen, 2018

SolACE has established seven diverse farmer networks in France, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK, each with its own unique way of working.

In some cases, multi-actor partners from SolACE are working with their existing networks. This is true for the French network run by ARVALIS as well as the network run by CONCER, in the south of Italy, which works with an existing network of organic farmers keen to test innovations relating to conservation agriculture. Research partners like FiBL and ÖMKi have also provided links to existing networks.

All of these partners have strong links with their network farmers and place a priority on responding to farmer suggestions about innovations to test, often trying to integrate SolACE innovations into existing trial designs. This approach effectively keeps farmers engaged with the project, but can result in a diverse range of treatments and trial designs within one network, which weakens the potential for statistical analysis of the trial data.

In Spain, scientists from UPM have linked with agronomists on the ground to identify interested farmers. Farmers have contributed to the identification of treatments for testing and the design of the trials. Researchers have been flexible and supported the farmers to trial two innovations at once: the use of decision support tools to optimise nitrogen application rates and timing, along with systems that include a grain legume prior to winter wheat. As all farmers will be testing the same innovations, there is the potential in this network to do some simple statistical analysis of the results using each farm as a replicate.

Working with existing networks is proving to be easier than starting networks from scratch. Existing networks already have relationships established and a level of trust between farmer participants and SolACE network leaders. Farmers are already familiar with the operation of trials on their land and are open to trialling innovations. In some cases, farmers are viewed by network leaders as partners in research and the design of the trials and their implementation is seen as a joint initiative.

In other locations, scientists have teamed up with local multi-actor partners to create a new network. In the UK this has resulted in challenges with getting farmer buy-in to trial some unusual innovations on farms (particularly potato hybrids). Ultimately, it has been agreed to begin the trials on a university farm in 2019 and to roll out on-farm trials in additional UK locations in 2020 once preliminary data have been collected. This low-risk approach is favoured by the multi-actor partner (LEAF) members who currently view the untested innovations as too risky for their farm business.

The farmer networks in SolACE will allow us to learn not only about the efficacy of the innovations being trialled, but also about the best ways to ensure real co-creation and co-innovation within this multi-actor project.