Looking back on (another!) unusual year.
It is exactly a year to the day since we were writing the IfA 2020 year in review. Then we wrote about how 2020 had been a year of resilience and adaptation in all aspects of our lives. In that sense 2021 has been very much the same. However, on reflection there seems to have been an undercurrent of newfound determination throughout this last year to get life back on track as we know it. Innovation has no doubt been the ingredient for helping the world to do so. The transformation of dining rooms to online conference rooms, gardens into gyms, and kitchens into classrooms demonstrates just how well the world can adapt and innovate to ensure the continuation of our day to day lives. Our involvement in last year’s first ever online Agricultural Show which saw colossal efforts in our online animal showing classes, will forever stick with us as a brilliant example of Covid innovation!
As our name suggests, our organisation centres around promoting innovation and best practice in agriculture, working to improve profitability, productivity and sustainability in the UK farming sector. Both science and experience has shown peer to peer learning to be an impactful way of achieving change and adaptation. So, as we kicked off the new year last January, the restrictions resulting from the Covid 19 pandemic were certainly proving somewhat limiting for our mission and delivery. To overcome this challenge and building on the success of the 2020 Greatest Online Ag Show, in January we started work on our ‘IfA Live’ online event platform. This virtual space enables us to run online farm walks, presentations, host useful tools and resources and feature live Q&A sessions, replicating our in-person farm walks and demo’s.
Our first virtual farm walks were filmed by a member of the team last January and by April 2021 we had three online farm events to launch on behalf of Thames Water. These featured pioneering farmers: Jake Freestone - Farm Manager at Overbury Estate, David Miller - Farm Manager at Wheatsheaf Farming and Julian Gold – Farm Manger at Hendred Estate. The online events were a huge success. 76 farmers in the Thames Water Catchment logged onto IfA live to hear about the measures that these innovative farmers were implementing to prevent leaching and improve soil health. For the team at IfA, the most poignant outcome from the events, was how needed the live Q&A sessions were to not only encourage peer-to-peer learning, but to also provide an opportunity for a light-hearted chat during a time when isolation amongst the rural community was so high.
IfA live was not the only exciting outcome of the first few months of 2021. In January the DECIDE project was officially awarded funding. This project features a consortium of 19 EU partners, including IfA and is working todevelop data-driven decision-making tools for farmers and vets. Farmer discussion groups to identify requirements of future support tools are already underway for this 5-year project and we are really looking forward to disseminating the project outcomes with you all going forward.
This was not the only EU project making quick progress in 2021, with both the H2020 DISARM project and the H2020 FAIRshare project delivering good outcomes. As part of the FAIRshare project IfA coordinates the UK user case: a working group of agronomists and vets using digital tools to help improve their communication with farmers. For this our ‘IfA Live’ platform is being used to host a range of training material and live chats on biosecurity for vets to deliver online workshops with their clients, whilst our Carbon Decision Support Tool enables agronomists to more easily direct their clients to the most suitable carbon app for their farms. If you are an agronomist, or veterinarian working with sheep farmers, who would like to join our user case, please contact Philippa on email@example.com.
As we moved into Spring, Covid restrictions eventually started to ease a little and in April the livestock team were finally able to get back out on farm. This was the trigger for us to begin our blended events where we simultaneously delivered one of our wool welfare workshops online and in person. This proved hugely effective for removing usual barriers to attendance such as location or number limitations. We hope to deliver more events in this format throughout 2022.
As we hit mid-summer things started to get really exciting with the return of glorious Groundswell. The event was hosted fully outdoors utilising open sided marquees, meaning large crowds were permitted. The buzz and excitement of the event was brilliant. Not just because of the easing of Covid restrictions, but also because the theme of regenerative farming which is so heavily featured at Groundswell is starting to gain such momentum and interest. This year IfA ran an ’animals to arable’ (A2A) panel discussion which saw five farmers share their experiences of livestock integrated into an arable rotation. The panel discussion was very well received with a full house and approximately 140 attendees. Our full write up from the event can accessed here.
The winners of the Soil Farmer of the Year (SFOTY) competition were also announced at Groundswell. Now in its sixth year, the competition, run by the Farm Carbon Toolkit and IfA, showcases farmers who have prioritised soil health and become pioneers of the regenerative agricultural movement. This year’s winners were Tom Sewell, an arable farmer from Kent, and Sam Vincent, a dairy farmer from Dorset. The runner up was Anthony Pearce, a regenerative farmer from Buckingham. Entries are now open for the 2022 SFOTY competition so if you really ‘dig’ soil and are taking extra steps to manage soil health on your farm, the chances are that you are outstanding in your field (no pun intended!). If this is you we hugely encourage you to enter this great competition. More information can be accessed here.
By late Summer some of the team were on annual leave busy getting the harvest in – many of the IfA staff are also farmers alongside their role, so when we say we understand the difficulties of farming we truly do! Luckily the ball was kept rolling by the rest of the team, including new student Mukhtar Muhammad who has been helping IfA over the last few months alongside his PhD at the RAU in Sheep health and welfare.
September was a particularly busy time for the team as we concluded a hugely exciting piece of work on behalf of the WWF/Tesco partnership to produce a guide outlining practical and applicable methods for reducing GHG emissions. This guide will be officially launched the first week of January to coincide with both Oxford farming conferences. We will also be sending out a copy with every Farmers Weekly, so for those of you who subscribe to the magazine you will be receiving the guide straight through your letter box!
Some of the IfA team at Westmorland Agricultural Show in September
As the summer faded into Autumn, we managed to squeeze in a quick international cross exchange visit in between Covid restrictions. As part of the NEFERTITI project, we took 4 farmers on study tours around France to look at the latest technology in dairy farming. This was a hugely informative trip and a great experience for the farmers involved. If you would be interested in joining us for future international exchange trips, then we'd be delighted to hear from you. Let us know by emailing us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Again, as part of the NEFERTITI project, in November we organised two farm walks although this time a little closer to home. The first took place at FAI farms in Oxfordshire and explored Regenerative Agriculture and paddock grazing systems. The full write up on the event can be accessed here.
The second event took place at Northleaze farm near Swindon with Farmers Weekly Dairy farmer of the year, Robert Mallett. This event explored how we can make use of farm technology – the practical way. The full write up can be accessed here.
Both events were really well attended, and the exchange of knowledge was both informative and inspiring.
November was a busy month as we also helped the Royal Agricultural Society of England launch their pre-COP26 briefing paper on the Farm of the Future. This document outlines to policy makers ways in which farmers should be supported and encouraged to meet future environmental and profitability ambitions. The briefing paper, which can be accessed here, was released ahead of a fuller report aimed at farmers which will be launched at the Low Carbon Agriculture Show in March. IfA was part of a great team of contributing authors for this report and we will be widely disseminating the report in the spring so keep an eye out for its release.
Sadly, December greeted us with increasing Covid cases and restrictions, but if the past year is anything to go by, IfA along with the rest of the world will keep innovating, adapting and evolving. So many of us have achieved things we never thought possible during 2021 and that is certainly some positivity to take forward to 2022.
On a more personal note, we would like to share an exciting update on IfA staff. Our finance manager Manpreet got married this year, our fundraising manager Philippa got engaged. Our livestock research assistant Laura Palczynski finished her PhD in Calf Welfare and Roly Taplin joined us as Chief Operating Officer. Roly has been an integral part of the development of IfA’s new strategy and we are hugely excited to put this plan into action over the next year.
Finally, we would like to thank all of our farmers, supporters and partners. IfA is a small but agile organisation and there is no doubt that without you all we would be unable to achieve all that we have. Looking ahead the UK agricultural industry remains an uncertain place. We strongly believe that our role as an independent knowledge exchange organisation working to identify and utilise future opportunity will be much needed.
So, on that note, thank you. We wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year!