Farmer groups leading innovation and research (Organised by ORC/Soil Association)

Innovation Clubs and Operational Groups allow producers to take control of improving their own businesses. This session aimed to set out the opportunities and provide inspiration from those that have already done it.

Dr Bruce Pearce (ORC): Chair

Session summary

Victor Leforestier from BASE France told us about how farmers in France are leading the way in conservation agriculture from the bottom. The group aims to be really independent, not influenced by any particular agro-business and is based on the farmers who are members taking voluntary action. Network is life and should be fully bottom-up .

Mark Duponcel from DG AGRI from the EU Commission told us that previous commissioner Ciolos wanted to prepare a toolbox to enable the farming sector to prepare for the change that is required to meet the challenges that the sector is faced with. One of the ideas supporting this is the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and sustainability (EIP-AGRI), uses instruments from the CAP (in the rural development programme) and H2020 (research and innovation programme) to foster knowledge exchange and innovation. In the H2020 programme a new feature is multi-actor approach, bringing farmers and other stakeholders into the consortia. With this goes clear shift from a focus on knowledge transfer to one on knowledge exchange between the different groups involved.

Helen Browning highlighted that when asked in a meeting what research do you think is needed farmers will often return to the very big questions, whereas when working at home much more specific issues come up and talking with a group of peers helps to crystallize the issues. Many farmers experiment on their own farm, but are not necessarily good at networking. The researcher’s role is to support but not lead this process. DOFF was aimed to unlock this potential and put farmers in the driving seat for research and allow those involved to shape what should be done.

The discussion highlighted the clear potential for farmers and growers to lead innovation through the process of exchange and experimentation on farms, and this could be supported by working in so called operational groups under the new EIP AGRI. This has advantages over supporting individual inventors alone, because it allows for knowledge exchange and exploration whether the innovation of whatever types also works under different conditions. Together a group is likely to better than its best members, because there is more brain power. The discussion explored whether there is an optimal size for such groups and found that it depends on the purpose and the circumstances, but groups should represent at least two different types of actors to be seen as a network. Farmers need to feel safe in a group before they are likely to put their cards on the table and this relationship takes some time to develop. The researcher’s input is vital in setting up robust trials and taken data analysis a step further.

The toolbox that the EU has put into place will need to be implemented in the Member States and we learned that some first guidance on how the EIP AGRI measure will be implemented in England as part of the Rural Development Programme is likely to come forward from Defra early in the new year.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Clear potential for farmers and growers to take the driving seat in innovation, and with knowledge exchange, networking and experimentation on farms
  • Field-labs, DOFF research fund and the European Innovation Platform (EIP AGRI) should support such groups.
  • Researchers have a vital role in supporting this process.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Victor Leforestier: (BASE, France) Experiences of BASE as an operational group – lessons learned (4.3mb pdf file)


The association BASE has been the leading network for conservation agriculture in France. BASE’s goal is to facilitate the exchange of information between farmers and/or agronomists. It’s self-funded and independent, run by a board of farmer member. Starting from Brittany it now has 900 members spread all over France. Originally ‘no-till’ oriented, it now has 4 different ‘ branches’ – organic, agroforestry, grazing and BASE UK. Through a network of speakers, both French and international, BASE offers field days, conferences and now training to provide practical answers to its members who choose to take on these new agriculture approaches. Cover-crop mixes, companion cropping, strip-till, nettle teas, etc, are among the subjects BASE has been working on.

BASE has adapted over the years but still remains 100% run by farmers. It relies on the devotion of the board and its local members to stay active. Since last year the association has been working with a partner to take care of the practical issues of putting training courses togeth-er. The independence and openness of BASE brought a lot of interest from researchers and politicians. Some of the ideas that were born and developed by our network are now being taken up by the official institutions, like cover crop mixes and companion cropping in rape.

Marc Duponcel (DG Agri): EIP/Operational Groups. What we expect and want?

European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs) are a new approach to EU research and innovation. Marc will talk about the wider context and links with Horizon 2020, the approach of the EIP and the role of operational groups within that. /p>

Helen Browning(Soil Association/Eastbrook Farm): Experiences of field labs as operational groups – lessons learned

The Duchy Originals Future Farming programme has been developed with three main aims:

  • To support and develop farmers as innovators, given that their contribution to R and D is both under-recognised and often less valuable than it could be with design assistance and improved information sharing.
  • To increase the funding into producer centred R and D, which is focused on making the most of on farm renewable resources and management techniques.
  • To help reverse the research pipeline, showing the benefits of putting producer and public interest into the driving seat of research policy and commissioning.

The programme, sponsored by the Prince of Wales’ Charitable Foundation, and with ORC as key partners, is now in its third year. At its heart are ‘field labs’, where farmers get together to solve a current problem, with a researcher on hand to advise as required. 28 field labs have now been completed, on a huge range of topics, with excellent feedback. There is also a small, but hope-fully growing, research fund, with projects on feeding silage to pigs, using green manures rather than pesticides in orchards, and improving the iodine content of organic milk, amongst others. Over 600 farmers have been involved, and the programme has been cited as an exemplar by the European Innovation Partnership.


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