Mention the word 'farmer' in a sentence and most people would understand that you that you were talking about someone who produces food of some description. That's a farmer's job, right? Hmmm.
What if that same person was described as a 'multifunctional rural resource manager'?
That's a term I came across last week at a research seminar hosted by the University of Exeter, and it stuck with me. Modern farmers aren't just responsible for growing food - their job encompasses other responsibilities including looking after our water courses, our wildlife, our landscape. But the question is, when what you know is how to grow food, do farmers have the necessary skills, knowledge and expertise to become effective 'multifunctional rural resource managers'?
This was really what the research seminar was focussed on, following a long-term experiment on how to make agri-environment schemes most effective. Two sets of farmers in two separate areas of England were selected to take part in the experiment, half of whom were given training on how to create and effectively manage two agri-environment options under ELS - wild bird seed and nectar flower mixtures. The other half, like most farmers who enter agri-environment schemes, were expected to just get on with it without any training. No prizes for guessing which group found the establishment and subsequent management of the options more successful, and therefore more rewarding! The trained groups of farmers were encouraged to take the same professional approach to managing their ELS land as they did with their crops, had a greater understanding of what to expect and a source of advice and further information should they need it.
Strikingly, at the start of the process, there was a 75:25 split between farmers entering ELS for business/income benefits vs environmental benefits respectively, but towards the end of the trial, the split was almost the complete opposite, in favour of environmental benefits by all farmers (both trained and untrained).
When it comes to training, it's not just the how that proved important - understanding why the options were of value meant the trained farmers had a greater level of engagement with what they were being asked to do, greater confidence in their ability to deliver it, and greater expectations of their own success. There were some interesting discussions with the farmers in the room about whether training should be provided as part of the ELS package, with some clearly for this as a way forward and others adamant that they would want to choose who to receive advice from, and when, should they feel they need it.
That’s where we come in! The farmers in this study represent a tiny fraction of those involved in agri-environment schemes, and we're committed to helping all farmers to fulfil the multifunctional role - that's why we host training courses on making the best use of agri-environment schemes, offer free, expert advice to farmers across the UK and showcase the very best to inspire and encourage others to do the same through our Nature of Farming Awards and farmer case studies.
If you're a farmer reading this, I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts...
Quinoa by Andy Hay (www.rspb-images.com)
Hi Kathryn,very interesting blog and interesting results,unfortunately guess most farmers will not get to read your blog and the difficult bit is probably communicating with them and getting the message over.Probably just a slow process that with time will see results.Proved perhaps by interesting result of the75;25 split being reversed,that must show that with encouragement farmers will try to be more wildlife friendly for improving wildlife as opposed to doing it all for so called profit.
Thanks Sooty - it was a really interesting morning, and great to hear from some of the farmers who had been directly involved.
We know that 1-2-1 advice is very effective but unfortunately it's pretty impossible to visist every farmer in the UK! You're right - it is a challenge to get the message across, and we're working hard to make sure that we do it in the most effective ways in the future.