Emily Roads is an NFU graduate trainee on the Agricultural Policy scheme. She writes:
On the 3 of May Kent welcomed a host of visitors from the horticultural, scientific and environmental worlds for the launch of NIAB EMR as a LEAF Innovation Centre and Blackbird Farming as a LEAF Demonstration Farm.
The day began at the NIAB EMR centre, with a talk from Bill Clark, NIAB’s Technical Director. He gave us an overview of NIAB today, from their collaborative work on crop science with the University of Cambridge, to their international research into nutrient and water management in India and China. NIAB’s research covers everything from improving crop genetics to soil and crop nutrition to food security. A key aim is to link this environmental research with profitability to make sure this work can be applied in a commercially viable manner.
NIAB and EMR joined forces in 2016 to focus on these research strands in horticulture. The centre has three key research areas: genetics, genomes and breeding; pest and pathogen ecology; and crop science and production systems. These are studied by gathering data on reducing water use and improving utilisation of rainwater in strawberries, researching methods of reducing the threats posed by pests without using pesticides, and how to encourage pollinators across an entire site. This was all demonstrated during a tour of the site, which allowed us to speak to the scientists and see some of their work in action. I was particularly interested in how they were encouraging pollinators, from planting pollinator seed mixes that are specific to different types of fruit throughout the orchard, to leaving bare earth which is ideal for solitary bees to nest in.
After Bill’s introduction we heard from Caroline Drummond, LEAF Chief Executive. Caroline took the opening of Kew Gardens’ refurbished Temperate Glasshouse to frame the importance of linking consumers and plants, particularly in the face of current uncertainty. Over the next 25 years the health agenda will become increasingly significant, and this is an area horticultural growers can capitalise on, as they produce unprocessed products, delivered (pretty much) straight to the consumer. Caroline commended the work so many farmers do, saying “how farmers work with nature now, it is amazing! It really is part of their business” and that message has to be made to consumers, as well as forming part of LEAF’s work in knowledge exchange through demonstration farms.
Following our tour of the NIAB site we set off for Blackbird Farming, the trading name of G H Dean and Co Ltd. After an excellent hog roast lunch we heard from Oliver Doubleday, the Director at Blackbird Farming, who emphasised the importance of using science and technology to develop the business, alongside knowledge exchange, so that you can be the ‘second mouse to get the cheese’. This message underpins everything at Blackbird Farming, from their innovative use of Anthocoris nemoralis beetles to combat pear sucker or the pheromone product Rak 3+4 to confuse mating moths in their orchards, to their state of the art cherry grader.
Blackbird Farming was welcomed to the LEAF community by Richard Ashworth MEP, who gave an excellent talk, reaffirming the need to improve agricultural productivity alongside the Europe wide move towards funding for environmental measures. We then had an introduction to Blackbird Farming from Farm and Estate Manager Mark Bowsher-Gibbs, which set the scene for our farm tour. The tour gave us a great opportunity to see the company’s clever use of nature to facilitate productive farming in practice, and I’m sure I was not the only one who left the day with ideas buzzing around my head. A big thank you to LEAF, NIAB EMR and Blackbird Farming for welcoming us for such an excellent day looking at how truly beneficial environmental practices can go hand in hand with productive, commercial agriculture.