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Looking back on SPot East at Elveden

Publication Date: 
25 March 2019

This month sees the end of the innovative three-year Strategic Potato Farm East project at Elveden Estate. Farms Director Andrew Francis reflects on his time as host.

Starting out

When we began back in 2016, we didn’t really know what to expect other than my team and I saw it as an opportunity to learn as much as we could, as quickly as possible. At Elveden, we’ve always been open-minded and keen to learn new ideas, so we were pleased to be able to interact with experts and hear what they had to say. We are lucky to have a high profile operation here on the estate and feel we have a duty to support the wider industry. We already had experience working on research projects so the Strategic Farm programme linked in well with our existing activities.

The programme turned out to be bigger than any of us had expected and so it was all hands on deck to ensure it ran smoothly. We were really pleased with the open days that we held over the three years: they were always well attended and people kept coming back to hear more, a good sign! The visitors really made the attraction, so it was important to provide plenty of opportunities to share the work we’d been doing with the wider industry; it was after all one of the main reasons for doing it.

Of course, attracting crowds brought its own challenges and keeping the offering fresh year-on-year was crucial: this is when the steering group really came into its own. There was lots of valuable discussion on the balance between presenting year-on-year data versus one off investigations.

Open days, PCN and irrigation trials highlights

In terms of highlights, I was very proud of the 2018 open day. It was a slick operation because everyone did a great job of sorting out the logistics and deciding which demonstration sites to show case beforehand. We had plenty of interest in the day, helped no doubt by the weather, meaning visitors could be taken to see the activity in the fields first hand.

When it came to the demonstrations themselves, we found the varietal work on PCN very useful, particularly the crucial distinction between ‘resistance’ and ‘tolerance’: the former referring to varieties that are immune to the disease, while the latter identifies crops that produce a good yield, despite being infected by PCN. There are lessons here for the wider industry because the interaction between the two prompts the question ‘how do you sample and what does your sample tell you?’

One of the demonstrations that had the biggest impact on the business was an investigation into the link between irrigation and different varieties' susceptibility to scab. Although it didn’t work in the first year, we managed to get it off the ground in 2017. The data proved extremely useful the following year because of the drought conditions we experienced: we were able to use it to inform our irrigation strategy during a year of low water availability. We now do a scab trial at Elveden every year on different varieties and will continue to do so in the future.

 

Final thoughts

I thought overall we had a good balance between the demonstrations and ongoing research. We also had plenty of involvement from external organisations which added a lot of useful content to the programme. One lesson we learnt was not to be too restrictive: you could get a lot of return by doing just a little bit more. I was pleased we managed the three years without any commercial input: I felt it very important to the integrity of the initiative to have as much independent demonstration and analysis as possible for an industry funded event. Commercial interest and demonstration is valued, especially when they are open to public ground truthing.

With initiatives like the Strategic Farm programme, there’s always room for doing things differently. We had three years hosting the programme, however there is an argument for making it longer, although this would obviously be a big commitment on the part of the grower. We also found that visitors were interested in knowing whether a demonstration was looking at something new or investigating something further that had already been researched in the past. It’s important to provide the context. There would also be value in increasing the links between the different Strategic Farms and the Monitor Farms to create a network in which research, new ideas and best practice are shared among growers and agronomists, providing even greater opportunities for learning.

Next steps

As an industry, we have to deal with a lot of change and there’s plenty more on the horizon, so learning to cope with an uncertain future is essential. The Strategic Farm programme can help by driving industry-led research to support growers throughout the country. Taking part enabled me and my team at Elveden to look at best practice and innovation. While the three years involved a lot of hard work from everyone, the benefits were certainly measurable and I’d recommend it to others interested in taking part. I’d really like to thank all of my team who were involved in so many ways over the three years, and all of the people who helped create, manage and report on the work and most importantly to all the people who visited us. The better the industry support the better these initiatives become. I’m really looking forward to the next Strategic Potato Farm project in East Anglia and the opportunity to attend as a visitor!

Further Reading

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