PLAID: See­ing is believing

LEAF IFM Manager, Alice Midmer discusses the power of farm demonstration activities as a powerful knowledge exchange tool to drive forward more sustainable farming. Here she highlights best practice examples and how LEAF’s involvement in the PLAID (Peer to peer learning. Assessing Innovation through Demonstration) project has the potential to deliver great advances in this area.

Exemplars of best practice

Confucius said, “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.” Therein lies the essence of delivering a great on-farm demonstration. And for more than 25 years, LEAF has been at the forefront of driving forward the uptake of more sustainable farming through the power of demonstration. Our UK network of Demonstration Farms and Innovation Centres lies at the heart of all we do. It provides a platform for research around sustainable farming, ensures the science is extended into practice out on real working farms and that knowledge is disseminated out to the wider farming community.

Full immersion

I’m reminded of the strength of demonstration every time I meet one of our inspiring Demonstration Farmers, passionate LEAF members or hugely knowledgeable researchers from one of our Innovation Centres. It’s their thirst for discovery and development that is so strong and its exactly this that needs to be passed on where possible. This can’t be done by email or via the internet. It has to be done out in the field, with muddy boots and dirty hands where we are fully immersed and able to see techniques and approaches, their successes and failures, in practice. Its demonstration that holds the real key to truly engaging all farmers about the role they play in a more sustainable farming future. In essence, demonstration activities are a smart investment that can really help accelerate the adoption of game-changing innovations.

Cultivating success

But what are the components of a good on-farm demonstration? How do we measure effectiveness? What makes farmers really sit up and listen? And more importantly, what inspires farmers to make changes on their own businesses? Its these questions (and more) that the PLAID (Peer to peer learning. Assessing Innovation through Demonstration) project is tackling. LEAF, together with other project partners are working to identify best demonstration practices, produce guidelines and tools to help facilitate demonstration activities and create a database of exemplar demonstration farms across the EU.

Exploring what works

At a recent PLAID workshop, we explored what makes an effective on-farm demonstration, what works and what doesn’t. This is what we discussed:

Knowing your audience – tailoring demonstration activities to the individual requirements of attendees, their farms, their areas of interest, their level of expertise is the foundation upon which excellent demonstration activities are built. The background, experiences, knowledge and skills of participants have to be the starting point.

The hook – something that draws attendees in, a topic, an issue, a question, a challenge. They’re all good, but what’s vital to a good hook is relevance; you have to know your audience before you can hook the hook.

The lead – a good lead demonstrator has to be knowledgeable, engaging, and have the respect of peers. They must be authentic. They must foster a culture of mutual support and knowledge sharing within the group. They must converse with participants, tune in to their areas of interest and levels of expertise and be willing themselves to listen as well as learn.

Do and talk – It’s not enough simply to explain. Getting farmers doing is key. Whether this is a farm walk, soil sampling or identification – any activity will help to draw farmers in, bring issues to life and get ideas buzzing.

Measuring success – it’s the impact of an on-farm demonstration that will bring about change. We have to know that what we’re delivering out in the field is actually making a difference – to behaviour and attitudes. This could be the adoption of a new cultivation technique or precision farming technology, or the willingness of farmers to participate in future training. These indicators are all important to ensure the continual improvement of demonstration activities.

As farmers look for support to help them navigate current uncertainties and gain a better understanding of how to make their businesses more resilient, the value of on-farm demonstration will increase. Building on the expertise of our LEAF Network, the PLAID team are delving deeper into what constitutes successful and effective on-farm demonstration activities. This promises to deliver some innovative and ground-breaking tools and resources which will help farmers deploy the latest sustainable farming research and knowledge on their own farming business.

Keep up to date with all the latest news, events and updates coming from the PLAID project here