Lancaster University and the University of Manchester
The project was co-produced from the beginning, with the idea generated from a discussion between a farmer and an academic researcher. They both got so much out of the conversation that they began to plan an event specifically to bring farmers and scientists together to talk about something they were both deeply interested in – soil. A few months later Hollins farm hosted a group of more than 30 researchers, farmers and farming advisors, who gathered together to share their knowledge. Discussions ranged from the frontiers of plant and soil research, to farmers explaining about how they conduct on-farm experiments, to a new scheme which pays farmers to monitor local biodiversity. Lively debate continued over lunch and after the event 94% of attendees said they had found it worthwhile, with a number subsequently getting in touch with organisers for further information.
The audience purposefully included approximately the same number of farmers, farming advisors and academic researchers from a mix of disciplines. The participants were identified and invited through relevant professional bodies and networks. The aims of the event were co-produced with farmers, academics and farming advisor contacts, so as to make it as useful as possible for all concerned and so as to ensure the environment and structure was conducive to everyone participating. The marketing materials clearly stated the aims of the event and these were reiterated on the day.
The event was held on the farm of one of the key organisers. This venue made it easier for farmers to attend, the nature of whose work can often make it difficult to attend events, and provided a familiar environment with direct access to examples of the topics discussed. The involvement of professional organisations such as the Cumbrian Farmer Network, the British Ecological Society, the Ecosystems Knowledge Network, and professional organisations aimed at farm environment advisors gave the event professional standing and enabled organisers to reach to a wide range of potential participants. Press releases in specialist and non-specialist publications were also used to get the message out. A local community-owned pub provided lunch and this got the message out into the surrounding community. On the day, three stations were set up outside with different topics led by different professions and this kick-started the conversations. Different styles of presentation and types of information were offered to participants up-front and this stopped the event being dominated by one profession or 'way of knowing'. The animated conversations continued over discussions of the different tools and technologies employed by researchers, farmers and farm advisors when addressing soil management issues. The use of examples, such as maps, field equipment, IT equipment and a farmer-led pilot scheme ensured that attendees stayed engaged.
Farmers say it takes too long for scientific understanding to filter through to them, and many rely on advisors, who also feel they have limited access to current information, and academics can often feel divorced from on-farm applications. This project addressed all of these issues in a way which framed all participants as experts within a knowledge-exchange ethos. An evaluation expert helped ensure feedback was provided to participants and supporting organisations, organisers understood how the event was received, and as much information as possible was captured. Some farmer attendees offered their farms for future research and several articles were written about the event to disseminate the learning. One of the organisers will use the outcomes within her PhD project, using mixed-methods Geographical information Systems mapping, as a way of examining these knowledge forms together. The experience has opened up a new discussion within the partners' various organisations regarding the possibilities for knowledge-exchange as separate from knowledge dissemination.
Contact: Beth Brockett