Wednesday, 30 January 2013

I had a really interesting day yesterday, (and I have to say I was very privileged), to be invited to attend the annual trade briefing by Sainsbury's held in London at the Queen Elizabeth II building.  (How that got planning permission I will never know but that's another story!).  The aim of the event is for the management team at Sainsbury's to get their suppliers together and tell them (us) points of interest about past performance, future plans, business development, supplier relationships and how the economy will be affecting everyones business over the coming months.
First on was Justin King, who gave an interesting insight into customers buying habits.  As always a great presentation, and as someone who does some public speaking I really admire!  Justin mentioned the pressure that houshold budgets are under, shoppers are buying less (2% year on year) and wasting less food.  Investment plans were also mentioned with plans to invest £1bn to grow the estate.  Sales, like for like, are up but only slightly at 0.9% excluding fuel, which is better than some competitors.  He also mentioned Sainsbury's own brand labels growing 3 times faster than branded products as more shoppers are looking in more detail about where the pennies go.  We can all relate to that!  Contributions to the performance are coming through from the basics range, Brand Match and Taste the Difference, all backed up with shopper buying habits recorded through the nectar card.  He also mentioned the importance of customer trust in the brand, this is something that resonates with us at Overbury.  Your customers have to trust what you are doing if you are going to keep them and encourage them to engage more with you. 
James Waldon was next up, the IGD's Chief Economist, and again I have to take my hat off to James.  He made economics interesting (wish I had felt that way at college).  He described the economy as the bus teetering of the edge of the cliff in the film The Italian Job.  The gold bullion is the amassed wealth we have borrowed and the weight of that debt could take us (our economy) over the edge.  I hadn't realised but in 1976 the government of the day had to borrow money from the IMF (International Monetary Fund).  We're not that bad yet but things are close.  James talked about the reduction in volume sales in most categories between 2006-2011, except cereals, chocolates, sweets coffee and wine!  That says a lot as well.  Fruit and veg consumption also fell during that time period, are we building problems and cost for the economy in the future?
One of the key aspects of the day I was interested in was the 20x20 Sustainability Plan.  This will involve all of the suppliers listening in the audience and many of their suppliers as well.  I would count us in that list as well.  Being part of the supply chain we need to listen to what our main customer (for lamb) is telling us and be apart of that supply chain.  It's also good to have someone setting targets and goals to aim for.  For instance part of the plan is get 35 of the most commonly used raw materials sourced sustainably.  Sounds easy?  But here is the list: cotton, strawberries, milk, timber, eggs, salmon, citrus, cork, wheat, cod, chicken, leather, apples, peat, pork, coffee, rapeseed, cocoa, palm oil, blueberries, biofuels, prawns, soya, tomatoes, tuna, grapes, haddock, sunflower oil, potatoes, beef, sugar, tea, carrots, paper and finally lamb!
This is no mean feat but one that should be applauded and will only happen with the help of the suppliers and growers.  It was also great to see a picture of me with Alice Swift up on the big screen with our ewes and lambs (bottom left above).  Other main targets this year include, Live Well For Less, 2020, Fit for the Future, Year of the Product and R&D.  We scored highly on the R&D side having two proposals accepted for research work this year.  I will be blogging about sheep lameness shortly, watch this space, the trial has begun.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Nuffield Study Tour - John Innes Centre

My Nuffield adventure has finally begun, and what an adventure it will be if the first trip is anything to go by!  My first visit was to the John Innes Centre on the outskirts of Norwich; a 4 hour, 180 mile drive through the snow to get there for a meeting on Monday 21st January.  The trip was going well until the A11 from Thetford which was in blizzard conditions, following the two grey lines of the preceding vehicle etched into the snow bound carriageway.  Accommodation was at the Cringleford travelodge; very economical, and actually not a bad as I feared!
My meeting was with Dr Simon Griffiths who heads up the team investigating the genes involved in plant heading and plant height.  This is all part of the National Wheat Improvement Strategy Program (WISP) along with teams working at University of Bristol and Nottingham, Rothamsted and NIAB.  Wheat breeding is currently working on about a 1%/year yield increase at the moment and it really needs to be at 2%.  The team is looking at crossing Paragon spring wheat with varieties form the Watkins Landrace collection.  This collection was gathered in the 1930's by A.E Watkins and totals 1150 different varieties from all over the old Colonial Empire (great foresight!)  The collection has been grouped up to a smaller group of 120, and currently 7 of these are being investigated.  These have a wide genetic span for example they have heights of between 55cm and 150cm, and ear emergence of between 77 and 109 days. There is therefore a lot of genetic material that might help us increase our yields or develop varieties that will grow in different climates.
On the left is Simon Orford, Senior Research Assistant (who cycled to work in the snow), who is working as part of the Griffiths (Dr Simon Griffith on the right) group on mapping genes in the WISP project.  The idea is to identify genes in the plants that have specific traits.  The team uses Paragon crossed with the Watkins collection so that they can effectively grow two crops per year speeding up the genetic turn around.  Different traits are observed in the many different crosses.  
There is a gene map for Avalon x Cadenza which is nearly complete, so the genes identified here are mapped against this almost known genome.  In the green houses there were hundreds of pots all with different crosses growing in small pots, enough to sustain the plants.  Yield is not important so one tiller is all that is required to abstract the genes from the seed to add to the map.  This is done in a lab above the green house and then those results sent off to be statistically analysed by Luzie Wingen and her team.
Identifying the genes that contribute to height and flowering times are very important.  With global climate change, one thing that will not change, around the world, is daylight hours.  If a country that previously couldn't grow wheat because it's too cold may now be able to grow wheat with a shorter growing cycle i.e through the shorter summer.  This technology could also be utilised by warmer climate countries when possible later drought stops grain fill. I can also see a use in the UK, getting crops to harvest earlier, should spread harvesting dates and therefore labour and machinery and it could help build resilience to the system when wetter summers seem to be a more regular occurrence.  This can also help in rotational decisions i.e, growing Oilseed rape after wheat.
I have to say a huge thanks to Simon, Simon and Luzie for looking after me and taking time out of their busy schedule to help me in my studies.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Snow Plough a Go Go

Well the snow arrived but to date not as bad as we feared.  I think we have escaped the worst although there has been some drifting.  It did give us the opportunity to get our snow plough on the tractor and try it out!  We bought the snow plough and a small gritter two years ago after the last 'dump' of snow (about 12") and we haven't really had a chance to use them, until now.  The temperature is dropping like a stone at the moment so it will be interesting driving conditions tonight and tomorrow.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013


It was another first for me today, I actually went to the LAMMA Show at the Newark Showground.  LAMMA stands for Lincolnshire Agricultural Machinery Manufacturers Association and is a huge shop window for machinery dealers and manufacturers to show off the latest machines and technology. The weather was freezing cold, leaving Overbury at 5.15am we reached the show ground at 7.15 to be welcomed by minus 6 degrees!  With leggings, thermals, hats, scarves and gloves we headed off to look around.  Almost everyone you could think of was present and to be honest, if you weren't there, as a manufacturer then you should have been!  There wasn't much extra space at all which is why the show was saying goodbye to Newark and heading off down the A1 to the East of England Showground at Peterborough next year.  This will give room for expansion and help the traffic getting too and from the show.  To be honest we drove straight in but others had to queue for quite some time, well at least they kept warm!
It was also a great time to meet up with the twitter crowd #clubhectare.  The group was started last February by Jono Dixon Chris Day and Chris Hewis all worth a follow, those on twitter.  The picture above is a shot of the motley crew (L to R, #carrotplanter #dpayne4468 #FarmInKent #sunkfarmer #julierobinson_#Arable_Farmer ) huddling together to keep warm at the show.  #Clubhectare now has over 350 members and is a great way to keep in touch with rural and farming issues.  You can share idea's, swap, stories and keep in touch with people facing the same issues and dilemmas as you.  To join is easy, just purchase some #Clubhectare merchandise such as a rugby shirt, beany hat, or fleece, through Jono (#sunkfarmer) and that is it, welcome to the club!
I was also interviewed by Charlotte Smith from BBC Farming today which was fun.  We spoke a little about the show, what I was looking at purchasing.  We also talked about precision farming (briefly) and about being a LEAF Demonstration Farm and Open Farm Sunday.  Credit to the team, Charlotte, Emma and Emma for braving the weather to get the show roundup.  I guess depending on Horse-Gate they might cut some of my interview, we'll have to wait and see!
We also spent some time on the John Deere stand talking to Annabel, Andy and Tamara from LEAF about Open Farm Sunday.  John Deere are the machinery sponsor this year, as they have been since 2011, which is great news.  To register your event or to find out where the nearest host farm is do log onto Farm Sunday and check out the website, you might even see someone you recognise!  So chop chop and get on that site and get down on the farm, or sign up to #clubhectare and do the next best thing!

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

20 by 20 Fact or Fiction - My Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust Study Topic

Here are a few questions that I regularly find myself thinking about:-

Why have the UK wheat yields plateaued?
Where is the next 'green revolution' going to come from?
How are we going to feed the estimated world population of 9.5Bn people by 2050?
How can we persuade the general public and the law makers of Europe that we need to use biological technology (new words for GM - Genetically Modified) to help feed the ever expanding world population?
What are the key ingredients to a world record wheat yield?

I think that is probably enough for me, for now, but I am sure that I will ask a lot more questions before I answer these ones!  Last July I filled in my application form to apply for a Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust award to look at my chosen subject (20t/Ha of Wheat in years time).  After the interviews in October the awards were handed out at the Nuffield Conference in November, (see previous blog).

I have to thank the Central Region Farmers Trust for sponsoring me on my scholarship.

So what happens next?  Well I am planning trips around the UK to talk to the scientists that are working on projects in this country.  I plan to visit, Rothamsted, The John Innes Centre, The James Hutton Institute, Cranfield and Bristol University.  My thoughts are to assess where the research is currently going in this country before looking at projects abroad.  I have to say that there are some great research projects happening here; I will have my work cut out to get round these institutes before the Contemporary Scholars Conference which starts on the 7th March in London.  I will see what I can do!

On the 7th of March all 22 of the 2013 Scholars and I think 2 of the 2012 scholars are meeting in London for a couple of days before heading out to Guelph, Ontario, Canada for the Contemporary Scholars Conference with all the other Internationals Scholars!  This will be an incredible experience and a fabulous opportunity to make some new friends and talk world farming for a week.
I hope to stay on in Canada to visit the University of Guelph, then the Experimental Farm in Ottawa and then a trip up to Quebec City to explore wheat projects there.  After that it's back to the farm here at Overbury.
My plans after that are a little loose, so I'm looking for contacts and idea's but I want to explore Oregon and Washington States where some high yielding wheat crops are produced, then onto CIMMYT in Mexico, where there is a lot of wheat and maize research.  After that, who knows you will just have to tune in and keep following, to see where I end up.

Oxford Farming Conference 2013

Well, where do I start, a fantastic start to the New Year for me, being asked to present a paper at this years Oxford Farming Conference.  It was in fact my first visit to the Conference, held annually in the grand setting of the Oxford Examination Hall.  My talk formed part of the morning session of day two, entitled 'Technology and Innovation".  The first session started with Maurice Maloney, Director and Head of Research at Rothamsted talking about the genetic potential of wheat and where yield improvements will come from in the future.  Following Maurice was Mark Smith, Global Bovine Product Development and Production Director at Genus.  Mark spoke about how breeding genetics have increased yields of meat and milk, from cows and pigs over the past 40 years. Marks presentation can be found here After Mark it was my turn!  My subject was "Will Precision Farming Change The Face of UK Agriculture?"
If you are interested you can watch the presentation HERE and see the video I played HERE I was quite nervous for a few days before the actual talk and especially watching the two speakers before me.  But after a couple of paragraphs I started to relax and other than a few tongue twisters I managed to get through it on schedule and I have to admit I was rather pleased, and very relieved.
One highlight for me was the Frank Parkinson Lecture, given my Mark Lynus.  Mark was one of the original GM protesters of the mid 1995, wearing white spray suits ripping up GM trials.  His first paragraph was an apology to the farming audience for this behaviour and that it helped set back the ability of the E.U. and U.K. agricultural industry to explore the use of GM technology in crop growing.  Mark's lecture can be read here and I have to say that he showed great courage to stand up and give an apology as he did.
Another highlight of the previous day was meeting Princess Anne with members of the LEAF team.  We spoke about Open Farm Sunday, being a LEAF Demonstration Farm and the benefits of getting children out onto farm to learn about the way food in produced and how me manage and look after the countryside.  Her Royal Highness was very knowledgeable and we had great a conversation for 5 minutes. 
I really enjoyed the atmosphere at the conference and it was a great place to meet fellow farmers, agriculturists and others from allied industries.  I would highly recommend it to others next year, but you will need to book early as tickets are rapidly snapped up.