INNOVATIVE Farmers was formed on the basis that many of the best ideas for trials come from farmers themselves. Meanwhile, scientists are seeking to test theories which may have a practical impact. The not-for-profit organisation brings the two parties together and there are currently 40 ‘field labs’ around the country.

Membership of the Innovative Farmers (IF) network is free of charge and each project is driven by a lead farmer who has come up with a good idea for a trial. Through IF, the leader will attend a ‘kick-off’ meeting, to discuss the options with like-minded producers, as well as an IF facilitator.

If the project is accepted, funding will be sourced and the group will be matched to a specialist researcher, with one or more farmers volunteering as trial hosts.

IF works with some of the leading research institutions and will find a specialist to help with planning the trial (known as a field lab), data recording and analysing the results, which will be published online.

At present, some 300 conventional and organic producers are members of the programme. Since IF was launched in 2012 more than 100 trials have taken place, each involving one to 15 farmers.

One field lab example is an experiment to discover whether inter-cropping could boost yields and promote more sustainable growing systems. It involved three separate trials, established on two farms.

Reports from the inter-cropping of beans with wheat suggested that the method could reduce the weed burden in the bean crop and it may also have the potential to increase wheat protein content.

The participating farmer, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “We will definitely be implementing this practice again; in fact it would be unwise not to. The beans were our main crop, so any wheat that was harvested was a bonus. The bean yields were slightly lower than average, but the minor loss was more than made up for by having the wheat.

“Crucially, weed biomass levels were 64 per cent lower in the inter-cropped plots and this should mean that the field will be cleaner for the forthcoming seasons.

“This is our first foray into inter-cropping and we are convinced that is was worthwhile. Having the extra biomass in the form of wheat, rather than weeds, was hugely beneficial.

“In future we will probably drop the wheat seed rate by around a third, to try and boost bean yields while continuing to suppress weed growth.”

Another field lab is looking at how to use the defoliation of winter oilseed rape to control cabbage stem flea beetle, with the initial trial taking place in 2019/20 and now entering in its second year.

It was developed in response to pest control concerns following the neonicotinoid ban, along with widespread resistance to foliar pyrethroid sprays.

The methodology was to defoliate the crop before the end of January, in an attempt to tackle the beetles during the larval stage. The farmer members trialled the use of sheep, mowing or topping to defoliate, with their results in spring showing an average larval reduction of 39 per cent in the defoliated crops. Nevertheless for many, this positive effect was tempered by an overall crop yield reduction at harvest.

Despite the mixed results, one farmer reported a yield increase and initial plot trials managed by ADAS also saw small increases with December and January defoliations. It is believed that timing is key and that earlier defoliation (certainly before the crop reaches stem extension) will give the plants enough time to recover from the effect.

Another project member concluded that some of his sheep had been allowed to graze for too long a period and that where grazing was restricted and the procedure carried out earlier, the crop gave a more positive response and there was a sizeable reduction in larvae. In 2020 this field lab will also investigate the size of the larvae, which is thought to have a significant impact on yield loss.

Trial farmer Chris Eglington, of SS Eglington and Son, said that the grazed plot produced a much lower yield than had been expected, compared with the rest of the field.

“However, I am keen to try defoliation again. I have already grazed another plot of oilseed rape in early November, to see if earlier grazing will improve yields. One bonus of the grazing was that it acted as an excellent control for charlock. I will be interested to discover whether the system will have a similar effect again. Accessing data from your own farm, rather than from other sites, is invaluable.”

IF’s communications manager, Dan Iles, admitted that there was currently a southern bias to the field labs, but stressed that the organisation would welcome more inquiries from the North of England. Anyone who has an idea for a trial should visit the IF website at or phone 0117 9874572.