Showcase East Anglian potato farm combines science with farming knowhow
PUBLISHED: 11:39 01 June 2018 | UPDATED: 12:43 01 June 2018
East Anglia's potato-growing knowhow is being coupled with the region's scientific expertise in a bid to improve crop performance across the sector.
Visitors were invited to a farm walk at the Elveden Estate to discuss the progress of crop trials in the third year of the Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm initiative, co-ordinated by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board’s potatoes division (AHDB Potatoes).
They were told that while academic research and anecdotal evidence from farmers can both give valuable insights – neither can provide the whole answer to improve yields and soil health.
So the SPot Farm project combines research trials and demonstrations with industry best practice at exemplars such as the 22,500-acre Elveden Estate near Thetford – and allows other growers in to assess which approaches would work within their own system, soil type and climate.
Dr Elizabeth Stockdale, head of farming systems at NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany), said: “It is a really tricky thing for scientists to unpick anecdotal evidence. Farmers will tell us that something worked, but we struggle to put a number on it.
“So scientists need to go to that farm and see what is happening. We know there is stuff we can do in research trials, and things we cannot. What we cannot do is look at systems where people have changed more than two or three things. If you change your cultivation system you may also change your timings and your seed variety. You change a lot of things in farming but research trials, when properly done, are rubbish at that.
“So we wanted to do some research but we also wanted to go to some places where people can tell us what has been happening in terms of soil management, and then go and look at the implications. We can say: ‘Let’s believe your anecdote, but let’s see it first, and let’s compare it with other farms’.”
Dr Mark Stalham of NIAB CUF (Cambridge University Farm) introduced several trials and demonstrations at the farm including an assessment of the effect of compost before a potato crop. The trial field is split into thirds – one given a standard dose of 43t/ha, one given double at 86t/ha, and one receiving none at all.
Although similar trials had shown significant benefits from compost management, he said the picture was much less clear with the use of cover crops for green manure, adding: “We’ve seen some horrendous examples of poor establishment where we have seen a yield loss, but some very good results in terms of soil structure and yield, and some in between,” he said. “So the overall effect of nine trials for cover crops has been neutral.”
Graham Tomalin, an agronomist for Vegetable Consultancy Services (VCS) also outlined trials for residual and contact herbicides, new varieties and chemicals to combat potato cyst nematodes (PCN), and “trap cropping” – the use of other plants to attract pests away from the main commercial crop.
Visitors were also shown trials for a new herbicide called Aclonifen, which agro-chemical firm Bayer hopes will gain UK approval next year to fill part of the gap left by Linuron, a “mainstay” chemical for potato protection, which failed to win re-approval earlier this year.
“We have been doing a lot of work with residual chemicals, due to the impending loss of Linuron, which has changed the whole perspective on sandy lands,” said Mr Tomalin.
The herbicide trials include one plot where 26 potato varieties have been planted in parallel rows, which were cross-sprayed in perpendicular lines with 18 different chemical treatments – creating 468 mini trial plots to demonstrate the result of each combination.
Due to the delayed cultivations after a wet start to spring, Mr Tomalin said many of the Breckland weeds have not yet appeared, so the full effect of these treatments will be better assessed by the time of Elveden’s SPot Farm Open Day on July 6.