The Trials and Errors of Monitor Farms

Monitor Farms are designed to encourage farmers, veterinary surgeons and scientists to share best practise knowledge within local communities. So far, they have received encouraging results, but just how far does the scope of these projects fall? asks Adam Anson, reporting for TheCattleSite.
calendar icon 4 March 2009
clock icon 6 minute read

Robert Parker

The idea for Monitor Farm (MF) programmes originated in New Zealand back in 1991. In light of their success, the first Scottish programme began in 2003. Funding for each MF, provided primarily by the Government and Quality Meat Scotland, is roughly £60,000 to £65,000 for the 3-year programme.

Scotland now boasts a rolling programme of ten livestock and two arable MFs, whilst more than 500 farmers are reported to be involved in the Scottish MF projects in five different areas. Speaking at the 2009 QMS Research and Development Conference in Perth, Robert Parker, QMS board member, educated an audience on the progress of the Monitor Farm programme. As a member himself, he illustrated the benefits of a "farmer project owned by farmers."

Currently the MF programme has a three year duration and allows farmers to set short, medium and long term objectives. The programme consists of six meetings every year and two open days. They are entirely run by community groups, guided by a chosen facilitator and assisted by specialists in relevant fields. Decisions within the group are made by consensus he said, giving farmers the right to veto.

Mr Parker explained how the projects take place at the same farm for the course of eighteen meetings, which gives a chance for members to see how the farm has progressed during this time. Access to all records and accounts are made available, enabling transparency within the group. "It gives the farmers a chance to see it all," said Mr Parker, "the good times and the bad."

It also gives them a chance to discuss issues of common concern, encouraging an attitude towards change, whilst breaking down unhelpful routines and replacing them with the rapid uptake of new technology and best practice research.

One of the key aspects of any MF programme is to promote record keeping and bench marking in order to assess progress. "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." In relation to the information that is gathered, goals and objectives can be set in association with budgetary targets. Farmers are taught how to be better businessmen and how to achieve greater returns for their products. In general, farmers are told to ask "what if?" and then answer their questions through real-life trial and error.

"What did I learn? Production is vanity, profit is sanity."
Robert Parker

Mr Parker said that whilst the knowledge acquired from the programmes may not be as scientific as that of other research bodies, it is "more specific and believable". Not only do these programmes aid the individual farmer, but they help the community as a whole. Research is relevant to the area in question and based on large scale trials. They give the farmers a chance to see, understand and believe the information that they are being given, and in turn, evaluate how these decisions evolve over the years. Importantly, the community bond can strengthen as a result of this unity. Together they have a greater involvement within the wider industry outside of the MF scope, acquiring new power to drive change from the bottom up.

According to a study conducted by ADAS - an independent, science-based environmental and rural consultancy service - for every pound spent funding the programme, 6.5 pounds of consequential farm profit are seen in return. The study also showed that 78 per cent of those surveyed within Scotland are aware of the project and nine per cent made changes in their businesses in accordance to the MF research.

The information was publicised by the Scottish government in December 2008. Visiting a participating farm, Scottish Parliament Member Richard Lochhead, said: "Overall the report is very positive, providing a solid foundation for continued development of the Monitor Farm programme. Producing this report was vital as it not only investigates the impact of Monitor Farms, it also suggests improvements, providing objective information to inform future policy."

A Scottish government summary said that the majority of the benefits seem to focus around enterprise performance and efficiency and the financial improvements will have helped in improving the sustainability of the businesses involved. However, it also notes that the overall objectives of the MF's appear rather vague and community group members seem uncertain of what they are, although it is recognised that objectives need to be able to be flexed in the light of changing market or regulatory drivers.

The Scottish government also identified what it believed to be areas for improvement, saying that there is evidence that the selection of farms from those who are seen as the best performers may mean that the impact of improvements may not always be readily demonstrated and may also restrict the audience to whom the programme is seen as relevant. "A caveat is that these farms should be drawn from those, who although may not be seen as top performers, are respected among their peers," said the summary.

"To enable the impact of the programme to be assessed more readily in the future a common basis for measuring progress and impacts should be considered. We suggest this is based around gross margins using common approach to assumptions and the calculation of Net Farm Income prior to commencement and annually. The current programme has a strong emphasis on physical and husbandry improvements. Greater emphasis on how this integrates with the overall management of the farm and its financial performance relative to the wider industry and group members should be considered."

Mr Parker says that more researchers should be encourage to partake in this project in order to combine science and farming at a relevant, mutually beneficial level, whilst further involvements of processors is also being sought. Although larger MF groups will be difficult to manage, there is certainly scope for such a thing in years to come.

Ultimately, MF programmes could reach the public arena, bringing the industry together from farm to fork. However, there is no consensus on the desirability or practicality of using the MF for other knowledge transfer purposes despite the interest of some funders that the approach should be more stretching in the issues it covers. Despite of this, there may be some potential for further integrating environmental messages and for those who are in areas with environmental designations this is already occurring.

"What did I learn?" Mr Parker asked himself, looking back on his time as a MF member. "Production is vanity, profit is sanity." Regardless of all the cutting-edge research, going back to basics to achieve profit lies at the heart of farming. Blood sampling, soil sampling, measuring - all these things that can tell farmers about their business, remain intrinsically important, said Mr Parker. It is the smallest of changes that can have the biggest effects over time.

Further Reading

- To see the latest MF reports to have been published on the QMS website click here.

March 2009

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