What was your profession?
Retired since 2010 from farming 1500 acres arable and 400 farrow to finish sow herd, Philip Richardson, did a 1 year International Development and Climate Change Master’s degree at UEA. He says that brought him up to date with climate science but led him to criticise the food and farming content of what is taught to international students, many of whom will be returning to their own countries in high-profile jobs but with little real knowledge of what in many cases will be the biggest component of their countries’ economy. He took up lecturing and authored a book ‘An Appetite for Change’ to give a global overview of challenges facing the food and farming sectors. Amongst all these tasks, Philip explains why he has maintained a long and deep involvement with TMAF.
What do you do in your spare time?
I chair a group of 15 CofE rural parishes, an outdoor bowls club, am a keen and long-standing member of the Wymondham Rotary Club and, until recently, spent considerable time as a Board member at TMAF, chair of the John Mann and Roger Harrison trusts and Board member of the AgriFood Charities Partnership. I resigned from all of these in 2022/3, but remain on the TMAF Advisory Committee. Plus I retain a few memberships on various charitable bodies concerned with Wymondham life. We also have a house in Provence where we spend increasing time.
Tell us something interesting about you that people might not know.
I run an annual jazz picnic in Wymondham which attracts more than 1,000 people and raises a very reasonable sum for local charities.
When, why and with whom did you first come to Morley?
I was asked in the late 70’s to be on the Board at Terrington EHF, particularly because of my interest in pigs – Terrington was I think the only ADAS/EHF station doing experimental work on pigs then. That led to an invitation to join the NAC (Norfolk Agricultural Station now Morley) Executive Committee in the mid to late 1980s – balancing my interest in research between pigs and arable work.
Morley is only 5 miles from my home farm, so it was very convenient too. At that time Morley was very different to what it is now. Directly employing highly regarded staff with national expertise in cereal husbandry and sugar beet in particular, it had direct links with a large number of farmers in Norfolk and Suffolk, plus some further afield.
But times were changing. Government policy to let farmers ‘stand on their own feet’ led to the privatisation of ADAS (no more free advice) and selling off of all the EHFs (which had originally been modelled on NAC). Through the foresight of John Mann, Morley had never agreed to join in as part of the group of government-supported EHFs. Otherwise it would have disappeared long ago. Our qualified staff were closing in on retirement age and Bill Bray, the sugar beet ‘guru’ died at a young age.
Because Morley was small, independent and could not offer the kind of ‘employment ladder’ that large commercial firms could, there was a danger that the quality of our output could start to decline. In addition, the type of work we did at Morley – large ‘WHICH’ type trialling of new chemical products which during the 70s and 80s were changing regularly – was reducing dramatically. Fewer products were coming to market (economics plus environmental concerns over intensive agriculture).
Much more emphasis was being directed at plant breeding, which involved laboratories and more specialised staff and facilities, and on researching longer-term and more complex questions relating to plant growth, soil and water interactions, etc. Such work was expensive and needed to be done in a more cooperative fashion to gain grant aid from various funding bodies.
More parochially, I was becoming concerned that Morley – funded by the sale of building land from the old farm at Sprowston – had a somewhat incestuous structure, which might tempt researchers to use the money at their disposal without giving due regard to whether the work was a priority for the industry. The Executive Board comprising about 30 people meeting twice or sometimes three times a year was not the most appropriate management structure to oversee detail. When John Cross retired, I was asked to take over the chair. John had already started to reduce the size of the Executive committee and I continued this process, eventually ending with a Board of around 10 people meeting 6 times a year or more and splitting the old MRC into ’new MRC’ (the research arm) and TMAF, which was the owner of all the assets (on behalf of Norfolk farmers).
TMAF’s role included making judgements on what research priorities the industry needed regardless of who was then asked to do the work. In other words, ’new MRC’ was not guaranteed TMAF funding without making a strong and competitive case for it. All this was not only to deal with the pressures already mentioned but also to gear up the business to become a bigger player in the national scene. If we did not do this, the long-term future for a relatively tiny organisation such as Morley was bleak.
We started negotiation with Arable Research Centres (ARC), which mirrored much of the Morley on-farm trials operation in several other parts of the country and, in parallel, also talked to NIAB about a three-way merger in order to gain access to plant breeding, laboratory facilities and higher science expertise. Meanwhile, MRC had also taken in partnership several of the ex-ADAS crop advisors to try to maintain close direct links with our farmer base.
The result of all this activity, in the early 2000’s was a successful merger with ARC to farm the Arable Group (TAG) – with coverage by qualified crop advisors and local field trials in almost every part of England growing arable crops. TMAF was a separate entity, but important as a major funder of the new business. I became first chair of the Arable Group and remained for a short period chair of TMAF until Nick Steed took over this role. Trying to bring NIAB into the mix at this stage proved too much to do in one go, but within a very few years, as we now all know, NIAB absorbed TAG into its expanding structure, where it remains as part of an even wider conglomerate of interests than we had foreseen 20 years ago.
What did/do you see are TMAF’s unique strengths?
The Morley farm, owned by Norfolk farmers, is almost unique in this country in being a place where we can say with some certainty that it will remain a closely monitored farm and available for experimental work well into the future. In other words, we have a significant statistical record of the farm already which will continue to build into the long term.
When dealing with research on soils, for instance, this long-term approach is vital in order to tease out some of the more complex interactions, of which we are now aware that we know little about. In having a pretty healthy source of investment income from a portfolio of shares of around £10m (pretty large within the agricultural charity sector in this country) and a Board whose interests are farmer-facing and independent, not corporate, we can wield significant influence, beyond our true size, in the direction of arable research nationally. To this end, we recently strengthened the scientific knowledge on the Board in order to analyse more thoroughly the quality of research proposals which TMAF is asked to fund, and to understand better how the wider research funding streams work so that we can maximise our influence within them.
What are the top 3 things that you’ve seen TMAF do (either important to you or you’re most proud of) during your involvement?
What I think I am most proud of during my period with Morley is having a significant influence on making the changes described above. Without such change, I do not think Morley would exist now.
We are a highly respected organisation within the agri-food charity sector nationally. Although we no longer have direct control over the research work which we commission – done not only on our farm but elsewhere, and not just by NIAB/TAG but also by several other organisations including BBRO and some commercial firms, we have a seat at the table when it comes to discussing and choosing priority areas to look at.
Increasingly, too, we are making the farm a demonstration farm not only for good farm practice but also to demonstrate to the public a modern, progressive farming business sensitive to environmental and social pressures. Although we see and hear from fewer farmers than in the past, partly as a result of there being such a reduction in the number of real decision-makers in the industry today, and partly because of the ubiquity of electronic information nowadays – nevertheless I believe Morley is still widely regarded as a jewel in the crown of Norfolk.
Looking ahead, what useful role can TMAF play in agricultural research and education? Might it be different?
In recent years we have developed strong relationships with a number of agricultural universities and other research institutions. Our support of quality PhDs is very strong and targeted. Less strong, particularly since the takeover of Easton College by City College Norwich is our relationship with that sector. I don’t think the problem comes from our side – we have tried very hard to improve and help develop agricultural education at that level over the years, but without too much success. We do continue to fund work with schools in partnership with Show societies in particular.
The AgriFood Charities Partnership (AFCP) is important in enabling the most forward-looking charities to work together where possible. I am delighted that TMAF secretary Michaela is also AFCP secretary as from the 2023 AFCP AGM. On the higher science research side, it is important we continue to develop good relations, particularly with the Norwich Science Park and Cambridge/NIAB and examine ways of more collaborative working together. That is a work in progress.
The TMAF Board, though not political, has to take a view on the future direction of agriculture, which is largely driven by politics and national strategy. There are big changes coming relating particularly to climate change, mitigation, adaptation, fewer animals kept for meat, issues of healthy diets affecting what may be grown in future and how, pollution, Carbon counting, increasing environmental pressures on techniques that may be acceptable, and so on.
None of these is going to be easy to resolve and good independent research plus experience on farm will continue to be vital.
To those joining or thinking of joining the TMAF committee, what advice would you give?
Be prepared to question everything and try to look into the future as much as possible to identify the questions which will need resolving by good practical science. There is a danger that scientists without a grounding in practicality will ask for a lot of resources which are ultimately of little economic or environmental value.
A mix of youth and experience on the Board is a good thing. Remember that some of the best things you ever do are done for free – membership of a charity Board like Morley is unpaid. The reward comes from doing something to benefit the industry as a whole. In recent years this principle has been somewhat forgotten – I hope it can be revived.