Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer, Elizabeth Creak Chair of Agri-Tech Applied Economics, was among a team of Harper Adams University academics who visited Israel in the summer to meet with scientists and innovators and discuss the use of data in agricultural processes.
Following that visit, a reciprocal event at Harper Adams was organised – taking place as the autumn term was set to being at the University. In this blog, Professor Lowenberg-DeBoer reflects on the importance of making these in-person connections.
Like other human relationships, research linkages grow over time and are strengthened by joint experiences.
Scientific papers are usually the main event of agricultural research meetings, but in my experience the real work of such gatherings is often done informally, through chatting over coffee/tea, sharing meals or field trips.
For example, a four person team from the Agricultural Research Organization (ARO) from Israel participated in a workshop at on the Harper Adams University (HAU) campus near Newport, Shropshire this autumn.
This workshop was a follow up to the travel by an HAU team to a workshop at the ARO Volcani Centre near Tel Aviv in Israel in June.
Both workshops were focused on “Data Driven Agricultural Decision Making” and supported by a linkage grant from the British Council Wohl Clean Growth Alliance. The overall goal was to develop grant funded UK-Israel research collaborations that address the agricultural technology challenges of our time.
I am the Harper Adams University principal investigator (PI) of this British Council project. Dr Offer Rozenstein is the ARO PI.
In planning both events, we tried to build in opportunities for researchers to get to know each other beyond their scientific methodologies and results. Ideally, after the two workshops ARO and Harper Adams researchers should have a sense of what motivates their colleagues and what sparks their creativity.
Of course, the workshops included scientific presentations.
On the first day of the workshop here, there were short 15 minute presentations by the Israeli visitors and by a range of our staff.
Those presentations covered topics as diverse as controlled traffic farming, food waste management, human-robot interaction and remote sensing of plant diseases. This gave both our visitors and our researchers conversation starters for the rest of the workshop.
Late on the Tuesday afternoon, the group visited the Harper robotic dairy. Even though that facility is on campus, many of the Harper Adams staff in the workshop had not seen it. A visit requires biosecurity procedures and many of our staff had not taken the time from their busy daily schedules to see it. The Israeli visit was an excuse for Harper Adams staff to get to know their own campus better!
While searching among the yellow biosecurity wellies at the entrance to the Harper farm for a pair that fit, Dr Yael Salzer, ARO, mused about the journey that took her from engineering to a PhD in social psychology, to research on farm level human-animal-robot interactions. She noted that she never expected that journey would take her to a robotic dairy in Britain discussing dairy cow social networks!
Later that evening, the workshop participants sampled a variety of typical British foods in the Harper Adams Conference Dining Room - including fish and chips, cottage pie, Yorkshire pudding, pavlova, trifle and crumble & custard. Following that meal, Dr Yael Laor of the ARO Newe Ya’ar research farm decided she would need to upgrade her opinion of British cuisine.
On Wednesday the workshop group visited the Nick Taylor farm near Shrewsbury. The farm is one of the largest growers of organic root vegetable, such as potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and onions in Britain.
To stay competitive the farm has experimented with laser weeding to reduce the labour required for organic weed control, but this year has switched to using a solar powered mechanical weeding robot. The farm also uses satellite and drone imagery to predict yields, for logistics and marketing purposes.
On the bus back to Harper, the discussion was about whether Nick Taylor was a typical UK farmer or an outlier when it came to technology adoption.
I pointed out that international agricultural productivity comparisons suggest that UK farmers have been more reluctant to adopt new technology than in most other industrialized countries. Rozenstein said that Israeli farmers are quite eager to adopt technology and they are usually open to collaboration with ARO because of a history of past collaborations that helped resolve their farming problems.
In the afternoon the workshop group walked out the Hands Free Farm to see harvesting of field beans (- also known as favas). Even though field beans are a common ingredient in Middle Eastern foods like hummus and falafels, the Israelis had never seen field beans growing. The discussion focused on the use of nitrogen fixing legumes like field beans in Israeli and UK sustainable crop rotations. I noted that while the British consume immature fava beans as vegetables, very few of them use dried fava beans in cooking. Roughly half of the UK field bean crop is exported to the Middle East and the other half is used as animal feed.
One request by the Israeli visitors was for Indian food. They explained that Indian restaurants are rare in Israel.
Parmjit Chima, head of HAU Engineering, suggested the Shakespeare Inn in Newport and explained that in Birmingham, where he lives, Indian cuisine has become a standard pub food. Over that meal the participants exchanged reminisces of travel in India and other parts of the world.
Refereed publications are the currency of scientific life. Almost everywhere in the world researchers are evaluated by the number and quality of their publications.
In an effort to capture some of the insights from the workshops in Israel and in the UK, Thursday morning was devoted to drafting a paper that might be published in Precision Agriculture or other journal.
The Israelis were amused by the native English speakers on the Harper staff vigorously discussing the fine points of English grammar while other Harper Adams participants who grew up speaking other languages quietly observed. The Israelis compared it to discussions of Hebrew syntax at ARO.
When the Israeli visitors departed for London Heathrow Airport Thursday afternoon there was a feeling among both the ARO and Harper Adams participants that the two workshops had achieved their goal.
When the anticipated calls for joint UK-Israel agricultural research are issued, both institutions will be ready to respond.
The formal and informal interactions provided participants a good sense of our scientific capacity - in both institutions and our human resources.