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The tribulations of crop trials

News - 04.11.22

Nick Winmill, head of potato R&D, reflects on challenges of an excellent summer.

The 2022 season has in some respects, been a disaster. Most growers might disagree as yields have tended to please on the upside and conditions have been good. If there is a negative, it is that the higher prices brought on by the war in Ukraine are likely to result in a bigger tax bill than many will have anticipated.

For the research and development team at Agrii, this is scant consolation. The dry conditions meant diseases such as late blight failed to take hold and our nutrient work was hampered by the lack of moisture to support plant uptake. In such situations, testing a product or programme to the point that there is a meaningful difference with the control is nigh on impossible. There may be the occasional positive result but replicating it across plots and sites has been frustratingly hard.

Our biostimulant trials are a case in point. These products hold great potential but the task of separating those that work in practice under typical field conditions from those that show promise in the managed environment of a research laboratory is difficult when Mother Nature fails to participate.

This season, three of our bio-stimulant trials have failed to deliver a statistical difference to the untreated control. While not the result we hoped to see, it serves to endorse the both the need and the value that trials provide. Manufacturers make a range of claims about the products they produce. In the majority of cases, these are valid although the extent of the response can vary, especially under testing conditions, but as the retailer it is Agrii’s reputation and our standing with customers that is called into question when a product’s performance fails to meet the user’s expectations. This is why we aim to trial a new product we sell before we sell it. If it doesn’t deliver an improvement in performance – defined as a positive statistical difference that ensures a worthwhile economic return – than we don’t sell it.

Trials are an expensive exercise, but essential to our business. The intention of such an operation is to prove a positive, but on those occasions when this doesn’t happen, we view the spend as part of the learning exercise. It serves to demonstrate the importance of seasonal variability or the differences between sites.

It would be naïve to dismiss such products on the back of one season’s indifferent performance. These products were developed using the knowledge gathered at the highest levels of science. In many cases, it took decades to develop this understanding. It is beholden on us as crop protection professionals to identify and develop the most appropriate means of applying these products to derive the greatest benefit. In some cases, we, along with others, have invested a decade in trials to understand how and when to apply such products and identify the factors that influence performance. It’s a process of continual refinement.

It would be easy to argue that we are unreasonably hard on some of the products we test. There is an argument that says we should revise our expectations but doing so would be to accept poorer performance. Is this in the customers’ interest or that of society when output is stagnating, and food inflation is running at its highest annual rate since 2005?

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