Plaid kilt

PLAID:  Peer to Peer Learning:  Accessing Innovation through Demonstration

In Scotland, a PLAID is a piece of cloth (usually wool) that is interwoven with differently coloured threads to form patterns (think of vibrant kilts and family tartans).  It wasn’t until after we’d decided on the acronym for the project that I learned that in most of the rest of Europe, ‘plaid’ means ‘blanket’!  In my mind I had this vision of different colours representing all the different people and organisations that are involved in demonstrating farming innovations, and the symbolism of the way they are woven together, working together to improve the economic, environmental and social sustainability of farming.  So please keep that image firmly in mind, while I tell you about PLAID.

PLAID is about increasing innovation in European agriculture, through on-farm demonstration – in essence, identifying what and how and why on-farm demonstrations occur.  The European Commission sought out proposals specifically to undertake an inventory of demonstration farms, and to assess best practice. The inventory will cover the EU 28, Norway, Switzerland and Serbia, enabling farmers and organisers of on-farm demonstrations to find out what is happening elsewhere, and to make direct contact.  A follow-on project ‘NEFERTITI’ (maybe in a different blog they’ll tell us how they came up with that acronym!) will use the inventory to develop new European networks of demonstration farms.

We’re also assessing how demonstrations happen and why they work – or don’t.  The first thing most researchers do when they start into new research is to see what’s already been written - it really surprised me that there is actually very little formal ‘academic’ literature on demonstration farms (at least in English).  We know that physically demonstrating new practices to farmers has been occurring for centuries, and that lots of organisations are sure that it works, and are good at putting on these activities and events - but no one appears to have done actual research why or how.  That’s pretty exciting for a scientist to discover.

PLAID is also embedded in the practical. As part of PLAID we’re identifying ‘good practice’ and developing tools to help demonstration organisers – thinking about who to invite, what types of activities to include, that sort of thing.  Different people have different learning styles, and most learn better by physically interacting rather than listening to someone talk.   In PLAID we’re developing decision-support tools from our research, to help farmers and agricultural industry members plan out their demonstration activities using good practice.

Something new we brought to the original European call was the focus on access.  We think it is really important that everyone involved in farming – no matter where they are located, or what role they play on the farm (e.g. including spouses, successors and employees) –  should be able to access demonstration activities.  We’re therefore asking questions about access in our research, and working with commercial farmers to develop ‘virtual demonstration’ i.e. enabling farmers to make videos of their innovations and put them on-line.  I’m really excited to see what the farmers come up with.

So that’s PLAID – lots of different strands of activities, and people – farmers, advisors and researchers from across Europe, working together to increase and improve the opportunities for farmers to learn from their peers.

Author: Lee-Ann Sutherland, The James Hutton Institute, Scotland