As we kick off a New Year and look back to 2018, one of the recurring themes was the goading which the industry received at regular intervals for its reluctance to adopt the increasing number of new innovations currently being developed.

It’s probably true that in an increasingly competitive world we need to up our game a bit and get our productivity levels out of the rut in which they seem to be stuck in recent years. So, some good news should materialise on this front in the coming weeks as the AgriEpi initiative is formally launched in Scotland. While this organisation’s name might have helped you win a game of festive Scrabble, just in case you’re wondering, it actually stands for Agri-Engineering, Precision and Innovation.

Now it’s been well-recognised that state-funded research and development in the area of agricultural engineering has been suffering from a bit of neglect in recent decades – and a few years ago some cash was found down the back of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s sofa and made available to address the shortfall in agri-tech research.

The groundwork for rejuvenating this sector has been going on for a year or two and, so far, has taken the somewhat nebulous format of the usual suspect in terms of universities and agric’ colleges collaborating on projects.

The efforts are set to move up a gear this year, though, with the launch of 28 ‘satellite’ farms around the UK, 10 of which are in Scotland. Using existing commercial businesses, these units will be used as test-beds to allow research establishments to try out their inventions in the field, rather than solely in the lab.

On top of this, the volunteer farms have received a whole host of high-tech equipment – including a multitude of sensors to record almost every variable on the farm, weather stations and even drones – and will be used to gather a huge amount of data which will be crucial to scientists working in a whole range of areas.

They will also be used as demonstration units to let other farmers see how the latest gadgets and gizmos can help improve production efficiencies in the real world. Just as importantly, though, they will also be used to sense-check a lot of the ideas at an early stage – a move which is likely to help ensure that the scientists are working on stuff which will actually be useful to farmers in the field and also point them in the right direction as to how to go about this.

It’s nice that it has finally been realised that to perform at its best, science needs to be a two-way street – with both the researchers and the end users involved in developing real world answers for real world problems. History has shown that innovations sometimes have to prove their worth.

While there have been loads of hugely successful developments across the years – many of which have proved to be a major step forward either in themselves, or in the fact that they helped create the sort of platform required to launch other types of machinery, ideas or processes, there have been some really duff ones pushed as well – which have proved to be little more than short-lived evolutionary dead ends.

I chanced upon what might have been a good example of the latter case over the festive period – and discovered that, happily, what might have been termed the agricultural big bang theory was one explosive idea which fell by the wayside …

Now, while a lot of people like to think of the countryside as a place of peace and quiet, nowadays it’s difficult to escape the distant hum of traffic – or the sounds of tractors working in the fields. That noise has changed in recent times though – with the deep bellied rumble and throb of a solid old six-cylinder block giving way to the high-pitched transmission whine of the turbo-charged common rail, Tier 4 compliant engine.

Of course, if you turn the clocks back 100 years and don the compulsory rose-tinted glasses, most of the noise from fieldwork probably came from the ploughman’s foot as it trod a steady line behind the jangling harnesses on a pair of Clydesdales, or a lone garron.

The romantic view of that time paints a countryside where hedgerows were filled with birdsong and worthy rustics, working hand in glove with Mother Nature, constituted no threat to the environment – and this is the bucolic picture painted in many novels and televisions dramas which look back to that time and portray the countryside as a place which moved at a slower pace and to a quieter, more natural rhythm.

But it mightn’t have turned out quite like that if more farmers had taken up what was at that time being pedalled as the innovative new way of tilling and cultivating fields, which was outlined in a wee booklet I chanced upon on the internet. This instructional volume was a reprint of a booklet which had been published in the early 1900s by a company which went on to become one of the biggest names in agro-chemicals – DuPont.

It was given over to what the latest innovation of the day – which could have altered both the environment and the soundscape of the time significantly. Entitled ‘Farming with dynamite’, this deadly serious volume extolled the virtues of what was then being viewed as a great new way of cultivating your farm.

“The purpose of this document is to tell you the wonderful value of the use of ‘Red Cross’ dynamite on the farm,” stated the document, claiming that it is way safer than gunpowder. Despite conjuring up Tom and Jerry images of sticks with hissing fuses, I could believe that it might well have proved its worth clearing land of stumps, trees and boulders, especially as more land was brought into cropping.

But other uses propounded in the booklet for the deadly dynamite included ploughing, planting, cultivating orchards, breaking up soil pans, digging ditches and post holes – and even ‘regenerating old, worn-out farms’.

Claiming that ploughing only turned over the ‘same old soil year after year’, giving it a good blast could bring new earth from a depth of two to three feet – making new nutrients available. And it claimed that using it in woodlands and orchards not only kept the soil loose but also had the additional benefit of killing grubs –to say nothing of all other life forms within a 20-yard radius.

So, while modern farming is criticised on one hand for being too traditional and on the other for being destructive to the environment, our reluctance to farm with dynamite surely shows we are able to assess what works and what doesn’t – and that we do sometimes make the right choice…