For as far back as my “agricultural’’ memory will take me – and believe me, that’s quite a long time, farmers were safe in the knowledge that all crop trials – especially new varieties coming onto the market – would be undertaken in an extremely professional way by NIAB – an organisation that was totally independent and sponsored exclusively by government money.

Unfortunately however and as we are all too aware, government money started to become a bit of a rarity with purse strings becoming tighter and tighter and, as such, NIAB regional trials centres were closed down and ended up being centred in one specific location – the National Cereals Event in Lincolnshire being one such example.

Having been somewhat spoilt for a number of years as to the amount of trials information that was available to them and, it ought to be pointed out, information that was extremely relevant as it had been sourced from regional trials, farmers were now placed in a most vulnerable situation as the only up to date trials information that was available to them had been based on trial results that had, and in the case of cereals, been obtained up to 200 to 300 miles away.

One such company who had total empathy with this situation was Pearce Seeds Ltd – an agronomy company based near Yeovil in Somerset who specialized in seeds, fertilizers and crop protection products. Having identified this lack of official trials information some years ago, they first set up their Rosedown Farm base as a small trials centre but such was the success of this venture, they soon outgrew the limited area that was available to them and, in 2008, aquired Plumber Farm which is situated in the Blackmore Vale, near Sturminster Newton in Dorset where 40 acres have been devoted exclusively to crop trials. The farm lies on a stone brash cum clay loam, has an altitude of 230 ft with a rainfall of 32” per annum and, as such, is deemed extremely representative of commercial farms within the region.

In addition to on-going trials work with forage maize and grasses, Pearce Seeds have also invested a huge amount of time and expertise with work on combinable crop trials – this particular segment of the market being of huge commercial interest to west country farmers.

Winter and spring varieties of wheat, barley, oats and triticale have been tested, as well as winter oilseed rape and spring linseed. All the plots were replicated three times, and as well as yield, the bushel weights were also recorded with some cases being quite remarkable.

Winter wheat yields were spectacular on the deep loamy soils, ranging from 13 to 17 tonnes/ha with JB Diego and Panorama heading the list and well known varieties such as Claire, Alchemy and Oakley all producing 16.24 t/ha, indicating that with a full fungicide management programme these disease susceptible varieties still perform extremely well.

Work was also done with late sown varieties after maize using a combination of various chemical programmes – an exercise that has proved invaluable as no other company in the country is currently undertaking any such work. With attention to detail, excellent results can be achieved.

Winter barleys produced results between 8.4 and 12.4 t/ha with the six-row hybrid variety Volume topping the list, while Flagon, a malting variety was outclassed. Hybrids are certainly leading the way but unfortunately they are already sold out for this year and are on allocation for 2013. Escadre – a six row non-hybrid came top in the non-hybrid trials and is commercially available for 2012 as is Florentine – the leading two row variety. With rhyncosporium being prevalent in the west country, work is already showing up varieties that can be recommended but there are also varieties that are extremely susceptible and should be avoided.

Three varieties of winter oats were tested, Balado, Mascani and Gerald, and they all yielded exactly the same at 11.9 t/ha. Mascani tends to be the millers choice and with Balado being a short, stiff variety, it can be grown a little ‘harder’.

Remarkably good results were obtained from winter triticale varieties too with yields ranging from 11 to 14 t/ha. Bellac, the reliable standard, performed very well as did Benetto which was also high on the list. Plumber is hosting the only treated triticale trial in the UK which reflects local usage, although a lot of people switched to wheat this year as this gives them a better marketing option as a second choice use.

Oilseed Rape. This is a well established trial and proved to be even more meaningful when the NIAB trial in Hampshire failed. The drought favoured earliness so Excalibur and the semi dwarfs did very well. The Monsanto bred variety Exstorm which is exclusive to Pearce Seeds in the south is already looking quite exciting due to its yield and phoma resistance – a characteristic which is extremely important in the south. Exstorm is the top rated OSR variety in France and should be one of the top candidates that are up for recommendation this year.

Spring wheat and spring oat yields were modest, caused by such a dry period during April and May. Graffiti proved to be the best spring wheat and displayed good yellow rust resistance – unlike Granary which was badly effected. Spring barley did much better with Propino and Quench being well adapted to the area, neck and neck on yield and both being in demand by local buyers for export.

The new Linseed variety Brighton did very well with a good combination of yield and earliness. In addition to a somewhat comprehensive list of crop trials, Pearce Seeds will be starting work on seed dressings this year and will be evaluating their success or otherwise on an array of crops. The company will also be hosting a LINK project called WAGTAIL – a venture where plant breeders cooperate together by mapping genetic markers for disease resistance – Pearce Seeds having already started the field work.

In addition to trials on crop yields, Pearce Seeds also undertook fungicide and insecticide trials on contract with a number of chemical companies where small plot screens are used and new material in particular is exposed to natural disease pressure for this locality and monitored accordingly with any susceptible lines being discarded by the breeder. Much of this type of work takes place in greenhouses at NIAB in Cambridge, but as races of foliar disease keep developing naturally, it is vital that whole season scrutiny takes place at several locations throughout the west country in order to fully reflect the problems that farmers experience with this on-going problem. Also, by specializing in high grade seed multiplication, they have access to seed varieties up to three years before commercialisation.

I think it is fair to say that if agricultural funding had continued along the lines of 20 years ago, NIAB would be continuing to do all regional and national trials work and, in all honesty, there just would not have been the need for Plumber Farm – or any ‘’Plumber Farm’’ come to that. But the truth of the matter is that farmers not only want regional trials work, they MUST have it in order to survive in what is fast becoming an extremely competitive market place – not just in the UK but also our European counterparts. Plumber Farm is operated by professional people and they are there to serve the regional farming community by offering experienced and unbiased advice on crops to grow and where to grow them which is then backed up by a comprehensive package of agronomy that will take the farmer right through to harvest. Plumber Farm and Pearce Seeds are becoming an ever increasing source of knowledge on crops and chemical programmes – knowledge that they are keen to impart and discuss with their farmer customers.