The state of agriculture before NAAS
Agricultural research was being carried out long before the founding of NAAS in 1946, but it was very much in the hands of private individuals and various agricultural societies. Finding ways to effectively disseminate this information and ensure it ended up in the hands of food producers was a problem.
Agriculture in pre-war Britain was characterised by poor returns on food production, insecure labour or derelict and unsaleable land. With no set minimum for farm wages or crop price, life for those who worked the land was fragile. Our reliance on imports was high. In 1914, our own homegrown produce met only a third of our needs. As war forced the UK to look inward, it became apparent just how serious a problem our national food security was.
Post-war, peace returned, the population grew, but our yields remained poor. The average national wheat yield before NAAS was formed rarely budged past one ton an acre. In fact, it was not until 1981 did we manage to turn the tide and become a nation of net cereal exporters rather than importers.
The founding of a new national agriculture advisory service
The recommendation to form a new National Agricultural Advisory Service (NAAS) was agreed as part of the 1944 Agriculture Bill. Up to that point, agricultural advice was primarily dispensed by county councils, with specialist advice coming from universities and colleges.
Advice offered by the counties very much depended on their budget and ability, and rural counties - those who relied on agriculture the most - were often left with no adequate advice provision. This, coupled with the lack of coordination with universities and colleges, left growing gaps in common knowledge. With the introduction of NAAS in 1946, these two information sources were combined into one unified countrywide service, and for the first time ever, every farmer in England & Wales, no matter where in the country they were, had equal access to the latest farming research and advice.
The advisory service was founded with a desire to offer independent, bespoke solutions for farmers, and this remains a key principle of ADAS today. Each client is facing a unique set of circumstances, and the job of an ADAS advisor is to consider these, offer technical advice that will deliver the maximum benefit and help that client make profitable choices.
Initially, the advisory service was preoccupied with helping farmers make the best use of their current resources rather than researching innovative ideas. When the world began to open up in the 1950s, British agricultural innovation needed to speed up to compete with the changing times. New markets opened and maximum efficiency became the new mantra. Improvements in machinery, cattle breeding, dairy production, and cereal yields all followed.
As economic circumstances changed, the reorganisation of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food meant that NAAS became ADAS (1971). We began offering more commercial services (1987) for farmers at less cost to the taxpayer and we were eventually privatised (1997). The staff who became ADAS were the same staff who were part of NAAS and we retain that same drive to discover better ways of accomplishing more with less.
The next 75 years...
When we began, our function was to alleviate the main concern of the day - enhancing British food security. Today we must look to the needs of the future. Without environmental sustainability, we cannot hope to adapt successfully to climate change or tackle global food poverty. Better yields now are an empty gain if they cost us yields tomorrow. That is why for the past 75 years, whether in the field, in a glasshouse or in a laboratory, we have continued to research, investigate, analyse, assess, support, and drive innovation in the agricultural and environmental sectors.