Bill Watts joins AHDB as Knowledge Exchange Manager focused on Potatoes

Bill Watts has joined AHDB as Arable Knowledge Exchange Manager (Potatoes) for the West Midlands, South West and Wales.

Bill Watts has joined AHDB as Arable Knowledge Exchange Manager (Potatoes) for the West Midlands, South West and Wales.

Having recently completed his PhD, Bill has extensive research experience in crop management and is a specialist in potato cyst nematode (PCN) control, which is attributable to in excess of £25 million in losses to the industry each year.

Bill has been a regular presenter at Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm West events since 2016, making him a familiar face to a number of growers and other industry members in the West Midlands.

Knowledge Exchange (KE) Managers are the first point of contact for farmers, growers and those in the supply chain who are looking to access the array of services and tools funded by their levy.

After such a challenging season, and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, knowledge exchange has become ever more important in ensuring the industry is informed and reactive to change. Bill Watts:

“I’m looking forward to developing farm demonstrations and using events such as the strategic potato farms to generate discussion and promote new ideas.”

“My best research findings were those that could be readily adopted on farm for the immediate benefit of farm businesses, which is what the SPot program champions.”
This summer AHDB announced that the Potatoes and Cereals and Oilseeds Knowledge Exchange teams have combined, bringing together a wide range of resources and expertise into one group.

Graham Bannister, Senior Knowledge Exchange Manager, says that the newly united Arable Knowledge Exchange team provides a greater depth of knowledge and resource. Graham Bannister, Senior Knowledge Exchange Manager:

“The new appointment and our collaboration with colleagues across the arable sector has broadened our knowledge base and enhanced our discussions of best practice with growers.”

“Bill is well versed in this area through the work he’s already done with farms in the region.”
Graham believes that Bill will deliver a breadth of cutting-edge and scientific expertise to the area, and provide growers and the industry with the information they need to make it through such challenging times. Graham Bannister:

“Many growers will know Bill from his previous work on the biofumigation of PCN and his involvement in PCN tolerance and resistance work.”

“Along with his technical knowledge he brings a real enthusiasm for the potato sector and for engaging with the whole industry.”

Bill Watts Background

I am from Shropshire in the West Midlands, on the Welsh border. My family has a 30-acre smallholding where we produce Welsh Black cattle and Suffolk sheep. I was educated in North East Shropshire in a potato growing area. My interest in the arable sector originates from work experience I undertook at Masstock (now Agrii) in Ludlow in 2004-5, and this led to me enrolling on the BSc (Hons) Agriculture with Crop Management course at Harper Adams University College in 2008.

By 2010 I decided the industrial placement year was a good opportunity to try something outside of my comfort zone. I accepted a Trials and Agronomy Technician role at Vegetable Consultancy Services (VCS) in Norfolk for the year 2010-2011 where I was involved in onion, carrot and parsnip, and potato field work and trials. As part of the placement program I was required to undertake an industrial research project of benefit to VCS, and so focussed on management of potato cyst nematodes (PCN), the most economically important pest of the potato crop.

Due to an uncertain environment at the time around the longevity of commercially available nematicidal products, it was decided between VCS and me that investigation of biofumigation would be of interest. Biofumigation is the fumigation of soils with volatile compounds released from a biological source, such as glucosinolate rich green manures within the brassica family. I very rapidly become interested in the subject area, to the point that I wanted to study the area at PhD level.

Unfortunately, funding at the time was very limited for this emerging area, and so in 2012, I undertook an MSc in Integrated Pest Management at Harper Adams University to keep my research going and to give myself a better chance of securing funding for a PhD. In 2013, Frontier Agriculture Ltd. put the funds forward for me to undertake my PhD with Harper Adams University supervisors Drs Matthew Back, Ivan Grove and Paul Hand.

(Click picture to watch video)

Bill Watts in a video on Biofumigants that was made in 2016

My early BSc (Hons) and MSc research had focussed on the screening of biofumigant species and varieties for their potential to manage PCN.

However, the PhD focussed on soil and mechanisation factors which might be influential of biofumigation efficacy against PCN, such as soil moisture and the most appropriate selection and set-up of maceration and incorporation implements used to chop and work biofumigant plant residues into the soil. Funding for my PhD lasted from 2013-2016, although due to needing further field work, my studies continued until 2018.

To fund myself, I worked on several commercial research projects with the National Centre for Precision Farming at Harper Adams University lead by Dr Richard Green. I then undertook a role at Harper Adams University in 2017 as a Senior Research Assistant under the management of my PhD supervisor Dr Matthew Back. This role focussed on generating data to update the AHDB PCN calculator in terms of potato variety tolerance and resistance. I was awarded my PhD in September 2018 after 10 years of study, and 8 years working on the management of PCN.

What I will bring to the Knowledge Exchange (West) role.

As an applied academic with a specialism in PCN management, I hope to bring my technical and subject-specific skillset to my region. I have always been open with my knowledge in these areas with growers and agronomists throughout the West Midlands, and have developed strong relationships throughout the region.

It will be exciting to be able to meet new contacts in the South West and Wales and have similar conversations. I am particularly excited by the opportunity this post offers me to gain new knowledge by being the link between research and the people implementing those findings on farm. I am also looking forward to setting up useful on-farm trials and using events such as the strategic potato (SPot) farms to generate discussion and promote ideas.

Bill Watts