BASIS Registration, the industry’s training, certification, auditing and standard setting body, has been moving towards the digital delivery of its services for some time. But this year’s Covid-19 pandemic restrictions have accelerated the process, says BASIS chief executive Stephen Jacob. With a new chairman in place, the body is seeking a wider role across the UK agrifood chain.

BASIS adopted a digitalisation strategy in 2017 to increase efficiency while keeping abreast of the way its members are working. There were three main stands to this approach – online examinations: the BASIS Classroom digital training offer and remote auditing of stores.

The organisation has invested in the software to allow remotely invigilated online examinations, while meeting the standards required by accreditation body Harper Adams University and the Health & Safety Executive, which is the BASIS awarding body. BASIS was one of first users of this technology, but it has proved successful in practice, while freeing candidates from the time and cost of travelling to an examination centre.

The BASIS Classroom allows event organisers – so far companies such as Certis, Origin Fertilisers and UPL – to develop their own Continuous Professional Development (CPD) modules which can be presented to all BASIS members through the internet, followed by a short test for CPD points. The portal has been well received by members with 2,500 course completions so far.

The Classroom is supported by a new series of BASIS Podcasts, open to all registered members. The first episode, released earlier this year, focussed on spring cereals and has been downloaded 1,600 times. A second, exploring winter cereal variety choice, is ready for an autumn launch. Mr Jacob says the podcasts are an ideal way to update smaller, independent agronomy businesses which may have less access to resources and training time than the national distribution companies.

BASIS audits pesticide stores for distributors and manufacturers, plus professional rodenticide suppliers. This has been achieved remotely during lockdown by using document sharing platforms to check files such as HSE reports and contingency plans, together with video channels such as facetime and WhatsApp to actually “see” the facilities. While Mr Jacob concedes this is not as good as a physical check, the virtual audit ensured the industry remained compliant in the difficult circumstances and that the arable inputs supply chain operated effectively in its busiest season. BASIS had hoped to resume physical audits from the autumn, but the recent regional lockdowns have delayed their resumption.

The earlier digitalisation planning and investment meant BASIS was able to adapt to the exceptional disruption experienced this year, notes Mr Jacob. It is also clear that the pandemic has sparked a major shift to online working in the absence of conventional practices. BASIS is pleased with the way the digital channels performed and how members adapted to and accepted them as a result of Covid.

Certainly, he says BASIS will continue to develop digital work practices for the future. An example is the soon to be launched membership app to allow digital registration at events for CPD purposes – replacing existing paper recording.

Access to CPD for BASIS members was a huge problem this year as the normal busy crop growing season programme of trade shows and demonstrations fell away due to the pandemic controls. Mr Jacob estimates that the March-May period saw CPD activity drop by 80%. However, CPD work is back to near 100% of previous years since June, as it has migrated online. For example, the digital Cereals and Fruit Focus events allowed points to be collected. As with the training and examinations, BASIS and the industry had to reassess the way CPD points are awarded within the digital shift, but the technology has allowed members to keep themselves updated.

There is a similar picture with new candidate numbers, which fell by up to a quarter in April to June. Many trainers have reacted by now offering courses online, while Harper Adams and Lincolnshire Universities plan to resume classroom training from September. Without clear guidance from government, it is hard to make plans for the autumn with restrictions still in place, but Mr Jacob is confident activity will pick up. Companies are expecting to recruit the same numbers of trainee agronomists, with online training now an option for new independent agronomists. Certainly, training was the most disrupted of BASIS activities, he says, but it can continue through traditional and digital channels.

This year saw William Burgess of Lincolnshire-based Burgess Farms and RV Organics within the Produce World group assume the BASIS chairmanship – the first grower chairman after a succession of crop protection sector executives. The business specialises in the production and marketing of root vegetables and potatoes, working closely with supermarket customers in this unsubsidised and perishable sector of the industry. This demands a commercial outlook and close collaboration with retailers and customers to successfully match supply with demand, he says.

With a strategic review of BASIS’ operations underway, Mr Burgess would like to use his background to help steer the organisation towards closer integration with the consumer agenda over higher food standards and a reduced environmental impact. BASIS already helps to underpin the growing of safe and sustainable food, but it needs to engage more with the retail and consumer end of the food chain. Post Brexit, agriculture will change – BASIS can play an important part in training agronomists to help farmer customers through the changes, as well as the evidence to support the high standards and to prove the wholesomeness of British produce as the healthiest and safest on domestic and export markets.

BASIS is already working with Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) on a joint integrated farm management course (IFM) and with Natural England’s catchment sensitive farming officers over training courses. Its courses will change to reflect growing concern over environment and climate change, learning from organic and IFM approaches. Increasingly, soil health and wider solutions to crop protection will become the norm, rather than divisions over systems used.

BASIS administers the FACTS certification for the fertiliser industry, which Mr Jacob says is also covered by the review. FACTS too has moved to online assessments for both written work and vivas, plus the annual assessments without difficulty. It is reviewing the nutrient management planning module with the AIC, ADAS and AHDB to take more account of IFM, soil health and responsible nutrient use, to ensure the best value to agronomists in the field. This should be ready for 2021, following some pandemic delay.

Mr Jacob stresses that the recent Beirut ammonium nitrate store explosion underlines the way that FACTS and FIAS in the UK ensure that this potentially hazardous material is handled responsibly and safely at all stages of the supply chain, in order to maintain its usefulness as a fertiliser.
In summary, the review is likely to steer BASIS towards a wider range of courses delivered through continuous digital innovation to improve the service to members and the industry.

“When I started in the industry, you were either a pesticide of fertiliser salesman with a BASIS or FACTS certificate,” says Mr Jacob. “But now, people work towards the BASIS Diploma which covers soil health and water management, nutrient planning, conservation and all aspects of agronomy. This range will only expand, as the value of advice becomes more prominent, rather than the order book as time goes on.

“People will have to keep upskilling themselves as their careers progress as part of lifetime learning. BASIS‘ role is to provide the training to enable them to keep abreast of the changes.”