ag technologies

Choosing from So Many Ag Technologies Can Be Challenging, says Spearhead International CEO

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Ag technologies are an essential part of Spearhead International’s operations. Spearhead is an integrated European farming group with more than 80,000 hectares of diverse crops, extensive seed operations and downstream processing assets. It supplies large food companies like McCain and PepsiCo from its diverse mix of products which include canola and sunflower oil, barley for beer and potatoes. With operations in the UK, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and the Czech Republic, Spearhead is in a unique position to understand the current state of agriculture in these regions.

The history behind Spearhead’s involvement in each country is also interesting.

“Shortly after the end of communism in Europe, our shareholders saw an opportunity to establish new businesses in the former communist countries of Central Europe,” says Tom Green, CEO of Spearhead International. “They saw the window of opportunity to gain access to high quality, large-scale land resources with new emerging marketplaces as communism became a note in history and the people in those nations became free.”

Although the agricultural status of each region offered bountiful land resources, a desperate lack of investment, poor technology resourcing, and a lack of best practices crippled the farming industry. 

But Spearhead helped transform the post-communist agricultural landscape in these areas by applying the best practices it developed in Western Europe and the UK along with cautious investment in people and technologies, according to Green. It was particularly successful in mechanization, post-harvest handling, and animal husbandry.

Today, Green is excited by all the ag technologies and innovation that’s developing in the industry and the role it’s playing at Spearhead.

Ahead of a speaking slot at the upcoming Agrivest Conference in Israel on September 27, we had the chance to speak with him to get his views on the growing ag technologies sector.

What ag technologies do you use at Spearhead?

The first one that comes to mind is precision farming. GPS gives us absolute accuracy concerning where we undertake any of our actions. Our tractors are all guided by satellite to drive in straight lines, and they do not need human interference for steering. We also use satellite imaging and other ag technologies to enable us to undertake variable rate fertilizing. This gives the double benefit of improving crop yield while preventing the unnecessary use of fertilizer in places where the crop does not require it, so our ability to manage crop nutrition through remote observation of the crop and the soil is transformational. Precision ag also allows the precise delivery of crop protection treatments directly to plants, placing the seed in exactly the right place in the field and not broadcasting it all over everywhere.

Another hugely important area is seed variety development. The genetics of the crops we are growing are improving every year. This is seeing us move toward hybrid seeds and crop varieties that have been developed and bred to exhibit particular characteristics, whether it is frost or drought resistance, or larger growth. The biological opportunity to improve what we do by controlled breeding is very significant.

We are also very concerned about the importance and value of water, which we use for irrigation. Where we have no irrigation water, we are using cultivation systems that are themselves water-preserving, so these days in areas where we are short of water and where the temperature rises, we are careful to do minimum cultivation and in some places no cultivation at all.

Are there any ag technologies you aren’t using but which you find particularly exciting?

I think we are on the threshold of a revolution where we will see biological crop treatments becoming more and more important. The adoption of biological solutions is not going to happen overnight, but I think that is the next revolution that we will see. This will be based on those treatments becoming more effective and the use of traditional agrochemicals becoming limited due to government regulation. 

We are also noticing greater environmental awareness today, at least in the geographies we are farming. We are extremely concerned about the effect that we have on the environment. In the future, I think farming systems that require fewer inputs may become more extensive. They will also become more mixed than they have been in the past, with increasing examples of livestock coming back into rotation and a lower intensity of cropping to improve soil fertility.

We have also done some trial work with drones, which is an incredibly effective means of getting extraordinarily accurate information on your fields. Because they can fly very low, they can deliver the service that is required with no interference from cloud cover. In some instances, we can use drones more effectively than a satellite, particularly those requiring very precise management. But equally, there are still things that you can do with a satellite image such as historical images showing how a crop has changed over the years through different seasons.

The challenge around adoption ag technologies like these is also the cost of the whole process of deploying them. This means we need to get the most cost effective technology for a particular purpose, whether it be a drone, satellite or airplane.

New elements of all these ag technologies appear every day, and one of our challenges, and a theme that will be evident at the Agrivest conference, is seeing the wood through the trees; there is so much going on. Finding the entrepreneurs and companies that can really deliver a change and have real value, is hard because there is so much out there. 

What are the biggest challenges you see facing the agriculture industry?

In Europe, we do not use GM technology, and it clearly means there is a whole load of ag technologies and treatments that are not appropriate for the European environment because of that regulation. This has some benefits and some costs attached to it. In some instances we see a premium paid for the ability to guarantee non-GM food, but otherwise, in many instances, I suspect Europe’s failure to use that broad spectrum of tech does contribute to European food being more expensive than other parts of the world. Operating in five European countries, we are very mindful of the freedom that the European Union gives us to move people, products, and machinery from one country to another. That gives us efficiency.

I am nervous of any unilateral country decisions regarding limiting the use of inputs, pesticides, and chemicals, and there are some examples of particular countries being more restrictive than others. I’m also nervous of the tendency for an over-precautionary measure or position being adopted concerning certain products that the industry relies on very heavily.

I’m very much a believer in the phrase, ‘necessity is the mother of all invention.’ Our industry thrives on good operators surviving difficult circumstances. Operators that find solutions and innovate when we find ourselves in a difficult spot are what make our business and others worthwhile.

Another real issue is the challenge that is presented by an ever-changing season, and we have to be very responsive to what consumers want. If the marketplace demands certain things, we need to either deliver them and become the supplier of choice or be more effective at explaining why and promoting a different approach. I’m very conscious of that because we feed a lot of people and, in many instances, through very big branded international businesses. So, we take seriously the responsibility we have and the reputations that those brands have.

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