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©Si Barber/07739 472 922 REAP conference at Chrchill College, November 2015. See Holdsworth Associates for more info.

The Challenges Facing UK Farmers and their Adoption of Agtech

December 2, 2015

The need to engage more effectively with ag scientists and other agriculture technology stakeholders was one of the main challenges cited by UK farmers speaking at the Realizing our Economic and Agricultural Potential (REAP) conference in Cambridge last month. Organized by Agri-Tech East, a cluster organization and network, the producer panel attracted a large number of questions from an audience of agronomists, researchers, scientists, media, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders in an effort to understand how to get more technology onto the farm and boost farm profitability.

Here is a snapshot of some of those questions and the answers provided by the farmer panel.

What is your relationship with agri-tech at the moment?

Brian Barker, EJ Barker & Sons, Lodge Farm, Stowmarket: I am a next generation farmer on a family-owned farm, and it’s my job to make our farms as profitable as possible. I have got to answer to my family, which can be cut throat! So I need to look at the next technologies coming through. How can I get them, what’s the research out there, and how can I get them onto the farm?

It’s a really difficult thing for the smaller end of the farming scale to get the tech. I believe we need to go back to the roots of agriculture and look at how we can get the most out of our soil. We are all building agribusinesses out of the same asset — soil. So I want to track down soil scientists to expand my knowledge, find out how I can get more out of our nutrients and how I can harness the ‘smart’ world we live in to make sure we are using everything at our disposal. Because tech and science will drive profitability.

Tim Whitehead, Farm Manager, Vine Farm, Royston: One of my key challenges is actually making a profit. The industry is very much on its knees at the moment and just making a profit at this point in time is a struggle. Is that lack of profit in the industry going to stifle innovation? And with that lack of profit, are you willing to take the risk of adopting new tech? This is one of my particular fears. The flip side to this is that if we actually embrace technology, it could improve our profitability, so it could be a win-win situation.

There are various areas within the industry that I’m concerned about such as pesticide resistance. We need to look at the solution to these issues as it’s a real challenge to my business, and ultimately my profitability. Moving onto other points, in recent years GPS guidance technology developments have been absolutely fantastic and a no-brainer in my opinion. But there’s a lot of mystery in fertilizer applications such as variable rate fertilizer application. At end of the day you have got to think: is it bringing a cost benefit to my business? And I’d really like to explore that further. Lastly, cover crops are very sexy at the moment but ultimately, is it bringing my bottom line up?

Andrew Francis, Farms Manager, Elveden Estate: I’m a fairly simple sort of chap. In isolation, for me, it’s possible to be confused about the multiplication of innovation, but farmers are innovators by nature. We’ve been at forefront of agtech innovation long before others. But the time is right for some serious help. Before I make changes to our system of work, I like to understand the background of the science. What does it tell me about the likelihood of success? We need to make sure we don’t go off on costly tangents that don’t bring real solutions. And we need to be focused on what our real needs are in meeting the continual challenges our businesses face. As time pressured business managers, I feel I need real time information and predictive data. We need to be looking at things that were not previously measurable. And real time multifaceted data. Our approach is always to challenge the norm, question what we do and why we do it and look to influence our outcome and not become a victim of circumstance. As I see it, the best way forward is through greater levels of engagement. The solutions to our problems will lie in more complex levels of integrated business and crop management approach, fundamentally aimed at delivering an achievable solution to identifiable problems.

What are the main barriers at the moment to getting a dialogue with scientists and getting the information you can trust?

Francis: Knowing where to look. Science is a fairly broad term and can be multi-faceted. Soil scientists, plant physiologists, nutritionists, and entomologists; there are so many different spheres. When we go looking, there’s currently only one person with that specialist skill for something that needs addressing. The hardest thing is knowing where to look.

Barker: It’s important to know that the science put in front of you doesn’t have an agenda behind it. We want independent views and not to be pushed in the direction of the freebies we can get — because that’s what farmers are swayed by pretty much. If someone can understand the science and get farming back into the education system, inspire the next generation of farmers and producers, reeducate where food comes from. I’m very passionate about that, and the need for good independent advice and research papers. We’re very busy people, trying to manage everything we do. So how can we get it and manage it?

Whitehead: I think there’s a slight fear of change. ‘I’m doing this because my father did’. We need to move away from that and move with the times. But there’s lots of info out there and sifting through and finding out what is useful and what isn’t is very difficult. I’m very lucky that I’m part of a large organisation with a team specifically doing that, and getting that through to us on the ground, but it’s a big task actually sifting through the information.

How much discussion is there between farmers and farming businesses about what’s working best and is a there a pre-competitive area where farming businesses might collaborate on what tech to look at adopting?

Barker: I am an AHDB [Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board] farmer and there’s a new program set up by AHDB to promote knowledge transfer between farmers. There’s been a series of meetings in Suffolk and last week we hosted our winter meeting of farmers in the village hall. I tell them what I’m doing and compare that with the world record attempt and discuss what we’re doing differently. Last week we had the first meeting about nutrition. Historically farmers haven’t been ones to communicate very well and have shut their gates, but now we’re getting a much more open forum between farmers discussing stuff as profit margins are getting so tight. We are at a tipping point of the industry where the big boys are getting bigger and the small could fall by the wayside. Progression is something we all need.

Whitehead: There’s a fine line commercial advantage to knowing something your neighbour doesn’t. So do you share it or keep it to yourself and sell that knowledge on? At the end of the day, there is a profit to be had in something like that. So there’s a fine line in sharing that knowledge and keeping it to yourself.

Francis: You also need to think outside of the farmer-to-farmer interaction. It’s important that problems are shared before the field and after the field, with customers downstream, input suppliers and so on. Everyone needs to take a level of ownership of the problem and look for a group of solutions as that’s the only way we’ll really move forward. There will be certain things that will be easier to share, especially about good business practices and pressures, and to help resist the negativity that comes to us through media and regulation.

Whitehead: Farmers need to be better at communicating with scientists. It needs to be a two-way thing. Where profitability is in the industry at the moment, there are lots of farmers looking for solutions, and probably the time is right to get that information out to them.

How does AHDB fit within this?

Francis: I have probably undervalued AHDB until relatively recently. I think the level of engagement from me hasn’t been good enough. So I have opened my eyes to what they can offer. But that in itself tells a tale. Maybe the messaging out isn’t quite right as I haven’t picked up on it soon enough. It could be a fantastic tool. The problem for them is focusing on what they need to do.

What is the process from seeing a technology, working out if there will be a return on investment, and actually deploying it on the farm?

Whitehead: It’s very much doing trials on that work on a small scale and a large scale and seeing the cost benefit coming through. It’s not complicated, a lot of people out there are doing it. We do trials on a small and large scale and try to see the cost benefit coming through.

Francis: Independent analysis is part of it, but also your own analysis in your own environment. A big mantra of ours is that one size doesn’t fit all, it’s going back to the raw science, understanding the raw science and seeing how you can manipulate that to fit your own environment. We are doing 40 different crop trials every year just on our own crops but that’s all aimed at understanding broad principles at how we can make difference in our own climate.

Barker: We only have one harvest a year. So you can do a trial, then look at the responses and whether they’ve actually made an impact. It doesn’t matter how much we throw at it, if you don’t get water at the right time, we will never get that potential and see the big disparities we were hoping for and then you get to the next harvest and want to replicate that again, the technology has moved on even further. But it’s a catch 22 in getting the information. Remote monitoring is something that can do that, and there’s lots of technology like drone technology and real time smart technology, so can we harness that to get a real-time response on what’s happening and what impact the technology is having?

Whitehead: The risk-reward mechanisms of technology are very complex. Maybe there’s an opportunity to consolidate data on an anonymous basis so you can start getting trials more widely across a region. Trials are hard. The weather is always different, so industry groups need to consolidate, but you can’t generalize on the risk/reward profile.

What are your views on food security?

Whitehead: We on the ground think that food security is very important as ultimately the population is expanding, so, in theory, food should be getting more scarce. But on the ground I’m seeing my profit go down quite significantly. So I’m thinking should I be looking for other ways to use my land to maximise my returns? We’re diversifying out into renewables, and that’s a real worry.

Francis: It’s a tricky one because we’re a big advocate of promoting British food. I think it’s really important that farmers do as much as they can to engage and push the level of food safety we operate to. There are a elements beyond our control that mean other countries are more competitive with different cost structures so we need to come up with a point of difference that’s significant enough so we can actually we get pull from the customer base. It comes back to us aligning ourselves with other industry sectors outside of agriculture so we have more than agriculture putting that message forward. So we have the science community, the research community and other industries pushing the value of British produce and the safety of it — that’s probably our niche; food safety and security compared to our European competitors.

Barker: Farmers are really good in the UK; we produce a high standard of food. We’re changing as we go along to get better and keep getting better, but it comes back to the changing mindset of the consumer to appreciate what we’re producing. Eating and buying seasonally is key, so looking forward it’s all about reeducating the whole idea of what food actually is. Is it food security? Or is it quick and convenient? The war on waste that was publicized by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall [a UK chef] recently on TV is a good example that there’s loads of food out there that’s being thrown away, but then some people are starving. It’s a crazy social problem we’re facing. Farmers and agriculture in the UK are doing really well but have to get better market for our produce and there’s loads of development under that umbrella.

What do you think? Get in touch at [email protected]

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