Farms of the future: innovation in fresh produce supply chains

Agriculture has been slower than some other major industries to see disruption through new technology. But the opportunities in this area are fast being realised and there has been a lot of recent investment and start-up activity in agritech.

Photo source: The Small Robot Company

Unlike the highly controlled production environments in food manufacturing, crop production is less reliable, as production conditions are largely dictated by nature and are difficult to control. In addition to this, growers are under increasing pressure to keep costs down, increase levels of output through intensification (increasing yield per unit area), whilst simultaneously minimising environmental damage.

Clearly, this poses great supply chain challenges. But technology can provide solutions to such challenges. One solution is combining Smart Farming with precision agriculture.

  • Smart Farming refers to the use of information and communication technology in cyber-physical farm management. Technology such as the Internet of Things, cloud computing, robotics and artificial intelligence is expanding the possibilities that Smart Farming brings to growers.

  • Precision agriculture is an agricultural system based on farm management practices occurring at the right place, at the right time and with the right intensity.

Robotics in precision agriculture

One example of robotic precision agriculture comes from Small Robot Company, a UK agritech start up, offering a Farming as a Service (FaaS) model. This model is based on a series of small robots, each with different capabilities and a different role to play in the system.

One collects accurate and up-to-date crop information at individual plant level. Another analyses this data and gives instructions to a further two robots, based on advice from leading agronomists and the UK Government’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.

A third robot fertilises the crop and controls weeds, either through a micro-spray of chemicals, burning or crushing. A fourth robot has a robotic drill to plant seeds and records where the seeds have been planted. Under this system, attention is given to plants on a targeted basis. This system reduces chemical waste and environmental pollution from untargeted spraying and reduces soil compaction resulting from traditional large, heavy machinery, improving plant growth and therefore yield.

For the time being, Small Robot Company’s model is being tested at the Waitrose & Partners Leckford farm and the National Trust Wimpole Estate. While these tests are taking place with arable crops (such as wheat and barley), it is not difficult to envision a future in which elements of precision agriculture are more widespread in fruit and vegetable production to help overcome fresh produce supply chain challenges.

What's next?

With a complex supply chain, prone to numerous challenges, technological innovation has the potential to add real value to agriculture. Challenges that may be addressed through the use of agri-tech include the following:

  • Climate change and unpredictable weather

  • Land availability

  • Labour availability

  • Dwindling productivity

  • Agricultural pollution

  • Soil degradation

  • Waste

To date, a lot of agritech innovations are being implemented only on a trial basis. But now is a great time for the industry to harness the capabilities of new technologies, as consumers are becoming increasing conscious of the sustainability implications of their consumption habits. Achieving this can create a new form of differentiation in a competitive marketplace.

Businesses in this industry should stay up to date with technological advancements and assess whether these can strengthen their supply chains and/or add value in the eyes of their customers.

It will be interesting to follow the evolution of agritech over the next year, to see whether it remains largely in the trialling stage, whether we start seeing different applications of it, or whether we see larger scale rollouts.

Source: IDG