There is nothing initially remarkable about a 35-hectare plot of farmland, roughly six miles north east of Telford. Round hedgerows bisect irregular fields holding – depending on the time of year – winter wheat, beans or spring oats.
A small, lime-green single-seater combine harvester and two blue open-seat tractors move in precise lines up and down the landscape. These are common crops, drilled, fertilised and harvested using conventional farm machinery. But look again and you’ll notice something odd. The tractors appear to be driving themselves.
When it opened in 2019, Hands Free Farm was a world-first. Funded by Innovate UK, this three-year collaboration between Harper Adams University, Precision Decisions, Farmscan AG and the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre aims to produce three cycles of crop without a person having to set foot in the field.
They’re developing autonomous vehicles – regular tractors retrofitted with a device that enables them to complete predetermined tasks, uploaded by the farmer using real time kinematic GPS.
Using a fleet of smaller, autonomous machines (rather than one big one) is less damaging to soil and will enable farmers to be more efficient in the application of fertiliser, explains Kit Franklin, senior lecturer of agricultural engineering at Harper Adams University and principal investigator of the project.
There is a pressing need for farmers to improve their operations, beyond the requirement all businesses have to improve returns. The UK’s departure from the EU has not only restricted access to agricultural manpower, especially in the horticulture and fruit sectors, but will also see the current system of land-based subsidies under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy phased out and replaced by payments tied to environmental practices and sustainability goals. The impact on each of the UK’s 200,000- plus farms will vary depending on the sector and individual business context, but those traditionally most reliant on the subsidies – broad acre arable and livestock grazing farms – will see their income shrink dramatically.
A report by the National Audit Office concluded that 42% of farmers would have made a loss between the 2014-2015 and 2016-2017 financial years had they not been in receipt of EU payments; 16% made a loss despite them.
It’s a compelling narrative that in response to these challenges – not to mention the pressing concerns about climate change and global population growth – agriculture needs some kind of radical digital revolution, replacing farmers and their time-honoured methods with legions of relentless robotic leviathans controlled by some Skynet-wannabe in Hertfordshire.
There is some truth to it, at least if investments are anything to go by. In 2018, the UK government set aside £90bn for “the new tech revolution” as part of its Agriculture Industrial Strategy; multinationals like Dyson and Bayer already pump vast sums into the research of robotic vehicles, vertical farms and “smart” Internet of Things-enabled farmyards, on the premise that Agriculture 4.0 will be indeed revolutionary, universal and inevitable. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll see it only tells half the story. For the average farmer operating with low margins and facing immediate financial uncertainty, there is a greater imperative simply to make the most of the resources at their disposal than forking out millions on an autonomous thresher that can beat you at crosswords and pass the Turing test.
“A lot of innovation will come from changes in practice and approach rather than an off the- shelf gimmick or gadget that takes the industry forward,” says Tim Isaac, knowledge exchange director for the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, a levy body that currently represents 75% of the industry. Many of these innovations involve little tech at all, but rather amount to the implementation of sound business practices that have long been standard in other sectors.
For example, at HighHall Farm in Cumbria’s Eden Valley, brothers Tom and Jimmy Stobart rear grass-fed sheep, pigs and cows for meat on land that ranges from 600 to 2,000 feet above sea level, and are currently in receipt of subsidies.
The uncertainty facing many in the industry could easily keep you up at night, Tom Stobart acknowledges. “But you have to use that energy to make the business more resilient.”
Since taking sole charge of the family farm in 2011, the brothers have practised what is now widely called “regenerative agriculture”, which involves closer linking of farming methods to the environment and has been seen as one of the important ways in which agriculture can become more sustainable.
By practising rotational grazing – which by carefully controlling where the animals graze enables the grass and soil to regenerate properly – and minimising the use of inorganic fertilisers, Tom Stobart says they can produce as much grass naturally as the intensive methods they previously used, but at lower cost and without the environment impact.
Beyond cutting costs and boosting sustainability, they’ve been working to diversify the business and increase direct sales to customers. In spring 2021, HighHall will open fields for green camping experiences in order to bring visitors to the farm, which now has a small shop and its own website.
They’ve started running a delivery service serving local businesses and clients, and have partnered with ecommerce company Primal Grazing, which sells specialist grass-reared meat to a mainly London market.
Planting trees to sell as firewood, as well as introducing beehive for honey and chickens in portable coops (that can move with the rotational grazing system providing natural fertiliser), are additional income streams the brothers are considering that would fit within the farm’s current operations.
Sam and Angharad Pearson are partners in a three-party joint venture of farming companies centred around the village of Llansannan in Snowdonia. Ninety per cent of the combined £600,000 annual turnover comes from providing labour and machinery for contract milking, but they also contract farm for a local farmer and have a small side-line business selling live cattle.
While it still represents a relatively small enterprise in the context of the wider business, Sam Pearson says this direct sales model has increased resilience by helping them expand outside their traditional customer base. This brings its own set of challenges of course, specifically that these new B2C customers want to know all about how much care the farmers have put into their grass-reared cows.
In response, the Pearsons have turned to German food traceability company TE-FOOD, which maps every stage of the production process, from farm to fork, in a blockchain that allows the end user to trace where their food has come from at the scan of a barcode label. “It’s all about trust,” Sam Pearson says.
Reducing the gap between farms and forks will play an important role in helping agricultural businesses become more sustainable, Isaac adds, and changing the image of farming as a sustainable career can also help the industry address its labour shortage.
Food traceability programmes like TE-FOOD’s blockchain are one of the solutions that agricultural businesses are turning to to achieve this – not exactly lo-tech, but nor the shiny robots or drone fleets that many outsiders would like to imagine. It’s a similar story in the larger agricultural concerns. With 2020 revenues of €10.6bn, roughly one fifth of which were from the UK, dairy multinational Arla Foods operates on a completely different scale to farmers like the Pearsons and the Stobarts. With a network of 12,000 farmer owners globally (among whom profits are redistributed), it is well positioned to cope with the geopolitical trade turbulence from Brexit.
But Arla is still innovating at pace, especially around sustainability. As part of its Arla 360 programme, and in conjunction with supermarkets Aldi and Morrisons, Arla is running a swathe of creatively named research trials among its network of farmers.
For example, the “Poo Performance” – building on the growing trend of anaerobic digesters – is trialling the use of slurry to power the lorries transporting milk from farms to dairies; “Pollinator Strips”, meanwhile, explored the impact of cultivating bands of wild flowers on farms to help encourage wild bees.
To techno optimists, it will be the ability to capture information like this and pass it on to consumers and crucially farmers that will be the disruptive force behind Agriculture 4.0. The farm will become a fully connected, big-data driven network of sensors and satellites, leaving AI to distribute the correct amount of animal feed, or water in the field. If connectivity can be successfully implemented by 2030, the industry could add $500bn to the global gross domestic product, McKinsey says.
There is nothing new about the use of data in farming however, highlights Huw Davies, a third-generation farmer who runs Llandre Farm, a 500-ewe National Trust sheep holding in Carmarthenshire. Davies bought his first computer system in 1988 – but it is the increased ability to harvest and use that data to manage farms that has changed, and there are hundreds of products that allow everyday farmers to do that.
The phone app Agriwebb, for example, essentially digitises the farm diary in map form, helping farmers keep track of animal weight, regulatory compliance and location of the animals on the farm. Sam Pearson includes accountancy management app Xero among the list of software he reels off.
A 2021 report by research consultancy MarketsandMarkets predicts the size of the global agriculture analytics market to grow to $1.4bn by 2025. In many cases farmers have to manually upload the information or scan a tag, but sensors to monitor crop growth and animal health are becoming commercially viable.
Collaborative data gathering programmes like the long-running GrassCheck GB, which collects weekly insights on the management of grassland (Stobart Farms is one participant), are becoming increasingly commonplace.
“When we talk about innovation in agriculture, the challenge has been that the term is often conflated with invention,” says Kate Pressland, programme manager for Innovative Farmers, a membership network founded in 2015 and backed by the Soil Association in conjunction with Linking Environment And Farming and Innovate for Agriculture that provides support to farmer led research trials.
And far from being stuck in the 20th century, farmers are innovative, she says, constantly finding new ways to do things when there’s a clear case to justify the expenditure. It’s just that these innovations are generally more grounded than hyper-futuristic.
A potato farmer, for example, trying cover cropping (planting other plants to protect the soil between harvests) for the first time can make a tangible difference to the business, even if it doesn’t make the headlines like a robotic sheepdog.
The launch in February 2021 of Defra and UKRI’s £12m Farming Innovation Pathways aiming to develop ”new and existing farm-focused innovations” represents a significant shift, acknowledging the importance of such farmer-led innovations.
That doesn’t mean to say that futuristic solutions aren’t playing a very real role in improving the way we produce our food now. There are pig farms that deploy systems akin to facial recognition to monitor animal health; robotic milking systems have long become commonplace in dairy farms; it’s not unusual to see crop-monitoring drones buzzing above fields nor even autonomous “robo-chicks” being used to keep track of bird health in poultry barns.
But the combination of common business sense, up-to-date, data-led processes and farmers’ expert understanding of the land will continue to be as crucial to helping the sector navigate its challenges.
Keeping the human at the centre of the process is something that Franklin and the Hands Free Farm team are particularly conscious of: they aim to liberate the farmer from the tractor seat in order to use their time more effectively elsewhere on the farm, not replace them with fields full of scythe-wielding T-1000s.
“I used to talk to people about these weird quirky robots of the future and most farmers would look at me with a blank face and call me an idiot. That’s why I went down the route of automating tractors that look like tractors.”