Robots, drones and Big Data are the buzzwords of British agriculture, and Dyson's AI-assisted farming enterprise is at the forefront.
The British strawberry season runs from early June to August, so it is unusual to see row after fat, juicy row of the fruit ready to harvest in October on a farm in Lincolnshire. Odder still is the futuristic-looking 15-acre glasshouse they are housed in, abuzz with employees on electric scooters. But this is no ordinary farm – and no ordinary farmer runs it.
The plight of the industry has shot up the agenda this summer, thanks in no small part to the Amazon TV series Clarkson’s Farm. As the unlikely new figurehead of British farming, Jeremy Clarkson spent the first season toiling to produce a yearly profit of just £140. At least he can count Sir James Dyson – the man behind the colossal glasshouse – as a fan.
“‘Diddly Squat’ is spot on,” Dyson tells me, referring to the name Clarkson gave his farm to indicate its general lack of productivity. “I love it – I think [Clarkson is] doing a brilliant job of highlighting the challenges of being a farmer in 21st-century Britain.”
If one thinks of Dyson, vacuum cleaners, hand driers and fans spring to mind, but he also has one of the UK’s largest farming operations, with 35,000 acres across Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Somerset. He has, in fact, spent the past decade building up a portfolio of land larger than the Queen’s.
In Lincolnshire, the operations director of Dyson Farming, James Thompson, shows me around the largest two farms. As we drive to the centre of the estate, a pristinely tarmacked track with a sign that says “Cyclone Way” drops a heavy hint as to the identity of its proprietor. With neatly trimmed verges and state-of-the-art agritech, this farm is both a rural idyll and something straight out of science fiction.
Technologies such as robotics, vision-based sensing and energy storage will increasingly drive further innovation on our farms.
If previous agricultural revolutions brought us the plough and the potato then this, the fourth, has added drones and Big Data. Along with novel ways of producing renewable energy – more on that later – Dyson Farming uses drones to map fields, self-steering (if not yet self-driving) tractors, and data analytics on everything from soil quality to the location of ground-nesting birds.
Not to forget robotic fruit pickers – there are some in rotation already, although Thomson admits they’re not yet quite quick enough to keep up with their human counterparts. Ed Ford, technical agronomist and “in-house drone pilot”, shows me the “pièce de résistance” of Dyson’s agritech: an AI-assisted precision sprayer that differentiates between crops and weeds and sprays accordingly, reducing the need for herbicides by up to 80 per cent.
And those strawberries, which are Dyson’s current pet project. “We can now grow very tasty British strawberries at a time of year which wasn’t previously possible by using the excess heat from our anaerobic digesters,” Dyson says.
The two anaerobic digestion plants generate all the heat and power needed for the all-year-round strawberry production. Crops grown for this very purpose, along with farm waste, are fed into a vast silo of slurry that bubbles and burps out biogas – mainly methane – which powers an engine.
No byproduct is wasted; the leftover digestate is used as fertiliser and wastewater is used to irrigate the strawberry plants. The glasshouse is managed by a sophisticated climate-control computer system and the strawberries are grown hydroponically, without soil, and fed with a nutrient solution.
Dyson is not the first to farm in this way, but he is one of few to be able to implement such cutting-edge tech at scale; the glasshouse holds 700,000 plants that produce 750,000 tons of strawberries per year. The reason more farming businesses haven’t been able to harness this technology is obvious: you need plenty of cash.
“With little money to be made in farming, the investment needed to build infrastructure, invest in technology and retain the quality of the land is sadly too much for many people,” says Dyson. He has spent £110 million and counting on building the farms up from scratch – a cohort of agronomists, engineers and researchers were hired alongside farmers and shepherds to undo decades of underinvestment and “get [the] basics right... soil health, crop rotations, ditches and drainage.”
As Dyson Farming works like a well-oiled machine, it could just about convince you that farming is an easy job. In reality it is anything but; growing up on a working farm in East Anglia, I saw first-hand how far it is from the bucolic ideal. Living off the fat of the land is one thing but, more often than not, farming is a thankless, muddy job of tight margins and long, unsociable hours.
Showing the reality of farming, warts and all, is undoubtedly what has made Clarkson’s Farm so popular. But, while Dyson Farming is far sleeker than Clarkson’s misadventures, when it comes to the future of our food supply, both men have similar aims. Neither is a fan of imported avocados on toast. And despite significant investment in environmental stewardship on his farms,
Dyson is definitely not the kind of wealthy land-owning rewilder who suggests we reintroduce wolves. “The Government seems more focused on rewilding the UK than on our food security,” he says. “In doing so, they are undermining UK farmers and will leave consumers with imported food from overseas, where provenance is uncertain, and with all the food miles that involves.”
This year marks the beginning of the UK’s transition away from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which means the current subsidy system based on acreage will be gradually replaced by an as yet undefined scheme that will focus on “public money for public goods”, such as improved biodiversity and reduced carbon emissions.
Dyson himself was a well-documented Brexiteer, but he argues that new agricultural policies must prioritise the productivity of our food supply as well as environmentalism, not either or. The Brexit prospectus promised to make farmers better off, but the transition away from the CAP means many farmers will be squeezed further still, amid changing weather patterns and supply chain shocks.
Dyson says he is “not an advocate of subsidies” but under the current EU schemes, he reportedly receives £2.6 million a year. “How do British farmers produce high-quality food while competing against heavily subsidised farmers from the EU and the US? It’s not a level playing field at all,” he says. “We rely too much on imported food which is bad from the point of view of food security, but it also leads to food miles.”
While our population is growing, so too is our reliance on imported food. Recent National Farmers’ Union (NFU) statistics state that we import 40 per cent of our overall food supply. Dr Laura Vickers of Harper Adams University tells me that, when it comes to fruit and veg, the figures are much higher: around 90 per cent of our fruit supply is imported and around 50 per cent of our vegetables.
NFU vice-president Tom Bradshaw, meanwhile, says British food production and farming is on a “knife edge”. However, he still sees the UK’s withdrawal from the EU as a “once in a generation opportunity to write an agricultural policy that really does work”. He says: “If we get the policy right, it could create opportunity. But if we don’t, it could be a real threat to the future of food production in the UK.”
Dyson also takes issue with the “raw deal” farmers get from supermarkets. “Farmers bear all the risk and do all the work, but get a very small slice of the pie,” he says. “It is critical to the future of farming that we rebalance this as consumers.” As well as strawberries, Dyson has quietly become one of the UK’s largest suppliers of peas – and, 10 years on, they are only now becoming profitable. “I think the public should know far more about their food – the provenance – and generic supermarket branding takes all that away.”
But the future looks bright. Dyson’s approach to farming involves the same lean engineering that transformed the bagless vacuum cleaner, hand dryer and hairdryer: it’s a circular system in which nothing is wasted. In fact, he says, products from the farming enterprise will be used in Dyson engineering and vice versa. “What excites me most is how [they] can work together in the future. Material science, energy creation and energy storage are at the core of this and farming has much to give,” he says.
“Meanwhile, technologies such as robotics, vision-based sensing and energy storage will increasingly drive further innovation on our farms.” That’s a high-tech way to put food on the table.
Source: The Telegraph