Inside Sir James Dyson's £110 million farm of the future

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 – wh