Crops and Soil - Agri-EPI Centre - Engineering Precision Innovation

Crops and Soil

Focussing on the need to improve, sustain and protect our land, Agri-EPI explores and delivers precision farming engineering, technology and innovation in UK agriculture across crops and soil. Supporting growers, retails, researchers, scientists and agronomists. Discover innovation and new technology that is leading the way to improvements in crops and soil in the UK and around the world.

Kaiapoi Farm hosts Agri-EPI’s second farm walk

Agri-EPI celebrated another successful and sunny day on-farm at Kaiapoi farm on Thursday, 19th May. Farmers Rob and Jo Hodgkins led a group of our Agri-EPI community including tech developers, farmers and industry representatives on a farm tour leading discussions around transitioning to regenerative practices, inter-row hoeing, novel sheep breeding techniques and more. Marcus Travers from Soil Essentials also led a fascinating talk on soil carbon and nitrogen retention.

‘Kaiapoi’ is Maori meaning ‘food over water’. Rob and Jo Hodgkins set up Kaiapoi in 2013 with 200 ewes on 60 rented acres of grass, and have imported Romney Rams from New Zealand to create the ultimate outdoor lambing ewe for the UK climate. They have driven the business forward hard and now run 2250 ewes across 1000ac semi improved grassland and solar panels and farm 1600ac of arable crops around North Hertfordshire.

“Getting people together on farm is incredibly important to showcase first-hand the opportunities in tech development that will deliver big impact on farms” – Claire Hodge, Head of Agri-Tech (Crops) at Agri-EPI Centre

 

Farm visit to Godminster Farm

Newton Farm joins Agri-EPI farm network

Newton Farm in Brecon, Wales has joined the Agri-EPI Centre Satellite Farms network.

Owners Richard & Helen Roderick, along with their son Tudor, farm 850 acres including 200 acres they’ve recently rented and plan to farm regeneratively. The Roderick’s manage a diverse business, including an impressive outwintered herd of stabiliser cattle, a flock of 800 ewes, and an arable enterprise. The Roderick’s are passionate about a number of farming topics, including carbon sequestration, grassland management, and animal health.

Newton Farm has been a Farming Connect demonstration farm for several years, giving Agri-EPI a unique opportunity to work with the Welsh government and farmers across Wales to encourage innovation and share best practices further afield.

Richard and Helen’s vision is for Newton Farm to be a profitable mixed farm, which maximises the use of its own resources, while increasing biodiversity and conserving the wildlife and historical features of the farm. To achieve this, their strategy is to focus on sustainability, genetics, and maximizing the use of forage and root crops.

Their latest venture is to be the first Welsh farm to join our Agri-EPI Centre farms network to trial technology to improve farm efficiency, and we are thrilled to have them!

“We are delighted to welcome Newton Farm into our farm network and are looking forward to working with the Rodericks to pursue exciting new projects in the beef and sheep sectors” – Emily Laskin, Farms Technical Coordinator at Agri-EPI Centre

Farming Innovation Pathways: LightWeeding

The LightWeeder is a world-first eye-safe, herbicide-free, carbon neutral, commercially viable weeding system delivered by lightweight autonomous field robots via UK agri-robotics company and Agri-EPI Centre member, Earth Rover.

The LightWeeding technology uses semiconductor LEDs to solve key technical, safety and commercialisation challenges faced by laser-based weeding systems.

The LightWeeder is part of CLAWS (Concentrated Light Autonomous Weeding and Scouting), Earth Rover’s agri robot that can kill weeds using a unique concentrated light method, and can also scout fields to obtain a complete data map of all crops after planting, showing the crops exact location, size, and any early signs of disease.

The main features of CLAWS are:

  • Weeding – chemical free and inherently safer than laser weeding. No till and no crop damage and can be used in any conditions without compacting the soil.
  • Scouting – In depth analysis of crops to allow better harvest predictions and increased yields

The complete system is ultra-lightweight (only 300kg) meaning it requires low amounts of energy to run, and is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than many of its competitors. It runs on batteries and (eventually) solar panels therefore uses no fossil fuels and helps farmers meet their net zero targets.

With increasing types of chemical-resistant weeds, a significant downturn in availability of hand labour plus a shift in society towards more organic options, now more than ever there is a need to change the way we farm. A recent report by Rothamsted Research shows weeds “pose an unprecedented threat to our food security” and highlights the need to diversify weed control as an urgent priority.

As explained by John Taylor, Farm Director at Pollybell Organic Farm,

“the key element here is that the LightWeeder not only makes chemical free farming more effective but it also solves the huge issue farmers are facing today in terms of the huge loss in labour force. Being able to weed fields autonomously means that food production doesn’t just grind to a halt.”

Lightweeding has several advantages over mechanical systems: it is energy-efficient and no-till, it does not damage drip irrigation or crops, it is not dependent on soil conditions, and it does not enable weeds to develop resistance. However, effective lightweeding must be low-cost, fast, and offer safe autonomous operation in modern farm environments – criteria that does not exist in-the market at this time.

Agri-EPI explores drone technology for precision spraying

Use of drone technology in precision agriculture has gained popularity in recent years, however there are still legislative barriers preventing widespread adoption, something which Agri-EPI explored in a recent webinar. Currently drones can be used for surveying, mapping, crop monitoring and disease detection. But advances in technology mean autonomous crop pesticide applications could be a reality – if the regulations keep up.

“Precision technology can tackle key agricultural challenges – using variable rate and precise application can reduce spray use and improve yields,” explained Hannah Tew, ecosystem director at Connected Places Catapult.

From a health and safety aspect, there are some benefits too.

“There are huge opportunities in accessibility to remove potential risks,” said James Thomas, sustainable and responsible business manager EAME at Syngenta. “For example, in Asia using drones removes the need for someone to be knee deep in water in a rice field or someone spraying a steep vineyard.”

However, in the UK the Sustainable Use Directive 14 forbids aerial spraying, including the use of drones, although there is a derogation available through the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). And there are questions on the efficacy of application.

“Comparing a mist blower and a drone for controlling powdery mildew in grapes, the conventional sprayer came out much better due to the lack of drift,” said Mr Thomas.

But drone technology is advancing all the time.

“We’re heading into the fourth agricultural revolution and things are changing rapidly, but chemicals will still be around for a while,” added Bryn Bircher, policy officer at HSE. “There is the issue of drift; we know there is a lot of drift with a boom sprayer but we don’t know the effect of drift from drones yet.”

And some drones do boast an impressive time saving.

“A drone with a 20-litre tank can cover 15 hectares an hour,” explained Robert Pearson at Auto Spray Solutions.

It’s important to remember that drones are not replacing conventional systems.

“People will only use the drone if it’s better for the job than the conventional way,” added Jack Wrangham at Drone Ag.

And it’s not just spraying which drones could be useful for, they could be used for mapping, applying solid fertiliser, seeds and slug pellets.

“Farmers could get field reports in minutes, just from flying a drone across the field – close up imagery can be used for crop uniformity and accessing the severity of weed patches,” said Mr Wrangham. “This could inform variable rate applications, so chemicals are only applied where necessary.”

Regulatory challenges aside, the HSE is working alongside the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to establish what can be done to make drone operations safe.

“It is possible to apply for a permit, which will be unique to each business,” said Mr Bircher. “We want to support new tech and I hope we can do so, with the existing legislation.”

 

Swiss crop electrophysiology specialist Vivent is a registered B Corporation™

The ‘Fitbit of plants’, Vivent’s PhytlSigns device, the first commercial crop health diagnostic system based on plant electrophysiology, has been certified as a B Corp – a Certified Benefit Corporation – after meeting rigorous social and environmental standards which represent its commitment to do business in a meaningful way, by pursuing purpose as well as profit. Vivent’s technology leads to increased yields, improved crop protection effectiveness, and encourages the adoption of environmentally preferable protection solutions – so more food, less chemicals. With recertification every three years, Vivent has embarked on a process that aims at ever higher standards and continuous improvement.     

The B Corp Certification covers the whole business – five key impact areas of Governance, Workers, Community, Environment and Customers. The certification process is rigorous, the company has to score over 80 points and provide evidence of socially and environmentally responsible practices – including energy supplies, waste and water use, worker compensation, diversity and corporate transparency. To complete the certification, Vivent had to legally embed their commitment to purpose beyond profit in their company articles. Vivent scored 101.7 in its overall B impact score. 50.9 is the median for ordinary uncertified businesses.

Vivent is now part of a community of over 4500+ businesses globally who have certified as B Corps. The B Corp Community is reflective of the global economy with businesses from a cross section of industries and sizes. These include well-known brands like innocent, Patagonia, Alpro, Triodos Bank, Alessi, and Ecoalf. Recent attention on the agriculture and agritech sectors makes Vivent’s B Corp Certification a notable step, and signals a shift towards greater accountability and transparency. Vivent joins Swiss agritech companies Ecorobotix and CleanGreens as well as 60 other Swiss B Corps.

Carrol Plummer, CEO of Vivent says: “The B Corp certification has been a goal of Vivent’s since its inception. The process was tough, but fair and really helped us to work on many aspects of organization management including our sustainability objectives and streamlining our mission.”

Jonathan Normand, Founder and CEO of B Lab™ Switzerland : “We are very pleased to welcome Vivent to the B Corp community.  As an innovative technology serving agriculture and research, we welcome their commitment to accelerate the transition in a collaborative approach to a resilient and stakeholder economy.”

There are currently 745 certified B Corps in Europe and 4500+ worldwide. Other agriculture and food industry B Corps include Ynsect, AppHarvest, Danone Canada, and Aerofarms.

About Vivent: 

Vivent was founded in 2012 by serial entrepreneurs Carrol Plummer and Dr. Nigel Wallbridge, who have now applied their information processing and telecommunication system skills to biological networking, with an initial focus on crop monitoring. The pair have worked with leading agricultural institutes, universities, crop protection companies and growers to validate this innovative approach. Vivent’s focus is on high-capital indoor growing operations with plans to move into high-value outdoor crops and then into large volume field crops. More information is available at www.vivent.ch 

About B Lab Switzerland

B Lab Switzerland is the Swiss branch of the global non-profit B Lab. B Lab is transforming the global economy to benefit all people, communities and the planet. As a leader in economic systems change, its global network creates standards, policies and tools for business. In addition, it certifies companies – known as B Corps – that are leading the way. To date, the community includes over 4,500 B Corps in 77 countries and 153 industries, over 8,000 benefit corporations, and 150,000 companies managing their impact with B Impact Assessment and SDG Action Manager.

For further information contact: team@agri-epicentre.com