Farmers and Food Suppliers - Agri-EPI Centre - Precision Innovation

Farmers and Food Suppliers

Supporting farmers, growers and food suppliers, our role at Agri-EPI is to explore and help deliver precision farming engineering, technology and innovation in the UK agriculture across soil, crops and livestock. From seed research, harvesting, post-harvest storage, packaging and retail, we collaborate with farmers, scientists and retailers to increase sustainability, yield and efficiency.

Agri-EPI appoints farming industry experts to its Board

Agri-EPI has appointed three farming industry experts to its Board: Sarah Calcutt, Tom Hind and Allan Stevenson.

Sarah Calcutt is a 6th generation farmer from the Weald of Kent. She returned to the family business in her mid-20s and has spent the subsequent 25 years working in food and farming.

Sarah’s experience gives a unique insight into the business development needs and opportunities open to the British food and farming community.

In addition to running her successful business growth and communications consultancy, Partners in Produce Ltd, Sarah holds a number of executive, non- executive and voluntary roles. These include Non-Executive Director of the Covent Garden Market Authority, Executive Chair of the National Fruit Show and membership of City Harvest’s Food Council. She is a monthly columnist in Southeast Farmer and a regular contributor to a range of food and farming publications.

 

Tom Hind was born in Sheffield and now lives in North Yorkshire. He brings a wealth of experience drawn from across the food and farming sector in terms of policy, industry dynamics and commercial drivers. His career in farming has spanned more than 20 years in a variety of leadership roles at the NFU, Tesco and AHDB. He is a recognised expert in agricultural policy and has a significant track record in strategy development and influencing government and the wider food and farming industry.

Having left the farming industry in 2020 Tom is now CEO of the North York Moors National Park Authority where he leads a team of over 130 people charged with conserving and enhancing the landscape, cultural heritage & natural beauty of the North York Moors, one of ten National Parks across England.

 

Allan Stevenson was brought up on a Scottish arable farm and has enjoyed a varied career as a chartered accountant in a broad range of private and public sector business roles. He brings a diverse range of experience and expertise to Agri-EPI. He is a past Chairman of the Farmers Club, and currently Chairman of two pension schemes, advisor/consultant to a few agri-tech companies and running Luffness Mains Farming, an arable enterprise in East Lothian.

After a business and law degree in Edinburgh his accountancy career took him abroad and then to England where he worked in finance and commercial roles in growing private international businesses, finally returning with his family to buy out the family farming enterprise in Scotland.

Back in Scotland, he acquired a portfolio of NED roles, including Chair of AHDB Potatoes and SCRI which merged into the new James Hutton Institute, both these appointments taking him into the agriculture and science policy environment, with an interest in the sustainability of food, farming and technology. These involved some time developing relationships in China and elsewhere on matters concerning the global potato industry.

Agri-EPI Chair Vince Gillingham said: “I am delighted to welcome Sarah Calcutt, Tom Hind and Allan Stevenson to Agri-EPI as Non-Executive Directors. They bring an invaluable mix of skills to the Board, including boots on the ground farming, extensive policy experience and many decades of business experience. As Agri-EPI moves into the next phase of its growth, they will add huge value to the organisation, help deliver impact across agriculture and help us strengthen our connections to the sector’s front line.”

Agri-EPI Centre marks Farm Safety Week 2021

Farming is one of the UK’s most dangerous industries to work in; despite making up just 1% of workers, farmers and their employees accounting for as many as 20% of all workplace fatalities.

To raise awareness of farm safety and educate farm workers about how to protect themselves and others on farm, and prevent avoidable deaths on the UK’s 220,000 farms, NFU Mutual established the Farm Safety Foundation in 2014.

Providing farm safety training to over 11,000 young farmers across 44 land-based colleges and universities in the UK, the Farm Safety Week also runs various awareness-raising campaigns such as Mind Your Head, focusing on farmer’s mental health and wellbeing, and Farm Safety Week.

To mark this year’s Farm Safety Week, Agri-EPI Centre spotlighted a wide range of our network members whose innovations in agri-tech improve the safety of farm work and staff. In case you missed Farm Safety Week on social media, you can catch up on the incredible work of the agri-tech companies highlighted here.

Muddy Machines and Earth Rover

Working on farms and with machinery poses a risk of injury to even the most experienced farm workers; when temporary staff are employed on-farm, often with minimal training and little knowledge of the dangers of farm work, there is a far higher risk of serious incidents.

Robotics developers Muddy Machines and Earth Rover field robots are designed to plug the labour gap facing many farmers by automating tasks for fruit picking to crop monitoring, whilst also preventing the need for inexperienced farm workers to be employed on-farm.

While Muddy Machines’ work focus on conducting fieldwork for labour-intensive crops and Earth Rover’s Pointer, Retriever and Terrier bots help farmers reduce their reliance on chemical sprays, the farm safety element of AI and robotics in agriculture is an additional benefit.

Machine Eye

Machine Eye makes workplaces and agricultural and industrial plant safer by giving the machines “sight”. The machines are able to use deep-learning AI and computer vision to continually assess risk in real time and identify any humans who might be at risk by predicting their movement and motion and reacting accordingly.

When an unsafe interaction is detected, Machine Eye is able to raise an alarm or take action to reduce the risk safely and efficiently.

Next Gen Agri Lone Worker Management

Working alone naturally carries risk as there is no one to help raise the alarm in the event of an accident, but can be particularly dangerous in the agricultural sector due to inclement weather,  heavy machinery and remote, rural locations. It’s essential lone workers have procedures in place to ensure their safety; that’s why NextGenAgri established their Lone Worker Solution.

NextGenAgri Agricultural Lone Worker solutions ensure every worker and contractor ensuring can be tracked -and kept safe – whilst working alone, giving employees, operators and management peace of mind.

The solution works around four steps: Alert, Escalate, Report and Manage. Across agriculture, construction, engineering and other sectors, NextGenAgri’s work formalises communication, monitoring and connection to 24/7 support centres to keep lone workers safe.

Crover

Storage such as grain silos and pits pose a significant risk of drowning or crushing to workers undertaking maintenance, cleaning or even simple monitoring tasks. From assessing toxic gas levels to assembling the team and equipment required to safely check on grain storage can be time consuming and costly.

The Crover bot is able to “swim” through grain and check every corner of grain bulk using moisture and temperature sensors, meaning only the robot needs to directly access the grain and keeping workers safe. The Crover bot can also provide more accurate grain data for farmers, enabling them to make better-informed decision and prevent grain spoiling.

Farm Safety

To find out more about the Farm Safety Foundation and Farm Safety Week, visit the NFU Mutual website. You can see more of the Agri-EPI Centre members on our network page, or explore our work with innovative agri-tech companies on our project pages.

 

Is the fourth Agricultural Revolution upon us?

Agriculture is always changing with the introduction of new technologies. From the first farmers learning to rotate crops and mastering irrigation to today’s use of sensors, cameras and AI, agritechnology has been essential to improving the quality and productivity of food production.

The first agricultural revolution started around 12,000 years ago, when humans first began cultivating the land for food. Following millennia of farming, the second agricultural revolution saw the reorganisation of farmland in the 17th Century while the third came in the 1950s and 60s with the introduction of farming machinery, fertilisers and pesticides. As we increasingly rely on remote sensing, data gathering and autonomous robots to maintain and improve agriculture, many are seeing the rise of agritech as the fourth agricultural revolution.

A new agriculture?

Robotic milking machines have drastically changed the workload of the dairy farmer; it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the impact on the arable, horticulture and other sectors if robots are able to plant, selectively weed, spray by drone and harvest crops, further reducing reliance on manpower.

The appetite from big business, media, and governments worldwide seems to suggest that digital is progress in the right direction, if the agriculture industry is to boost sustainable food production and protect the environment simultaneously. Adding to this is the significant amounts of both public and private investment the agriculture sector is currently attracting, and the sudden overlap of agriculture and other, previously discrete sectors, such as space, sensor development, computer software, hardware developers, robotics, engineering and manufacturing.

A fair playing field

Despite the obvious benefits of increased productivity and profitability for many farmers, the onset of agritech solutions raises questions and challenges, too. 

Ensuring that agricultural technology is available to all is key. Preventing large farming businesses swallowing up the market and pushing out smaller, family-owned farms, who simply can’t afford to invest in large-scale agritech, serves to benefit very few individuals.

Further, if agritech is widely available and used ubiquitously, what then happens to the data? Many food producers are questioning who would own any data gathered for agritech purposes, and whether it is secure. There’s no point collecting vast amounts of data if they cannot be used for decision-making, so digital platform developers must avoid the creation of data silos that could ultimately stifle innovation and collaboration.

Connecting the world

There is also a wider issue of digital connectivity. While urban vertical farms with high-speed fibre internet are able to hit the ground running with many agritech solutions, rural farmers can struggle to access 4G services, let alone broadband. Farmers without the means – or the inclination – to digitally connect could find themselves at an unfair disadvantage.

Even when increasingly connected, the introduction of automation and AI looks set to transform the face of agriculture and put an end to traditional farming methods. If robots in the fields become a viable alternative to human employees, farming life after the fourth agricultural revolution could be a lonely place.

Smarter agritech solutions

The Agri-EPI Centre network brings together researchers, academics, start-ups and larger companies from across the supply chain to explore the future of agriculture and technology, develop the ideas that will drive innovation and take those ideas from paper to prototype.

Our satellite farm network is essential to engaging with end-users, giving us on-the-ground feedback from commercial farm businesses and allowing us to trial new and disruptive technology and assess the impact of agritech. This delicate, informed and reflective approach must be the foundation for all agritech solutions, from animal health to aquaculture.

Shimpling Park Farm

John Pawsey is the owner of Shimpling Park Farms, one of our satellite farms in Suffolk. A keen farmer and agritech enthusiast, John welcomes the opportunity to trial many of the cutting-edge technologies being developed within Agri-EPI Centre’s network. 

“From a purely personal perspective, I can see the benefits coming through and I am hugely excited by the potential developments I hear being discussed,” says John. “But [I am] acutely aware that without bringing the whole industry along with us, the divide between haves and have nots could potentially be damaging.”

So far, John has tested a number of new agritech, including the System Chameleon, CropScan, UAV technology and precision farming platform KORE, deployed by Agri-EPI Centre in partnership with Gothia Redskap, Precision Decisions and SoilEssentials Ltd.

You can find out more about our ongoing research and development work at Shimpling Park Farm, and John’s experience of the technology, in the video below.

Further information about Agri EPI Centre, our solutions and capabilities, the member network we can connect you with and the work we undertake, please feel free to contact Duncan Ross, Crops Business Development Manager at duncan.ross@agri-epicentre.com.

UK agri-tech expertise boosts essential grain production in Kenya

A collaborative project involving UK agri-tech businesses is transforming finger millet production in Western Kenya, providing agronomic support and precision farming technology to 2,000 farmers. The 18-month project, funded by Innovate UK’s Agri-tech Catalyst Programme, is designed to improve the productivity and profitability of finger millet farming in the Busia and Siaya regions, boosting supply of finger millet grain to meet overwhelming demand.

Cover crops: the route to sustainable farming?

Given the increasing focus on soil health, erosion, and pollution, as a result of current agricultural practice, cover cropping is now being used across all sectors of crop production to save nitrogen and agrochemical inputs, increase yields and boost soil sustainability. Is cover cropping the route to sustainable farming? Agri-EPI Business Development Manager Duncan Ross dives into the topic for us highlighting the benefits to farmers to embrace a cover crop farm strategy:

Cover cropping means different things to different people, and the reasons for adoption of cover crops into a farming regime are very diverse and often specific to a particular farm. The transition from Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as a support mechanism for agriculture to one based on environment and soil management (DEFRA’s Agricultural Transition Plan) will no doubt encourage wider uptake of cover crops.

Cover crops are often referred to as over-wintered, fast growing annuals planted between two cash crops. However, in certain circumstances a cover crop could be considered to cover a complete 12-month cycle due to geographical location, or a short-term grass ley.

The benefits can be many, such as:

  • Increasing levels of soil organic matter, as green manure is incorporated into the soil. increasing biological activity and water retention capacity.
  • Capture of vital nutrients that are made available to the subsequent cash crops rather than lost due to leaching.
  • Improve soil structure as vigorous root activity can be used to break up compaction.
  • Reduce pollution of nutrient and pesticides into water courses and erosion of soil.
  • Habitat creation which can be included in agri-environment schemes to generate additional revenue and can improve pest management by encouraging beneficial insects.

Healthier cropping sequences on the farm

Financially, it may be difficult to quantify the benefit, as any potential reduction of inputs or increase in yield of the following crops are offset by the cost of establishment and destruction of the cover crop. Cover crops, though, should be treated as an integral part of the rotation and good establishment is imperative, drill rather than broadcast, small nitrogen and slug pellet applications will result in a higher level of biomass, more nutrients being captured, more root activity, less pollution/erosion.

Which cover crop should I use?

The correct choice of cover crop will vary from farm to farm and will be dependent on many variables such as: what is trying to be achieved? Things to consider would be:

  • Soil type
  • Geographical location – less likely to get good autumn establishment in Northern parts of the UK.
  • Rotation – not using brassicas in a rotation containing OSR
  • Sowing dates – sooner after harvest of previous cash crop as practical to maximise biomass potential
  • Following plant timings – not to compromise future cash crop
  • Previous herbicide usage – residual herbicide could affect cover crop

Farm Business strategy

Seeking expert agronomic advice is key in making the correct decisions on cover crop strategy and type of seed to be included within the mix. For example, if the aim is the long-term management of arable weeds, where there are fewer active ingredients available, and herbicide resistance is to be considered, the weed challenge must be managed across the whole rotation. The cover crop chosen should be established and then destroyed along with the target weeds before it is able to re-seed, and over time the seed bank can be reduced. This method would rely on use of glyphosate as a control method so as not to disturb the soil as deep cultivation would mix the soil profile and reduce the effectiveness of the strategy.

Putting this into practice, some growers are having success with crimper rollers to destroy the cover crop and do away with the use of chemical control and should glyphosate be banned this may be the best option for conventional no-till farmers.

Idea to reality: what’s stopping tech getting onto farms?

The intractable issue of getting useful new technologies onto farms – and how the barriers to success might be overcome – will be the subject of a webinar led by tech innovation company Cambridge Consultants and Agri-EPI Centre on Thursday 28th January.

The event will feature expert panellists representing different stages of the innovation ‘pipeline’:

  • Ben Scott Robinson, Chief Executive of The Small Robot Company*(concept)
  • Chris Roberts, Head of Industrial Robotics at Cambridge Consultants (supporting concept development)
  • Dave Ross, Agri-EPI Centre Chief Executive (‘enabler’ bringing together public and private sector partners)
  • James Green, Group Director of Agriculture at G’s Fresh (on-farm end user)

The panel will explore some of the key issues involved in ensuring a new idea can move from concept stage right through to being put to effective use in supporting efficient, productive and sustainable farming.

Connecting early tech development to farming

They will be looking at a host of challenges along the innovation journey, including a disconnect between early technology developers and farmers; difficulties in companies finding the right business models and return-on-investment for their products; regulatory issues; skills gaps; and challenges with product testing in a seasonal farming environment.

Event host, Cambridge Consultants’ Head of Automation & Autonomy Sajith Wimalaratne, explained:

“We’re excited to have a strong panel of experts who will be discussing why it takes so long to get new technological solutions onto farms, and why, despite no shortage of concepts, there is currently so little farmers can use.

“We hope to identify ways of easing some of these issues that will help to ensure new technology which really meets farmers’ needs can be deployed more quickly and effectively.”

Agri-EPI Chef Executive Dave Ross said:

“Agri-EPI’s role is to bring together those with the know-how to drive innovation in farming and food production and our webinar promises to be a really exciting journey around the key challenges and potential solutions to getting technology in place that really meets farmers’ needs.”

The free webinar runs between 11am and noon on 28th January. Further details and registration can be found here.

On demand

This event is now closed. Missed it? Here, you can view a video registration of the webinar:

 

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Agri-EPI member Small Robot Company BBC The One Show 18 Jan 2021BBC The One Show

You might have missed it. Small Robot Tom and roboteers have appeared on the BBC The One Show this Monday 18 January 2020. The appearance saw the weed zapping robot in action and an interview with Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year Craig Livingstone. Small Robot Company is a British start-up that makes robots for agriculture. They design and produce machines that could, in the future, replace tractors and harvesters. The founders developed the idea after talking to farmers about the growing costs and decreasing profits of farming. More background about Small Robot Company in this case study.