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Discover all the latest news from farming, innovation and technology with us.

Agri-EPI news explores new precision engineering, technology and innovation in UK agriculture across crops, land management and livestock for improved welfare and increased productivity. We have a broad memberships from the farming, manufacturing and retail sectors, as well as collaborating on projects around the world.

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.

Industry collaborators discuss developing autonomous ag solutions for safety and security

The development and utilisation of autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence to grow and harvest food is gathering traction across the agriculture sector. Automation has become a critical element in sustainable food production, and robots and AI are now advanced enough to be used for non-standardised tasks such as weeding, crop sensing, and fruit picking. Many jobs are able to be improved, if not replaced, by robots.

Farming is complex and many stakeholders across the agriculture sector are involved in running the business, from farm managers and agronomists to supply chain representatives, insurers and policy makers. When developing any agricultural technology, innovators must think holistically about how the tech will be used on-farm, who will be involved in its use, and who it might impact more broadly.

Agri-EPI Centre’s 2021 Agricultural Technology Hackathon sought to identify solutions to enhance the safety and security of autonomous farm machines. Agri-EPI ran the initiative with Innovate UK-funded Hands Free Farm, a testbed for autonomous farm machinery and drones. The teams which took part came from a range of disciplines, including robotics, AI & machine learning, drones and computer vision. They came together to address the following challenges:
• Detecting people entering and exiting operational areas
• Communicating about the operation of unmanned vehicles
• Providing safety and other information and advice
• Managing human-machine interaction

This industry paper has been released in collaboration with stakeholders from across the agri-tech sector to offer recommendations around the future development of autonomous agricultural solutions. It raises a series of considerations around agriculture’s readiness for large scale adoption of autonomous vehicles and offers recommendations around maximising safety, improving connectivity, and combating future technology threats.

 

Read the full report here:

Hackathon whitepaper

 

GrowUp Farms secures £100m in funding for vertical farm

Agri-EPI member, GrowUp Farms, has secured £100m from US green investment firm Generate Capital to fund the construction of a major new low-carbon farming facility in Sandwich, Kent.

GrowUp, which describes itself as a “pioneer in controlled environment farming”, previously supplied salads to wholesale, Foodservice and the likes of Wholefoods and Farmdrop via its now defunct urban farming ventures, The GrowUp Box and Unit 84.

The investment will deliver a new low-emission Kent farm bringing “fresher, longer-lasting leafy salads to supermarket shelves year-round”, grown using GrowUp’s proprietary “high-efficiency renewable energy system”, the company said.

The facility is said to use 95% less water than conventional growing methods, while the salads grown on the farm could save up to three million lorry miles per year by avoiding imports.

The site is expected to begin delivering its first harvest of ready-to-eat salad leaves by the end of the year. The crops are grown without pesticides or chlorine washing and are powered directly by renewable energy.

GrowUp said the facility would be the first in a series of large, low-carbon indoor farms planned by the business that would service the retail and wholesale markets in the UK.

“Our farms can deliver fresh, long-lasting salads consistently, and withstand the mounting environmental and economic pressures from inflation in transport, labour and commodity costs that have challenged the fresh produce sector,” said GrowUp co-founder Kate Hofman.

The business said it had spent nine years building its expertise and developing the “industry-leading” technology used in the new facility. That tech drove down the cost of vertical farming, while also cutting down on food waste in both the fruit & veg supply chain and at home, it added.

“A great salad is the original plant-based meal, but for a long time it’s been hard to get shoppers excited about what’s out there,” said Kate Hofman, GrowUp co-founder. “We’re passionate about getting people to rethink their salads and excited by this opportunity to deliver healthy, affordable, British-grown food to more customers, with a lighter environmental footprint and a more resilient year-round supply chain.”

“Our team has worked hard to solve the challenges that kept vertically farmed salads from being cost-competitive and sustainable,” added GrowUp MD Marcus Whately. “We partnered with Generate Capital because of their long-term focus on both sustainability and economic efficiency, and together we can now bring this model to scale.”

Generate Capital is a US Public Benefit Corporation that builds, owns, operates and finances over 2,000 sustainable infrastructure projects globally. As part of the £100m investment package, it will also support a series of vertical farms that benefit from GrowUp’s expertise and renewable energy model.

“We’re thrilled to partner with the expert and innovative team at GrowUp to accelerate sustainable vertical farming infrastructure in the British market,” said Dr Erich Becker, head of Generate Europe. “Low-carbon vertical farming is a much-needed development and we are pleased to be working to accelerate it across Europe and North America.”

“As we expand in Kent and at other sites, we look forward to becoming a long-term supply partner across multiple categories – helping supermarkets solve environmental and supply chain problems,” Whately added.

GrowUp plans to extend its range beyond salads and is developing future crops and products at its R&D farm at the Agri-Epi Centre at Harper Adams University.

Vertical farming is a growing sector in the UK with the country soon to be home to two of the world’s largest facilities, respectively owned by JFC in Gloucestershire and Fischer Farms in Norfolk.

For further information on GrowUp Farms, Agri-EPI’s membership network, and Agri-Tech innovation solutions contact the team at team@agri-epicentre.com

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.”

 

Investbridge Capital launches specialised Agricultural Technologies fund

Agri-EPI member, Investbridge Capital, has launched a specialised Agricultural Technologies (AgTech) fund with the goal of creating a market leading VC fund investing in the most scalable and innovative technology companies revolutionising global food production.

Unity Technologies Founder, Nicholas Francis, has made a career predicting how software will develop in the face of massive hardware and societal changes and sees another tremendous investment opportunity in AgTech. To this end, he has committed $10 million as a cornerstone investor. Working alongside the Investbridge team, Francis will use his experience in entrepreneurialism, VC and the global tech market to help the portfolio companies flourish and reach their full potential, and deliver exceptional outcomes for investors.

Agriculture is the least technologically developed of any major industry, whilst food production needs to advance at a much faster pace than it has over the past 100 years. A rising population, worldwide food and labor shortages, and supply chain issues, are all presenting significant challenges for agriculture. By 2050, it’s estimated that the earth’s population will reach nine billion and global food production will need to jump by 70%-100% to feed everyone.*

Innovation will be the key to addressing these issues, and with the farming sector already seeing an influx of start-ups looking to use data analysis and technology such as robotics and AI to improve processes, the AgTech market is primed for significant growth and subsequent investment returns.

Nicholas Francis, AgTech Investment Committee Member, said: “We are standing at the crossroads of two megatrends. On one hand, software is eating the world, and agriculture is one of the last hold-outs. On the other hand, there is a global push to mitigate the climate impact of one of the most important industries of our planet, an industry which contributes almost a quarter of the world’s greenhouse emissions. Over the next decade, we will see tremendous investment influx into the sector, making this the perfect time to help these nascent companies grow.

“Climate change is perhaps humanity’s biggest challenge and the stakes are enormous. Thankfully throughout our history, humanity has always risen to such challenges and we are proud to be at the forefront of this transition. We are not alone, agricultural stakeholders and climate investors are realising the scale of the challenges — and are looking to technologies from end to end, in order to improve their production.”

Oliver Hogg, CEO, Investbridge Capital, commented: “Welcoming Nicholas to the team marks a significant new venture for us. With his unrivalled experience in the tech market and his leadership of our new fund, we are extremely well-positioned to capitalise on the investment opportunities within AgTech. I look forward to working closely with Nicholas as we grow our offering in this space.”  

The AgTech market has already grown rapidly in recent years. The sector experienced a six-fold increase in deal flow between 2012-2018 and a 370% increase in investments from 2013 to 2019. In 2020 alone, it raised over $26 billion in investments, compared to around $12 billion just three years prior. **

Alongside Francis, the wider team includes Keith Norman, who brings 40 years’ experience in agriculture and AgTech, and Kelvin Au, a VC investor with 15 years’ experience in tech investment and managing high-growth operations.

Investbridge Capital is a leading alternative asset manager that specialises in real estate, private credit and venture capital. Founded in 2004, the company has offices in Dubai and London and has advised and transacted on deals in excess of USD 5billion.

“At the Agri-EPI Centre, our mission is to bridge the gap between agri-tech innovators, academics and farmers to drive sustainable and profitable food supply chain solutions. The launch of this new fund is a phenomenal opportunity for our members and the wider agri-tech startup community in the UK to scale and help us together to achieve our mission.” Lisa Williams, Director of Business Development, Agri-EPI Centre

For further information on the fund and Agri-EPI’s membership network and Agri-Tech innovation solutions contact the team at team@agri-epicentre.com