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On-farm conference provides unique discussions around sustainability in farming

 

Sustainability, technology, and innovation in farming were the focus of Agri-EPI Centre’s Annual Conference last month at Shimpling Park Farm in Suffolk. The event brought together over 100 guests from across the agriculture sector, from farmers and growers to tech developers, academics, and other sector representatives, for a day of discussions and networking.

The day, entitled ‘The path to sustainable farming continued: the role of precision technology’, began with introductions from host and farmer, John Pawsey, Agri-EPI’s CEO Dave Ross, and journalist and conference chair, Anna Jones.

Dave Ross said:

“It’s a relief to get back in person. There’s nothing better than actually meeting people face to face to have networking discussions, discuss the problems that are topical, and think about solutions to those problems.”

Fabia Bromovsky, Director of the Global Farm Metric at the Sustainable Food Trust took the floor as the conference’s keynote speaker to discuss the question: what exactly is sustainable farming? She explained that we lacked a common understanding and that where definitions exist, they often overlooked the interconnectedness and diversity of our farm systems.   She set out the need for a common language, a framework that recognises this holistic system and identifies where impact occurs.

She acknowledged the important role of technology to support farmers with this.  Farmers already collect lots of data, but with a consistent set of measures, in-common to all farm assessments, technology can provide solutions that make it easier to collect. Technology can enable farmers to protect their data, share data between consenting users, improve performance, and reduce time and costs.

She maintained the power of a common framework is it would provide a consistent baseline of data, the DNA of the farm, that can underpin supply chain transparency, green investment, and food labelling.  Governments, markets, and the financial sector can then reward producers who are delivering genuine benefit to the environment and public health and shift the balance of financial advantage towards more sustainable systems.

The farmer speakers were up next, with a panel made up of four of Agri-EPI’s innovation farmers, including Sophie Alexander from Hemsworth Farm, Jo Franklin from Kaiapoi Farm, John Pawsey from Shimpling Park Farm, and Ian Beecher-Jones from JoJo’s Vineyard.

They discussed the challenges within the agriculture sector including resilience to weather events, net zero goals, and price volatility, and how uncertainty in policy can affect the ability for some farmers to innovate as much as they would like to. Other topics discussed included how sustainability is inextricably linked to profitability, the need for a business mindset as a farmer, and the methods the farmers use to progress towards their sustainability goals.

The tech panel included developers Howard Wu from Antobot, Jack Wrangham from DroneAg, Jim Wilson from SoilEssentials, and James Brown from Earth Rover. Their discussions centred around how to make technology accessible to farmers, how to better understand farmers’ priorities for innovation, and how to attract more youth to agriculture with the use of technology.

Lastly, bridging the gap between the farmers and the tech developers, the final speaker panel included Calum Murray, Head of Agriculture & Food at Innovate UK and Agri-EPI speakers including CEO, Dave Ross, CTO, Trisha Toop, and Head of Engineering, Eliot Dixon.

Calum Murray explained:

“What we do at Innovate UK is try to make things happen that wouldn’t normally go ahead. First and foremost, we have to understand what the challenges are. We need to identify those areas that will deliver the greatest impact and give us value for money and give value to the UK economy”.

Dave Ross said:

“We are in an industry that has huge challenges and huge opportunities.”

The speaker sessions were followed by a networking lunch and farm tour around Shimpling Park Farm headed by John Pawsey.

John explained:

“We’ve been using the Skippy Scout Drone. There’s a huge amount to be looking at and I have to say, huge thanks to Agri-EPI and to Skippy Scout, because even though we can actually physically go out and look at all those things ourselves, because it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to go out and get that data, if you have a drone that can go out and get it for you, then why wouldn’t you do that?”

Guests were thrilled to be back in person discussing sustainability within the food supply chain, agri-tech solutions, and innovation in farming.

Ian Beecher-Jones said:

“I think today was very much about the grower, very much about the farmer.”

Calum Murray said:

“It’s been terrific to get back on farm and hear first-hand exactly what farm businesses are having to face.”

Agri-EPI Centre is the UK’s leading centre for precision innovation in farming. They help to deliver profitable and productive solutions to empower more sustainable farms and specialise in connecting knowledgeable experts and new solutions across the agricultural sectors.

Get in touch about opportunities at team@agri-epicentre.com

Farm walk brings together agri-tech community at Upper Nisbet Farm

   

   

 

This month Agri-EPI hosted another successful on-farm day in Scotland at one of their innovation farms, Upper Nisbet Farm, in collaboration with farmers Robert, Jac and Andrew Neill.

Agri-EPI members and representatives from across the agri-tech sector met up for a farm tour and day of networking, discussions, and precision tech demonstrations.

Autonomous grain storage monitoring company, Crover, showed a live demo of their grain swimming robot.

Lorenzo Conti, Founder and Manging Director, explained:

“The main aim is to help farmers like Rob, but also grain storage operators and grain merchants, to store large quantities of grain to maintain the quality of their stock, to better plan their businesses, and also to improve the health and safety of their operations”.

KEENAN, a respected leader in sustainable and profitable farming solutions focused on maximising feed efficiency, demonstrated their mixer wagon in action. Datamars, who enable the harnessing of data to measurably improve productivity and quality of life for livestock farmers, demonstrated their Tru-Test range. And John Deere, leading manufacturers in agricultural machinery, discussed their GPS and data collection tractor technology.

Farmer Robert Neill rounded out the day by leading a trailer ride to view the arable fields and cows and calves.

Ross Robertson, Head of Mixed Farms at Agri-EPI Centre, said:

“This kind of in-person networking and collaboration is invaluable to us as an organization, as it allows us to engage with our members and farmers alike to get genuine feedback on the products we are involved with. As we all know it has been a difficult past couple of years for all businesses in the sector, and getting back on farm and meeting face-to-face at events like this will help everyone progress in what they are trying to do in benefitting the Agricultural sector”.

As a key, government-backed player in the agricultural sector, Agri-EPI Centre has been able to enlist a network of farms spread throughout the UK to participate in the Agri-EPI Farm Network.

They equipped these farms with a suite of precision sensor technologies to measure variances across every dimension of food production – quality, productivity, wastage, and more. From there, they are able to begin implementing the technologies and innovations that will change the future of farming, and assess the ways in which they can work together to bring these ideas to full commercial viability.

Drones help farm plan for sustainable future

A forward-thinking farmer has teamed up with agri-tech experts to help develop drone technology to head off the effects of future labour shortages.

Paul Hayward, of Cold Harbour Farm in Yorkshire, is working with the Agri-EPI Centre in Edinburgh to find new ways to work more efficiently.

He said:

“Our business uses skilled local people. They are tech literate but there’s no doubt we’re not getting younger people through so increasingly we will face staffing challenges.”

A current project the farm is working on with Agri-EPI involves making better use of drone technology by extending the use and application of it – and Paul said the training supplied by Agri-EPI would be particularly beneficial.

He said:

“We can fly it and take some images, but it is all about making best use of those images quickly and translating them onto a piece of kit that will go onto the field and do the job.

“If you could feed that information from the drone into the controller for the fertiliser spreader, or something like that, it would be a great help.

“Drone technology could ultimately help with timeliness, precision application and, not replacing people, but making people’s time more effective.”

The drone project is just one of the collaborations the farm has taken part in since being introduced to Agri-EPI by LEAF – Linking Environment and Farming. LEAF aims to show that intensive agriculture is consistent with caring for the environment, and Cold Harbour has been a demonstration farm since 1993.

Paul added:

“A network like Agri-EPI, which brings together knowledge, expertise, innovation and funding know-how, is not just a mutually beneficial arrangement for our business, it’s necessary to make progress.

“Individuals just can’t do what Agri-EPI do, you just can’t. You have to realise your limitations. It’s got to be a team approach.”

Cold Harbour Farm, near Beverley, has been in the same family since 1889 and covers 300 hectares. It is a largely arable farm, with some beef cattle. The farm is also part of The Green Pea Company, a co-operative of 250 farms growing vining peas for the Birds Eye factory in nearby Hull.

An unused cowshed at the farm has also been converted into Calf House Studios, a collection of affordable studio and workshop spaces for local artists and craftspeople.

For more information about the Agri-EPI Centres, visit www.agri-epicentre.com/ For information about Cold Harbour Farm, visit www.cold-harbour-farm.co.uk/

 

Cold Harbour Farm case study

Agri-tech expertise yields results for robotics firm

An agri-tech company from Essex is helping farmers overcome labour shortages and practice precision agriculture, thanks to support from the Agri-EPI Centre.

Antobot is developing two robots which will help farmers target valuable resources in the most productive areas, as well as taking some time-consuming tasks off skilled workers.

The Agri-EPI Centre has supported Antobot with knowledge and their network in agriculture, increasing understanding of the sector and facilitating connections with growers, research organisations and other companies.

They have collaborated on multiple grant funding applications with successful joint bids to develop agri-tech innovations. The Agri-EPI Centre’s invaluable knowledge and networking has helped Antobot to develop their business and market potential, contributing to their successful £1.2m seed round in 2021.

Antobot business development manager Zoë Stockton said:

“We first started working with the Agri-EPI Centre in 2020 and have built a great relationship with the team.

“One of the greatest benefits of our relationship with Agri-EPI Centre has been the expert knowledge they have, particularly about funding streams to help us innovate. As a result of that help, we were awarded Project Insight in UKRI and Defra’s Farming Innovation Pathways program which we are working on with Agri-EPI.

“The development of our Insight robot is the focus of this 24-month project, and Agri-EPI are involved as project managers and knowledge experts.

“They were really useful when we were going through that funding application. The relationship has also directly delivered new business for us, helping us to grow and create sustainable jobs. The assistance has been invaluable.”

Agri-EPI Centre, part of the UK’s Agri-Tech Strategy and supported by Innovate UK, helps develop profitable and productive solutions to empower more sustainable farms and aims to support projects which will generate economic growth and help tackle the global issues of sustainability and feeding the world.

There are four centres across the UK, dedicated to innovation.

Antobot has created a modular robot system which can be adapted for different purposes. The first two applications being developed are Insight, a scouting robot, and Assist, which is used for logistics.

Insight is currently in field trials on partner farms, primarily with strawberry and apple crops. It can collect and process data about crop growth and ripeness so precious worker resources can be directed to the areas where yield is likely to be higher.

 

Read more:

Antobot case study

Drone use in UK agriculture

By: Claire Hodge, Head of Crops at Agri-EPI Centre

Agricultural drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are set to disrupt the agriculture industry owing to their immense potential to make agriculture more efficient, precise, and productive, driving the economic case for drone use. With farmers grappling with mounting pressure to boost production while adapting to climate change and dealing with increasing costs of production and changing support frameworks, drones present a compelling solution to improve the efficiency of the entire farming enterprise.

Growers and their advisors can exploit the technology for data collection to identify stressed areas of crops, study and map farmland, and improve irrigation efficiency. In addition to spraying water, fertilisers or pesticides on crops, drones can be used for livestock monitoring and tracking animal population and health.

Increased efficiency will drive the economic case for drone use. Drones can cover large areas of land, quickly and efficiently, provide quick and low-cost farm-related data to assist in effective decision making, and improve yield estimations, helping growers efficiently plan for storage, labour, farm resources, and transportation requirements with more certainty about the quality and quantity of the fruit crop being produced. Drones provide a higher level of accuracy, potentially reducing the frequency and quantity of agrochemicals used.

Labour shortages are a big challenge with the changing roles on farm, and through automation, drones allow labour to be redeployed to other farm operations. Making these jobs safer by reducing exposure to chemicals using drones to spray crops means that fewer staff will be exposed to chemicals compared to manual spraying.

The environmental impact of food production is under scrutiny and drones can help farmers reduce food waste by improving crop quality, reducing inputs and lowering CO2 emissions. The addition of drones in fields should also reduce the travel of heavy equipment going through the field on such a regular basis.

Precision agriculture practices, which can help farmers make better-informed decisions, have evolved significantly over recent years, with the global market now estimated to reach $43.4 billion by 2025. While drones have not yet made it into the mainstream agriculture space, they are playing an increasingly important role in precision farming, helping agriculture professionals lead the way with sustainable farming practices, while also protecting and increasing profitability.

The demand for agriculture drone services is consistently growing around the world, particularly Asia, South America, and Australia. Drone service providers are offering advanced solutions with improved quality and in-depth analysis, spurring service adoption. The demand for agriculture drones for mapping and spraying is substantially growing among the services, in areas of extensive production, remote locations, and low populations where access is difficult.

The landscape in the UK certainly differs to that of extensive cropping systems with many UK farmers working close to highly populated areas and with that comes a different set of risk factors to overcome.

Working closely with farmers across the Agri-EPI network and setting up a suite of drone capabilities we understand the true industry needs and the current limiting factors. Farmers want more robust and detailed crop data that will inform their decision making, however regulatory limiting factors for flying drones on farms, skills required to operate drones, and time involved are all concerns that need to be overcome to see this technology gain widespread adoption.

Working at Agri-EPI gives me the opportunity to work with farmers, regulators, and technology developers to overcome these challenges helping create innovative solutions for on-farm drone deployment.

Within the Agri-EPI network we are working with the top fruit industry, to use cutting-edge drone and machine learning technologies to provide growers with detailed crop insights, using drones with multi-spectral, hyper-spectral or lidar sensors with the aim to increase productive yield from an orchard by 10%.

To overcome the need for training on farm we are working with companies who can deliver ‘drone in a box’ systems where the drone arrives on farm ready to use, designed specifically for the farm needs. Drone in a box service that will allow a grower to remotely trigger a pre-planned drone flight will increase adoption rates.

There are also advantages to the use of BVLOS (Beyond VLOS) flights where one drone and operator can cover much larger areas in a shorter time, something which can be done cost-effectively by a service provider. Current Visual Line of Site VLOS operations are only within 500m. BVLOS (Beyond VLOS) allow the operator to be in an entirely different place to the drone and allow them to cover the last areas without having people on the ground to monitor.

There is ongoing work with HSE and the wider industry to start to answer some of the questions in Spray drone technology in order to implement greater safety measures and improved accuracy. This will allow areas that need low volumes of spray to be targeted and will allow for advantages when traveling across the ground is difficult or remote.

Drone technology is not a solo technology to overcome all on-farm challenges, but part of an integrated solution complimenting satellite and robotic technology and existing farm practice – allowing farmers to pick applications that work for their business.

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

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