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Technology Focus: Agri-tech outlook 2022, part 3: the latest innovations in farming

In the latest of our Agri-tech webinars, our panel closely examined the challenge of feeding the world while addressing ecological and climate concerns.

Key takeaways
  • Academics, tech developers and manufacturers are working with farmers on ideas such as using drones to monitor grain quality, and developing a health monitor for dairy heifers

  • In a boost for plant machinery and the environment, there’s a drive to use hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) as a sustainable alternative to diesel

  • A new way of growing food, known as ‘per plant farming’ focuses on autonomous lightweight vehicles enabling interventions on individual plants

  • With vertical farming, stacks of plants can be grown locally in a nutrient-rich mist rather than soil, removing the reliance on climate and weather, as well as reducing carbon footprint

The extent to which technology can help overcome the challenges that farmers face was the topic of the final webinar in Lombard’s series, Technology Focus. Whether those challenges concerned the price of inputs (especially fuel and fertiliser) or the longer-term goal of working towards net zero, the webinar’s speakers gave insights on how their businesses are helping the agricultural sector.

Guest speakers
  • Annabelle Gardner, Membership and Events Manager, Agri-EPI Centre

  • Alistair Reekie, General Manager UK Sales & Marketing, JCB Agriculture

  • Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder and CEO of Small Robot Company

  • James Perry, Business Development, LettUs Grow

At the outset of the session, attendees were polled with the multiple-choice question: “What advantages do you feel automation can bring to your business?” The replies were:

  • labour saving – 88%

  • avoid repetitive jobs for workers – 49%

  • input efficiencies – 72%

  • increase productivity – 81%

  • remove risk of human error – 58%

With high expectations for how Agri-tech can transform agriculture, what did the guest speakers have to say?

Annabelle Gardner, Membership & Events Manager, Agri-EPI Centre

As a business focused on bringing innovation into farms, Agri-EPI Centre aims to deliver technological advances that respond to farming and agriculture challenges, including data platforms, knowledge exchanges and a growing membership network. Significantly, Agri-EPI Centre brings together an ecosystem of expertise, including academics, technology experts, developers and engineers to develop and test on-farm solutions.

“When we talk about getting solutions to market that are actually robust and reliable, we take them right through from idea to reality, the different stages that are there,” said Annabelle Gardner. “We do believe that by working together with farmers in collaboration with academics, real technology developers, large companies and manufacturers we can bring new solutions to market that can have a real impact on-farm.

To give the webinar attendees an idea of what the future may hold, Annabelle detailed three new technology projects: 

  1. Crover: a system using underground “swimming” drones to monitor grain quality and improve safety.

  2. Smartbell: a health monitor for dairy heifers from birth to milking, improving retention of youngstock, reducing losses and improving productivity.

  3. SeaCAP: a floating salmon farm that can control environmental impact, improve water quality and deliver greater productivity and sustainability.

Alistair Reekie, General Manager UK Sales & Marketing, JCB Agriculture

As a widely recognised manufacturer of construction as well as farm machinery, JCB is well aware of the pressure that both of these industries are under to reduce their carbon footprints. With the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) setting a net zero target of 2040 – 10 years before that set by the UK government – Alistair said: “The challenge is there for all of us… [but] there is recognition of the fact that we can do something as far as UK agriculture is concerned.”

To this end JCB Agriculture has been focusing on fuel innovation, with hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) appearing to provide a viable and sustainable alternative to diesel. Its advantages are: 

  • being created from feedstocks, such as rapeseed, soya beans, palm oils and used cooking oils

  • it is compatible with 95% of JCB’s range of machinery

  • producing between 20% and 40% less carbon monoxide than diesel

With innovation focused on speeding up recharge times, there are some doubts about how soon we will see electric tractors, especially since some of them are required to work for up to 12 hours at a time.

However, more specialist equipment, such as telematics, can work for up to four hours, and in some contexts this may be enough. Crucially, these machines are comparable to their diesel equivalents. In the case of the 525-60E model, this means:

  • 2,500kg lifting capability

  • a lift height of 6 metres

  • lift capacity at full height of 2,000kg

  • lift capacity at full reach of 720kg

Acknowledging that charging is a crucial issue for electric machinery, JCB has also developed a range of electric power packs, based on lithium ion technology. Noiseless and portable, they also beat their engine equivalents in emitting zero carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, and so can be used indoors, such as in a shed.

Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder and CEO of Small Robot Company

Of course, decarbonising agriculture is about more than fuel switching. As CEO of the Small Robot Company, Ben Scott-Robinson is aware that part of the solution to reducing carbon emissions while feeding the planet requires a radical shift: “We are really in the next generation of farming – a new way of growing food. And we call this ‘per plant farming’.” 

At the core of this approach is the philosophy that any farm, growing any crop will be able to gather intelligence and make interventions on each individual plant. Having set out the net environmental cost of farming, he argued that autonomous lightweight vehicles can be deployed at crucial points in the plant lifecycle. Some are capable of precisely sowing seeds based on topography, soil and weather. Others then monitor and gather data on a per plant basis so that interventions can be made to maximise each plant’s potential.  

Cumulatively, Ben asserted, per plant farming can:

  • cut up to 90% of fertiliser use

  • cut up to 95% of pesticide use

  • cut up to 100% of chemical use

  • save tens of millions of tonnes of carbon a year in the UK

“We have a strong belief that per plant farming is going to be the future over the next 20 years,” he added. “Core to what we’re doing is that we believe rather than big machinery, small is good.”

James Perry, Business Development, LettUs Grow

While improving the environmental impact of extensive farming remains a challenge to overcome, others, such as LettUs Grow, focus on doing more with less space. With its sights firmly set on promoting vertical farming, business developer James Perry was clear that creating stacks of plants suspended in a nutrient-rich mist (rather than soil) delivers clear benefits:

  • no reliance on climate and weather

  • the ability to grow fresh produce throughout the year

  • a means of diversifying revenue

  • reducing carbon footprints through growing local

Financially, there are upsides too. “Fluctuations in energy prices and energy supplies can really make or break your business,” added James. “So having access to onsite renewables, to supply that consistent price and consistent supply of energy, is likely to make for a really good and strong business case.”

The vertical farming approach, he insisted, can be applied at different scales, such as in drop and grow (shipping container farm) scenarios, to greenhouses covering in excess of 20,000 square metres geared at the wholesale market. 

He added: “Our mission is to reduce the waste and carbon footprint of fresh produce by empowering anyone, anywhere, to grow delicious food near its point of consumption.”

Many people, within agriculture or beyond, will be eagerly awaiting a time when this happens. 

This was the third and final webinar in Lombard’s series on the outlook for agri-tech.

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