Mark Suthern, national head of agriculture at Barclays Business Bank, looks ahead to the ‘critical’ next seven years as agriculture faces a period of major change
The agriculture sector is a hotbed of innovation. For generations, it always has been – and the pace and innovation of that change is gathering momentum.
Satellite technologies are informing crop management decisions around the world, developments in green technologies and recycling will begin to assist the sector by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and robots are helping farmers to pick fruits and milk cows.
Modern technology is making a big impact, driving a change in the sector as agri-tech companies bring management and data solutions to market which will become as integral to farming as machinery, genetics, and crop and animal husbandry.
The launch of an AgriTech Eagle Farm, a partnership between Barclays and the University of Lincoln, is supporting scientists and entrepreneurs, whilst connecting them with peers, farmers and the facility to test out new ideas.
A recent survey of 1,000 farmers across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by Barclays found that two-thirds of respondents viewed sustainability and business efficiency as their top priorities, with 80% saying that they could be carbon neutral by 2035 – five years ahead of the NFU target.
Our research also found that over two-thirds (70%) of farmers believe technology could help their business become more sustainable and efficient, while 65% suggest that it could enable them to produce more food.
The Government’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme provides financial support to farmers who put efforts into environmental management to enhance and preserve Natural Capital, while improving biodiversity and ecosystems – hand in hand with food production and reducing emissions.
And there is other support to encourage this, with £250 million worth of lending through Barclays’ Sustaiability Through Agri-Tech campaign.
The application of new technologies is already at the heart of day-to-day operations across the country.
Internationally renowned rugby referee, Nigel Owens, recently invested in 41 cattle for his farm as he prepares to hang up his whistle. I actually spoke to him at length for a podcast about the role he sees technology playing in his operations and how he hopes to encourage other farmers to do likewise, in a bid to ensure the sector is as sustainable as possible. Measures such as offsetting carbon emissions with trees and hedgerows, good soil management and smarter crop rotation are excellent starting points for this.
Elsewhere, in Cambridgeshire, Papley Grove Farm makes use of GPS technology to identify soil qualities and improve crop yields. Because it has seen such positive results, it has had interest from other farms in replicating this success. The owner, Martin Lines, now provides this as a service for other farmers, creating a new source of income for the business.
Another example is Brookvale Farm in County Down, Northern Ireland. Run by Richard and Pamela Lilburn, this is an impressively forward-thinking business, with technology actively integrated within the traditional family-run dairy farm. As well as robots to milk the cows, the Lilburns have invested in a vast array of tech solutions to improve their efficiency and give enhanced husbandry to their cattle.
From back scratchers to automatic footbaths, calf feeders and yard scrapers. Also, to help sell more of their milk to the local community, they have just purchased a vending machine for on-site sales.
The coming seven years are going to be a critical for farmers as we move from the Common Agricultural Policy and into the challenges of the new Domestic Agricultural Policy.
But more than two-thirds of farmers indicated Brexit could help accelerate them to carbon neutral, believing becoming more sustainable would increase their farm’s competitiveness after the UK left the EU.
This means there is ample opportunity for farmers to embrace the Government’s new agri policies and invest in technology that will make their businesses more sustainable, not only from a climate change point of view, but also from a profitability aspect.