Six entrepreneurs with cutting-edge ideas and technologies to advance agriculture will battle it out in front of a panel of judges next month for a £40,000 development prize. Here, we find out more about the finalists.
After more than 30 years working in potato agronomy and research, it became clear to Paul Coleman the sector suffered from many inefficiencies, curtailing yields and producing potatoes which did not always match market demands.
This causes unnecessary waste and expense. So he created Crop4Sight, a web and mobile app tool to help growers manage their crops better using insights bespoke to their farm and crops.
Farmers input their crop milestone data and the app uses this with 30 years of historical production data to run computer calculations and produce instant forecasts, such as for crop emergence and tonnages. Growers can also benchmark their crops against reference crops.
Crop4Sight aims to improve growers’ crop efficiency; reducing waste, costs and producing more from a unit of land, while also benefiting the environment with less use of fertilisers and water. Eighty-nine growers are currently working with the company to capture their data with help from a number of agronomists.
As a fresh-faced graduate, Simon Fox spent his first job working on soil nutrition and crop development in Swaziland.
Those 18 months in the 1970s were enough to kick-start his life-long investigation of the relationship between soils, nutrients, nutrient availability and crop development. Soil analysis techniques, he realised, did not show nutrients available to the plant, only the nutrient content.
This meant some tests showed a nutrient was present, while it was actually ‘locked up’ and unavailable for the plant to use. OptiYield provides a more accurate soil analysis, using 27 points of data, 30,000 lines of computer code and information from hundreds of research papers on crops and soil nutrients.
Its algorithms, written by Simon, who has worked as a software engineer as well as an agronomist, calculate the soil’s needs for the specific crop and market.
OptiYield also provides a programme of soil microbes and bio-stimulants which can switch desired genes in plants on and off. Customers have reported 25 per cent yield increases.
Growing up on his family’s arable farm in Worcestershire, Tom Freeman was inspired into a career in software development by his father, who had a fascination with computers.
But he would go home and see his father struggle to work out his crop profitability with a complicated Excel spreadsheet he had designed.
He says: “My dad had used accounting packages in the past, but the problem with them is they are designed by people who work in software, not farmers. “They have gradually got more features and have become cumbersome for small farmers.”
So Tom designed a simple online dashboard to calculate likely profitability of his father’s crops before he had even planted them. Farmers add data, such as acres, plantings, expected price, yields per tonne and expected input costs, then Crop Farmer calculates the profitability of the crop.
Tom says: “Crop Farmer will save time trying to learn complicated packages. It is designed to be quick and easy for small farmers to work out profitability.”
After working worldwide in agri-business and becoming concerned about the state of the world, Roelof Kramer had what he says was a ‘Matrix moment’.
He realised what the food system lacked was a way to connect the economical, environmental, natural and social gains so business would be driven towards improving all of these, not just profits.
Agri Compass collects data on these measures, digitising entire crop value chains. It then analyses data to measure, monitor and manage change in processes and gives information back to growers for free so they can improve profitability.
Companies and other stakeholders pay to access the anonymous information to improve their economic, social, technical and environmental processes. Roelof says: “We are proud we can feed 10 billion people, but it is at a huge cost.
We are leaving things such as biodiversity to vested corporate interest and a few interest groups. We need a system to bring everything together.”
“I have always had a passion for growing plants,” says William Pelton, who says time on his grandfather’s farm had a big impact on him.
William went on to study botany and genome editing, becoming fascinated by the molecular mechanisms controlling plants, but he did not feel his research had enough of a real-world effect.
“It became clear that as our world changes due to issues such as climate change, we must look to plants for answers.”
That is why he co-founded Phytoform Labs, with the aim of creating the next generation of crops. The company uses artificial intelligence and cutting-edge biotechnology to discover, then add genetic traits into, crops, in a much faster way than traditional genetic modification.
This means the rapid evolution of crops with the aim of solving problems in sustainability and health.
Agriculture was not something David Scott had thought much about until meeting a farmer developing a vertical farming system. Until then, he had been working as a mechanical engineer designing lifts and cranes.
David says: “He was supplying Michelin-starred restaurants with micro-vegetables using a vertical farming system. He knew it was not scaleable, but that indoor farming was a good idea, and that if we could lower the costs, it could have a future.” Six years on and he has developed Intelligent Growth Solutions.
The company has created a more affordable vertical farming system based on towers of stacked trays. The system can be easily added to and scaled up as business and income grows, reducing set-up costs.
The system also allows for a wider range of adjustable variables: spectrums of light; water acidity; pH; nutrient mix; and air temperature.
Using computer calculations, variables can be manipulated to alter taste, nutritional value and look of crops. Crop inspections, using cameras and sampling, is automated, as is harvest, and customer findings are pooled and shared.
Finalists will be invited to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges at Farm491, Cirencester, on November 21, 2019.
For more information, visit AgInnovationDen.com