Unlocking the digital potential of rural Britain will be key if farmers and rural entrepreneurs are to thrive, with research suggesting £12 billion to £26bn is at stake.
Those were the figures from a joint report by Rural England and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), supported by e-commerce giant Amazon, which said a properly connected countryside could generate billions more for the economy each year.
More than 750,000 rural businesses already operate throughout the UK, but according to Amazon UK country manager Doug Gurr, ‘the ambition and entrepreneurial spirit is there right across our countryside’.
Adopting digital technologies would also open up the opportunity for rural consumers to benefit from access to the same innovative content and services as people in urban areas, he said.
“Digital services enable people living, working and running their businesses in rural areas to have the best of both worlds; the rural lifestyle with lower costs, less stressful commutes and beautiful scenery, combined with the same benefits as urban areas, such as access to cutting edge technology, business supplies and low-cost everyday essentials delivered to their door,” Mr Gurr added.
But despite these potential opportunities, the approach to transforming broadband and mobile connectivity in rural areas remains half-hearted.
While 57 per cent of UK premises in rural areas are now able to make telephone calls on Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three, 80 per cent of homes in 14 rural areas across England are still struggling to access 4G mobile coverage.
The rural-urban divide has remained at the forefront of the conversation, with industry calling for at least 95 per cent of the UK geographic landmass to have 4G coverage by 2022.
The latest lobbying efforts from the CLA and the NFU have, however, updated the wayleave framework, which should pave the way for broadband infrastructure providers to speed up the roll-out of rural broadband.
But with Brexit around the corner, the ability to make best use of connectivity is needed more than ever for farm operations to become more efficient, increase productivity and offset the expected cuts to farm payments.
CLA deputy president Mark Bridgeman said: “It is a frustratingly slow process, but as more farms are getting better broadband and mobile connections, more of us are able to start making the most of the opportunities which depend on good connectivity.
“Connected technologies, new software, swifter communications and new marketing platforms can help farms and other rural businesses to be more productive and more efficient, to buy and sell more profitably and to open up new income streams.”
How can data and connected technologies improve farm productivity?
ADOPTING data and connected technologies has the potential to create more profitable and productive business, according to the CLA.
The group pointed to plenty of new technologies which are waiting to be used, including robotic pickers, real-time farm-specific weather information and image and data analytics.
Mr Bridgeman said: “One of the most exciting areas for the future of our industry is the advent of the tools and technologies which are already defining modern farming.
“From crop analysis and early disease detection to livestock monitoring, there are opportunities for farms of all types and sizes to improve their operations.”
The theme was continued at CLA’s Rural Business Conference, London, last week, where Velcourt technical director Keith Norman suggested technology was the best way of attracting young farmers to the industry.
“There is a resistance to change from some of the more traditional farmers but for those coming into agriculture the use of technology is part of their lives,” he said.
Mark Coombs, estate manager at Brudenell Estate and director at Estate Asset Capture, is now using aerial imaging technology to analyse the inventory of the estate and assess the condition of buildings ripe for potential development.
He said: “There is a lot of emotion tied up in rethinking a business, so technology allows us to get on with strategic planning as it shows where the potential lies in the estate.”
Strategic planning has also been adopted by mapping software business The LandApp, which enables farmers to deal with their Basic Payment Scheme application directly through an app.
It is primarily a tool to help farmers, landowners, agents and consultants diversify and regenerate farm businesses in a single place.
Users can design handheld projects, record all utilities and infrastructure on-farm, then share data with consultants for collaboration and submit it to the appropriate approving body, all within the app.
Managing director Tim Hopkin, who grew up on a farm in Guilford, Surrey, said: “I was so infuriated how often I had to revert back to paper, and there were no solutions to paper, yet everyone was demanding it.
“When I was looking to take the farm forward I kept thinking ‘where is the money tree’?
“Whenever we were looking at what we could do, out came the paper maps and ruler and this makes it difficult to think long-term.”
Cloud-based platform Kisanhub uses web, mobile and application programme interface to connect enterprises with their growers and offer crop intelligence through datasets.
Toby Reich, vice-president of sales at Kisanhub, said the principle is there should be only one place to see and control everything.
“This is valuable to growers, enterprises or to anyone in the supply chain which has to go onto five different web portals or 10 different apps.
“This is awfully confusing and very time consuming so having one place where you can see all this information, that would be the ideal dream.
“I think this should apply to everything in life but we are talking about agriculture, managing crops and the supply chain. So actually, this is what Kisanhub does, it sits above those pieces of information – a weather forecast, a satellite image, a drone image and farmgate information.
“All of this is fed into the Kisanhub platform.”