While the agricultural industry is at the forefront of developing and applying new technology, many farmers still shy away from using it in the field.
Agriculture is an industry that has always embraced change. From crop rotations, mechanisation, the chemical revolution, then the biotechnology revolution, nothing stands still, says Dean Cook, interim challenge director for food production at Innovate UK.
“We have a convergence of the digital world with the engineering world and the precision approach.
“Observers are calling it the fourth industrial revolution. It is inescapable and shaping all supply chains.”
While it is disruptive, it also presents big opportunities for farming and others in the supply chain, he says. “But we know the industry has not embraced it wholesale.”
Dr Hugh Martin, course director for the masters degree in agricultural technology and innovation at the Royal Agricultural University, says: “Agricultural development has a history of change. We now look through the prism of digital technology in our everyday lives.
“Farming needs to embrace that too because it has proven advantages. There are tangible benefits to animal welfare, the environment and the bottom line.”
Embracing technology will help with the bigger picture too, says Luke Halsey, entrepreneur in residence at Farm491.
He says: “Arguably many farmers still see agritech as daunting, but it is important for farmers to ask how technology can be better than current practice.
“Many agritech companies do not appreciate the current practices and why farmers do what they do.
“We need to help solve this through farmer informed innovation, such as focus groups and showcasing to ensure the end user is incorporated right at the start of an innovation.”
Mr Halsey believes open-mindedness and trust key.
She says: “You need to find the trusted partners for each business.
“This might be going through agronomists or hiring people from the agri sector who are trusted by farmers. Having said this it is also critical to find the early adopters.”
There has been much discussion between industry organisations about the perceived disinterest to take up technologies, says Mr Cook.
He says: “One conclusion emerging is that programmes are designed with the farmer as end-user, but without directly engaging with them in the design.”
Dr Martin believes it is not so much a change in mindset that is required.
He says: “Is it really a change in mindset or opening farmers’ eyes to the benefits that can be obtained?”
New technology brings with it lots of uncertainty and questions about reliability, costs, whether training is needed, payback and potential profit.
Dr Martin adds: “Product development must be relevant to a farmer’s activity, the business they are running and lifestyle too. It needs to integrate into the process rather than demand a huge change in mindset.
“Lots of technology being developed is being driven by potential gains to the producers of those technologies. Farmers need to be the drivers.”
As well as identifying potential gains, farmers can also spot the barriers too, says Mr Cook.
“We need to think about how to engage farmers in research and development, but also how will farmers change themselves to be more ready?”
Skills are a part of that, he explains.
“It is not unique to agriculture. All sectors are talking about the talent pool of digital-savvy labour. There has to be complementary upskilling of the industry too.”
Encouraging young people who are generally more ‘technology embracing’ to choose a career in agriculture is also key.
Mr Cook says: “They have grown up with it and have a much more open mindset to these sorts of technologies.”
When it comes to taking up new technologies, size of the farm is not always relevant.
Mr Halsey says: “Technology has the potential to remove the current inefficiencies in smaller farmers and enables farmers to grow profits while meeting externalities, such as climate resilience and other environmental factors.”
Appropriateness of the technology is more important, says Dr Martin.
“It could be the simplest adaptation, such as using thermal imaging for diagnosing ulcers on cows’ feet, which does not require fast network or mobile phone signal.”
The key is the technology needs to be appropriate to the individual user and that can serve to demonstrate to them and others the benefits of technological advances.
Dr Martin adds: “Thermal imaging can help reduce antibiotic use, benefit the environment and improve animal welfare, which are enormous benefits from one little device and a manageable amount of investment for most farms.”
Genuinely cutting-edge and new-to-market technologies will not necessarily be in the reach of smaller enterprises, says Mr Cook.
He says: “There will be early adopters who can afford it, but the cost comes down to making it more accessible.
“We need to work hard with knowledge exchange programmes to push positive messages out around the technology that might not be so new, but is not yet adopted by the whole sector. But the whole sector embracing these advances can have a dramatic effect.”
Precision technology is one example, he says, and this is now being embedded in equipment.
“Other technologies sit with plant breeders or ag-chem companies. We cannot look at the farmer in isolation. We have to think about how to work across the whole industry.”
Innovation does not just mean taking on new technologies, says Roger Engelbert, chief executive of Imagro, a strategy and creation consultancy business specialising in agriculture, food and rural businesses.
Based in Ottersum, the Netherlands, he advises clients on creating a new entrepreneurial mindset.
“If you look at the agri-food chain, I believe the mindset is open for the technical part of production, but in a commodity market, you can only distinguish on relation of price. You have to be more distinctive.”
He believes the main mindset shift required is to stop thinking in terms of commodity production.
He says: “Farmers like to produce crops and love their animals, but they are more craftsmen than entrepreneurs.
“We are now in a commodity trap. I think diversity brings new earning models. You need to think of fries not potatoes, and meatballs not pigs.”
He advises that farmers consider not just customers’ need for food, but also the ‘wants’ that farmers and farms can provide.
“Farmers have to change and move to new markets and products and innovations, but we are not that fast enough to change. They may decide to pay €100,000 for a new tractor, but then struggle to find €5,000 for a new strategy.”
Learning from other farmers’ experiences of new ideas and technologies is crucial to the success of their take-up.
Mr Halsey says: “This will mainly help with adoption and is critical.”
Mr Cook agrees: “We know farmers look to their neighbours and when they see that neighbouring farmers are accelerating ahead it can nudge them into action.”
He refers to the ADHB concept of ‘beacon farmers’, which are highly innovative early adopters of new ideas whose success with new technologies can ‘ripple out’ to the wider farming community.
Innovators therefore need to consider how to engage those beacon farmers in what they are doing, he suggests.
“There is no silver bullet, no one approach which is going to solve this. It is about nudging lots of different areas, but the most important thing is having a joined-up conversation.
“There are a lot of live discussions going on in the industry and Government about what we need to do to help the sector embrace the changes we need to make.
“There are big changes afoot for food production.”
Agri-Innovation Den is back for 2019 with an all new format and a fantastic business development prize package worth £40,000.
The competition, supported by BASF and Farm491, is designed to showcase new developments in agricultural technology, and we are inviting entrepreneurs from across the UK to pitch their concept and explain why it could revolutionise UK farming.
Ensuring new and progressive technologies have an opportunity to thrive is one of the biggest challenges faced by any industry and Agri-Innovation Den aims to facilitate this growth within agriculture.
We want to hear from individuals who are developing new technology for the agricultural industry.
In return we are offering a bespoke publicity, mentoring and business support package, alongside access to a network of progressive industry professionals who can help take your business to the next level.
Whether you have a pioneering piece of software, a working technology, a dynamic approach to precision data or a concept you are confident will make a difference to farmers, we want to hear all about it.
Finalists will be invited to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges at Farm491, Cirencester, on November 21, 2019.