Glasgow - based agri-entrepreneur Yanik Nyberg was looking for farm businesses to partner with last year on his project to cultivate degraded coastal land with seawater and high value crops.
After initial scepticism, he noticed a change among farmers after last Summer’s drought.
He said: “People had seen what happened and the thousands they had spent on irrigation so it became much easier for us to have a conversation about innovation and trying out a more profitable crop.
They were receptive to new approaches.” The first farm he partnered with in Ayrshire leased out a one-hectare site to Nyberg and his company Seawater Solutions to grow Samphire in land which had previously been used for potatoes.
A first harvest of the crop is due at the end of August, which will be sold to small-scale retailers and the food service sector.
Across the North Sea and into mainland Europe, researchers at Wageningen University, the country’s main agricultural research institution, are engaged in a different kind of innovation.
Driven by the Netherland’s ageing farmer population and chronic labour shortages, researchers are developing a range of new machines to take over manual tasks on-farm.
Close to commercialisation is Sweeper, a sweet pepper harvester. Its robotic arm can move up and down a greenhouse, using cameras and sensors to spot and pick ripened peppers.
Not only can it distinguish colour, it can also recognise ripe peppers hidden behind leaves. The robot was able to harvest a pepper in 15 seconds in tests last year and is expected to be on sale for Dutch farmers within the next three to four years.
While humans can, at present, pick peppers more quickly, the robots are able to work non-stop and overnight. And progress will not stop there.
The challenge now is to make robots as smart, or nearly as smart as humans, said food and farming robotics specialist Janneke de Kramer, from Wageningen University.
“Humans can detect a lot of things you need to put into the AI part of the robot to recognise from the pixels it sees. For example, which crop is ripe and the way to pick them, the different diseases or bugs, and how you can distinguish between crops and weeds,” she said.
For any farm business considering how to innovate, be it new ventures, equipment or practices, there will be risks. But every business needs to be open to opportunities, said NFU science and regulatory affairs adviser Helen Ferrier.
“That could mean considering new crops or machinery. But looking ahead, much of the new technological innovations available to farm businesses are likely to be data-driven ones around measurement and precision,” said Ms Ferrier.
For arable businesses that means precision-application of inputs and combining field mapping and ATV ariel images to understand what you should be doing and when on farm.
“The biggest barrier is around understanding the possibilities enough to go and investigate and
work out if it is something you can do” Helen Ferrier, science and regulatory adviser at the NFU.
While for livestock farms, it means greater use of sensors, recording of feeding and outputs, and virtual feeding to control animals’ use of land and feed and enhance decision-making.
Much of this innovation is already happening in bigger farm businesses and ‘will defuse in time,’ said Ms Ferrier.
“The biggest barrier is around understanding the possibilities enough to go and investigate and work out if it is something you can do. With any new technology the early adopters are inevitably taking a risk,” she said.
For Dumfries and Galloway dairy farmer Colin Ferguson, that risk was installing an automatic dipping and flushing system, improving hygiene and reducing cross-contamination in the parlour.
“It is expensive, but it has reduced both our cell count and rates of mastitis by 50%. It will pay back in terms of milk loss and treatment costs within five years.
And it’s also taken away the pressure on us on antibiotic use under our milk contract,” he said. “If you had asked my father 20 years ago, would he have predicted what the farm would look like today?
We never thought we’d have GPS on our tractors. In another 20 years, maybe the man in the parlour will be the past.”
Mr Ferguson, who has been working with the Royal Bank of Scotland on its Entrepreneur Accelerator programme in Scotland to help young people to develop their business ideas, said the effective use of data to maximise profitability on-farm has barely started yet.
“We are probably at a point with robotic milking where the mechanisation will plateau to a point, but data is where the change is really happening.
It is a massive opportunity if we can start linking up different parts of the farm system to help decision-making. It is a tap that is yet to be fully turned on.
Everyone is trying to work out what to do to save money,” he said. Roddy McLean, director of agriculture at NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland, added: “We all have to continue to look forward to where the industry might be in 20 years.
“Given the political and economic uncertainty that currently exists, it has never been more important for farmers to futureproof their businesses and increase their resilience.
And that means being open-minded to innovation and opportunities to bring in new ideas and technology.”
A major stumbling block when it comes to more farm managers and staff making use of data-driven innovation has been its user-friendliness, or lack of it. But that is changing, said Mrs Ferrier.
“Most farmers are not in their early 20s and have always used computers and understand all the apps on their mobile phone.
But the interface of users is really improving as companies realise its importance for maximising uptake. How farmers input data has to be easy.
If it is difficult, they will not do it and they won’t get enough data to get good results,” she said.