With more than half of the British countryside being managed by precision farming methods, is the new agricultural revolution gathering pace?
On 7 July 1964 the Daily Express published a satirical cartoon, a send-up of Britain’s farming community as it struggled to adapt from its old, rustic world to a new, technological one. The cartoon was set at a Royal Show at a point in the near future. One side of the frame featured a rowdy beer tent, reserved for “drivers and drivers only”. On the other was a marquee with the sign: “Order your Radio-Controlled Tractor”. A driver leans over to his beer-slugging mate. “Bert, I don’t want to depress you”, he cautions, “but your governor’s just bought one of those new tractors that don’t need a driver.”
The Express cartoon was recently cited by Professor Simon Blackmore, the head of engineering at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, to demonstrate the progress the farming community has made over the last 50 years. The ludicrous has now become the commonplace. Ian Beecher-Jones, a precision farming consultant, recently told Farmers Weekly magazine that about 60% of Britain’s farmland is now being managed by precision methods, which include sensor systems, cameras, drones, microphones, virtual field maps, analytics and GPS-guided tractors. These technologies – examples of the so-called internet of things – are fuelling what is being called the “new agricultural revolution”.
Clive Blacker, an arable farmer from Yorkshire, recognised about 20 years ago that change was coming. “It was 1998,” he said, “and it came being sat on the tractor seat and realising that there was so much variability in the fields. There are the good bits and the bad bits, and we were treating them all the same way. I thought that there were better solutions for this.” Blacker began to experiment with nascent technologies like yield mapping and, in 2004, set up a small business, Precision Decisions, to supply hardware to farmers. One of the technologies he markets is the N Sensor from the German firm, Yara, which he says is being used at 250 farms in the UK.
The N Sensor gives an example of the kind of precision technology available to farmers today. It consists of a cab-mounted tool – imagine a surfboard bolted onto the roof of a tractor – that is equipped with sensors at either end. The sensors gaze outwards, analysing the colour of a growing crop. From this data the N Sensor determines its chlorophyll content and, by an extension of logic, the crop’s nitrogen requirement. The N Sensor then relays the data to a spreader, which, in turn, applies the required dose of fertiliser to a specific part of the field. “People would be surprised at how much of this is going on,” Blacker says. A Defra report from 2012 found that 22% of farmers have GPS steering systems, 20% do soil mapping, 16% variable rate application (using technology like the N Sensor) and 11% yield mapping. Although these numbers might seem low, precision techniques are mostly used by farmers with large acreages who have greater resources to invest in the technology and make it cost effective.
While expensive systems like the N Sensor remain mostly the preserve of the large farms, smaller businesses are experimenting with different technologies. Andrea Graham, the head of policy at the National Farmers Union (NFU), points out that livestock farmers are increasingly able to track the health and movements of their animals with tags that relay data to the farmhouse. The farmer can know “when their cows are in heat or are about to give birth, to boost production or ensure a safe delivery.” Others apps, she says, monitor “the levels of grass for animals to feed on and [tell the farmer] when to move them on to the next field.” In light of the rising global population and estimates that climate change will bring more production potential to Europe, precision farming is being treated with interest by the government. The National Centre for Precision Farming was launched at Harper Adams University in 2012, with £3m of public and private funds. The government has set aside £90m for innovative research and there has been an increasing cross-pollination between the academic and business sectors. In one initiative, Sainsbury’s has partnered with the agricultural firm ADAS and the University of Manchester to develop a track-mounted sensor to reduce the carbon footprint of wheat production.
To maintain the recent progress, Graham said the NFU is lobbying the government for the “continued support of their agri-tech strategy”. Blacker, for one, feels there is lots of untapped potential. But despite all this optimism, should we not be cautious? Large-scale farming changes have often had unintended, and damaging, consequences for the environment. Most notably the mass introduction of neonicotinoids has been increasingly linked to the decimation of the bee population. Speaking at the Hay Festival thi year, the author and farmer John Lewis-Stempel attacked modern farming methods which he attributed to the destruction of 97% of traditional wild flower meadows. With precision farming might some of the final refuges for wildlife on agricultural land – field borders, for example – be turned over for cultivation? Might hedgerows be pulled down so farmers can exploit bigger, more efficient fields?
Blacker has a different perspective. “It’s not often in agriculture that we get a win-win-win. But I think that all of this technology has the potential to make farming far more sustainable as well as profitable. There is a tremendous amount of opportunity to do this. We can work with much more justification than historically. For example, if you look at the robotic weeders and spraying systems they can use up to 95% less chemicals than before.” With these discussions in full flow, the quiet revolution in the British countryside continues to gather pace. What the smart farm of the future may look like no one can quite say yet. In his recent presentation Professor Blackmore projected his vision. It involved miniature crop scouts - little red robots - moving up and down the fields, inspecting plants and tugging out weeds. There were weather dependent sprayers and drones that hovered in the sky, relaying data to the farmhouse where charts of fields were plotted at a central hub. “I think that in 10 years we will look back at today and think that we were dinosaurs in our methods,” says Blacker.