Posted on February 28 2019
Smart Farms for 2040 at #NFU19
We are cursed - or blessed - to live in interesting times. We are at a crossroads, both as a country, and globally. While this is a time of great challenge, there is also great opportunity. This generation of farmers could see a significant proportion of farms going out of business - or we could reset the clock and help launch farming to a better future.
The time has come for us to be part of creating a better way of thinking about and managing our farms, not only for ourselves but for our children and the future generations who we want to run our farms, but who we will never meet. Spring is springing, and it’s a time of new hope. I believe this is the most exciting time there has ever been to be a farmer.
Last week at its annual Conference, the NFU launched its Future of Food 2040 report, in which Small Robot Company were thrilled to be featured very prominently as an example of cutting edge innovation shaping the future. The report looks 20 years beyond Brexit to how Britain will evolve socially, technologically and environmentally. What impact will this have on British farms, and what’s needed to ensure that Britain can capitalise on this opportunity?
The report highlights the importance of establishing a future domestic agricultural policy that enables the farming industry to increase its productivity, profitability and resilience in the future, which will be crucial for businesses to thrive in an increasingly volatile world.
Interestingly, while Brexit naturally dominates as an imminent worry, the experts interviewed for the report all believed the true concern to be the macro global challenges for the future of food. How we are to feed 9 billion people sustainably by 2050 is undoubtedly one of the most serious questions facing mankind today.
“There will be huge challenges to the global food system between now and 2050 – notably water scarcity and the impacts of climate change. The global population will also become older and more urbanised, both of which will impact on food consumption patterns and agriculture. The unstoppable pace of technology continues to revolutionise our world, but it is a world that is becoming more volatile, not just climatically, but also economically and politically...planning for that future must start now - business as usual will not be an option,” comments Dr Andrea Graham, NFU Head of Policy Services, author of the report.
These concerns are felt very keenly on a local level also by the farmers we are speaking to as we develop our service. The overwhelming feedback is that farming is not working. Machinery costs are rising, yields are stagnating, and profit suffering. As many as 85% of UK farms would not be viable today without subsidies, according to Andersons farm business consultants. This also impacts farmer lifestyle, stress and succession.
Farmers are also deeply concerned with environmental stewardship. There could be only 30 – 40 years left before we have effectively eradicated soil fertility. More contentiously meanwhile, there is also a negative impact on beneficial insects. While there are other factors at play here, it is farmers who are feeling the brunt of current consumer fears around ‘instectageddon’.
What’s clear is that farming needs urgent change. Hope is not a strategy. We need to take radical action. Our mission is to satisfy the competing demands of profit, yield, and the environment - while improving all three. Less impact, and more in line with nature.
Farming could create a world where there is an abundance of food which has been produced with minimal negative environmental impacts. It could create a future in which all farm businesses were profitable, growing enterprises which had significant positive influences on rural communities and on society as a whole. It could create a future in which farm businesses were not reliant on subsidy to survive. It could develop a mindset which is entrepreneurial and which proactively creates the change that it wants to see in the world.
You cannot control the future or the changing world around us, but can control how you react to it. Farmers will need to develop a growth a mindset, a mindset that embraces the future that technology is going to enable and a mindset that both recognises and captures the opportunities that those changes bring.
Technology is going to allow us to be much more accurate with our farm operations than has ever been possible before. It is going to allow us to produce food in a way that has a much smaller environmental impact than has ever been possible before. But it is also going to enable us to move towards a world of automation, where a far greater number of farm tasks are going be able to be automated or delegated through the use of technology. This might sound scary, but what it really does is create a huge amount of freedom for the farmer. Farmers will be able to spend much more of their time focusing on things that truly add value to their businesses, either through a diversification of farm enterprises or by adding value to the things they are already producing.
So much farm work at the moment is spent on operations which are crucial, but which do not truly add value. If you, as the farmer, are spending time driving a tractor up and down a field, you are doing something that needs to be done but it does not necessarily need to be done by you and that is an important distinction. New technologies will enable these operations to be automated or delegated in ways that are far more effective than those that are currently possible. This will bring us a far greater array of opportunities to build highly successful businesses than those that came before us.
Robotics and artificial intelligence will be at the forefront of this. The widespread use of these technologies might seem like a crazy sci-fi vision of the future, but of course this is a revolution that farmers have already been through before, with the transition from the horse to the tractor.
But it is crucial that this is not an imposition. Our ethos is ‘by farmers, for farmers’. We are therefore working closely together as we develop our technology for future farming - with farmers, on farm - to ensure that this is not an imposition, but delivers what farmers want. We will also be working closely with the NFU and other parties to ensure our technology remains relevant to farmers.
These technologies are coming. The choice for farmers is very simple; do you want the way that these technologies impact farming to be determined by someone else, or do you want to place yourself and your farm right at the centre of designing a system that works for you? If you would like to be involved in shaping the way our farms look in future, please do get in touch.
And if you believe that this is technology which should exist in the world, you can support us today through voting for us in this year's AgFunder AgriFood Tech Innovation Awards. This is basically Agtech's Oscars, and hugely prestigious - so we need your help to get us through. There’s a bit where it asks you to add your ‘web address’ - if you don’t have or can’t use a corporate address, you can also use a Facebook address, LinkedIn page or similar. You can also join our community to help us along the way with our Small Robot Revolution.
Please do join us on our mission to take farming into the Digital Age. Small is for the next generation.
Small Robot Company