Precision Agriculture: separating the wheat from the chaff

Precision agriculture holds the promise of increasing profits whilst minimising environmental impact by adopting a novel data rich approach. As outlined in the Nesta web resource on precision agriculture, the countryside is set to be transformed by fleets of robots, smart tractors and a multitude of sensors.

Recently the UK government launched its agri-tech strategy with a budget of £160 million to transform the UK into a world renowned centre of agri-tech innovation. Government emphasis remains centred on the export of this technology; little consideration seems to have been given to what it means for UK agriculture. The rhetoric has overlooked the most important actor in the adoption of precision agriculture - the farmer. As farmers manage 75% of our green and pleasant land, contribute £9.9 billion to the economy, and employ 464,000 people careful consideration must be given to the future of industry.

Those that could benefit most from this agricultural revolution are not the large corporate farms but small family run farms. Given the UK agricultural sector is comprised mainly of family farms there is huge potential for precision agriculture to take hold. This could transform the outlook for British small family farms which are facing crises as pressure on food prices increase. Precision agriculture could change the fortune for the family farm. What does the owner of the UK family farm need?

The future farmer

Like any industry undergoing increasing automation this inevitably results in a decreasing workforce. Agribots like the broccoli or lettuce bot will especially impact on employment of seasonal or migrant workers. However all is not lost. This revolution offers agriculture a chance to diversify the skillset of the farmer. To capitalise on this technology the future farmer will need to know how to fly a drone and repair robots. Even some knowledge of coding may prove useful. This would transform public perceptions of this sector from low paid and unrewarding to a high tech and innovative industry. Such a transition would certainly fit within the government ambitions to rejuvenate an aging workforce.

                        More on the potential of survey drones.

But how do we disseminate the knowledge and skills among farmers when most are self-employed and working over 12 hours a day? These are questions that we need to address now in preparation for the revolution, or face a skills shortage later.

Harper Adams University offers a masters in precision agriculture, but when only 27% of farmers receive formal training and 59% are over 55, formal or higher education is probably not appropriate. Existing farmer networks may be the best channels to spread new ideas and approaches. 

Those that could benefit most from this agricultural revolution are not the large corporate farms but small family run farms.

Organisations like the iFA (innovation for agriculture) and agriskills forum already offer some workshops. Increasing support and investment in these schemes would allow greater participation and tailoring courses to a farmer’s needs.

To save time, long-distance online courses or webinars might be preferred. More creative experimental farmers may want to hack the tech for their farm’s specific needs, in which case rural tech meetup groups may be useful.

Data Mountains

Up until now farming has involved the management of hectares of land, but the amount of data generated by precision farming will be enormous. Farmers will have to contend with the management of terabytes of information.

This throws up many questions - firstly how will this data be stored and accessed? In our vision of the farm of the future we proposed that this function would be served by the cloud. The cloud is imagined as the glue binding the farm together; through it, all information based decisions are made. Yet this integrated service does not yet exist. Companies offering drone mapping of farms send the data to their clients via a USB stick in the post. As data begins to exponentially grow, it will soon become a hot topic for farmers - who owns it?  What is it worth?

                        More on the potential of farming data.

This revolution is as much about decision as precision agriculture. Farmers need help deciphering this treasure trove of data through software that can bring together lots of data from different sources in a meaningful way to support decision making.

In the US several large agri-tech companies offer big data storage and analysis services. For example John Deere has an online portal through which farmers can access the data gathered from their own sensors attached to their machinery. This connects with external data sets like weather and even allows farmers to benefit from crowdsourced data and real time monitoring. But who benefits more from this service, the farmer or John Deere? There are concerns over privacy, security and exploitation.

This revolution is as much about decision as precision agriculture.

Farmers are concerned about the highly confidential and competition-sensitive nature of their data about their farm and yields. Potentially this data could be brought together to better co-ordinate food production, avoiding food mountains and costly surplus. Equally though this information could allow people to play the system - manipulate food prices. Hence farmers are hesitant to fully embrace precision agriculture.

Greater assurance is needed about how the data is owned, and shared. A secure, regulated storage and sharing facility, along with the accompanying legislation could foster confidence in the farming community. This role may be best played by an independent advisory body, separate from industry. The technology is there to generate the data but the knowledge of what we do with it is lacking.

In our vision of the future farm we imagine this data could provide an alternative revenue stream, the details of which need to be explored. Also we suggest using data as a form of digital evidence. This would save time and money and ensure the accuracy of information submitted for grant application or standards agencies. But government and EU investment is needed to develop this system, and redesign the whole process for submission of evidence. Crucially we need to think innovatively about how we use this data.

Rural broadband

More fundamental than how we use this data is how farmers access it. Agriculture tapping into the internet of things relies on a high speed and quality broadband connection, a feature many rural communities still lack. 13% of farmers still don't have reliable access to the internet and 60% of those with a connection only have speeds of 2Mbps, insufficient to deal with data heavy maps drones and sensors will generate.

Focus needs to be on the rural infrastructure. This could be achieved through expanding existing networks but a better approach may be to encourage the development of community owned networks like B4RN. Broadband for Rural North provides a great example of how community driven initiatives can deploy superfast fibre optic broadband to rural areas cheaply.

Farmers are often the main barrier in the installation of new cabling. One of the successes of B4RN was getting access to land for little or no cost. Persuading farmers of the benefit of allowing cable to be installed across their land may help more communities establish rural infrastructure. Additionally, a comprehensive map of UK internet infrastructure and access would be useful in facilitating this development. Despite our reliance on the internet it still isn't clear who is and isn't connected in the UK. Mapping of this utility would help emphasise the case for rural development, and demonstrate the disadvantage of agriculture in comparison to other industries.

Precision-Benefit Calculator

Given three quarter of British farms are long established family farms, the UK could really profit.

There is a lot of interest from farmers around the potential of precision agriculture. Around 60% of UK farmers already use some sort of precision agriculture on their farms, although for the most part this simply means using GPS tractor steering. Many farmers are still cautious about entering into this space. It is the small family farms rather than the big agri business that stand to benefit most.

The small scale nature of many of these new technologies do not lend themselves to large scale agriculture where the current practices are more efficient but fit perfectly in a smaller setting. Given three quarters of British farms are long established family farms, the UK could really profit. But to get there the family farmer might need to be shown how they could benefit. This will require more than the existing Defra grants to encourage the use of drones and robocrops. 

                        More on the potential of agribots.

An understanding of where and how they could benefit would be hugely valuable. The development of a cost benefit calculator of adopting new precision agriculture technology or approaches would help farmers make the most of this revolution. This could be complemented by work by Farming Advice Service.

Ultimately envisioning the future farm is futile if farmers do not share this vision. The UK has the opportunity to become a world leader in precision agriculture exporting both innovation and expertise. For this to be realised the UK government needs to support the agricultural community at home in making the transition to a data rich method of farming. Government needs to be having conversations over farm gates as well as with industry and other stakeholders to create an image of future UK agriculture.

The UK has the opportunity to become a world leader in precision agriculture.

Governments could do more to support precision agriculture with: ​

  • Advice for UK farmers to encourage uptake of precision agriculture, enable evidence-based decisions on whether to invest in technology
  • Improvements to rural internet infrastructure
  • Seed funding for businesses and organisations that make use of the new wave of farming data
  • Standards and guidelines for safely storing and sharing farm data
  • Provide training and workshops on precision agriculture around the country, which could double as a venue for collecting evidence about what works in practice.



Jess Norris