Fielding the farming revolution with robotics

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘farming’? Countryfile, wellies and sheepdog trials? Big green and yellow John Deere tractors or combine harvesters? Or fields of industrialised food production with drones hovering above and robots picking grains and fruit?

We have come a long way since the industrialisation that John Steinbeck captured so vividly in The Grapes of Wrath, however, farming again faces a major revolution.

What will farming’s legacy be?

Given the average farmer is 58 years’ old (and getting older) in the UK, we need to find a way to attract young people into the agricultural and produce industry to ensure the industry can continue. In addition, there is also the problem of labour, which is rooted very much in our recent political and economic situation, and a need for stricter quality control measures as a result of Covid-19.

Even before Covid-19 exacerbated the labour issue, farming had been struggling on this front. The UK alone relies on 70,000 to 80,000 workers annually, many coming from Romania and Bulgaria to pick fruit and vegetables in the busy season. This number had already been falling since Brexit but, fast-forward to 2020, and Covid-19 has only made the situation worse. Many seasonal workers have been unable to travel or get transport due to lockdown measures, meaning farmers have lost out on a huge amount of cost-effective labour – in some cases, farmers have only been welcoming a tenth of the expected workers to their farms this year.

When it comes to modern farming, the industry is also entirely dependent on having the most up-to-date knowledge, from insights on soil and crop conditions, seed germination, temperature to seasonal change – all essential for farms to survive.

But without the knowledge, latest technology or labour to bring in the harvest, how can farms adapt to survive?

The farming revolution

Adaptation has been on the industry’s mind for some time. One way of doing this has been through diversification. From urban farming across European cities, refreshing and updating the farming model for the next generation by combining food production with eco-tourism, to directly encouraging young people to consider farming and food supply as a serious career option.

But attracting the next generation of farmers is only one part of the story – the next is addressing the problem of labour, leading to a rise in customers approaching agricultural tech companies for solutions. The latest phase of the ‘farming revolution’ has focused on agricultural robotics. Comprising smart devices equipped with GPS, AI and computer vision abilities, the value of this market is predicted to reach $75 million in revenues by 2024 (currently $16.5 million in 2020).

Against this backdrop, the benefits of robots over human labour are clear. Not only do robots not have to be paid – just maintained – they aren’t at risk of falling sick from the virus either – in fact, some equipped with UV light technologies actually kill viruses automatically. And with no resolution to the pandemic in sight, trialling and installing robots at this time is allowing farms not only to survive the current storm, but also to step into the future where they can test true optimisation of food production.

What does a robot farm look like?

In August, the world’s first robotic farming project, Robot Highways, secured £2.5 million in UK government funding, to ensure industry sustainability and address labour shortages. Hosted at Clock House Farm in Kent, the project is backed by a consortium of farming companies, Saga Robotics, and university researchers, and will trial a vision for the future of soft fruit growing run by robots who will pick, pack and treat crops – no mean feat but which other companies are already developing. If successful, the trial could see many more farms going this way.

Robotics transformation could see farmers freed up from their highly physical roles, to focus on more strategic ones. The future farmer will focus on developing their business strategy and finding new customers and distribution channels. Equipped with a data-mine of information, they’ll hold the key to more sustainable, diverse and resilient food supply chains.

We understand the nuances and complexities of the transformation that this industry is facing, whether the fear factor of job displacement or how to embrace significant change in such an established industry. It’s an opportunity that needs to be grasped and there are experts to help tell the story – especially when it’s about technology that is transforming the world.

Written by Fiona Goldsworthy, Deputy Managing Director Business & Technology