Six years ago, I left the City and took over my family farm.
The big thing that’s been keeping me awake since then is profit.
Farms are getting less profitable. Revenues and yields for combinable crops have remained steadily flat for quarter of a century. Margins are static at 1-4% per annum. But production costs keep going up - and so do prices for big, expensive, machinery.
Working hard, and diversifying (a lot) I’ve increased both revenues and profit on my farm by 60%, and the majority of our future profits are going to come from non-farming activities. But the arable side is the core of where my family business came from and I want to fix it. Whatever I invest in the technology available to me today, innovation focused on ‘traditional’ machinery manufacture could at best boast two to three percent improved productivity. Not enough to secure the future of my arable farm business. This is a huge worry. Subsidies are likely to be gone in five years. Is UK arable farming even viable?
I'd worked hard in my previous career as a management consultant to maximise efficiency. On the farm, 95% of the physical and mechanical effort we put in with soil cultivations, and a significant proportion of the chemicals, is to correct the damage done to the soil by tractors. And of course if you treat the whole field the same, overuse of chemicals is inevitable. Looking just at the UK, 4 million tonnes of fertiliser is used each year of which probably 90% is unnecessary. This was alien to me.
Also, I wanted to be more a steward of the environment than a polluter, to leave the farm to the next generation in better health than I inherited it . Current farming practices are having a negative impact on soil compaction, root health, soil erosion, and soil health (organic matter and worm populations). Not to mention the chemical fall out.
Finally, the other thing that grated at me as a technology specialist was that I could see technology changing almost every industry around me - but I was still stuck on analogue. Standing in my fields, looking at my plants, and fundamentally making decisions in a very similar way to my father and grandfather before me. Expertise and gut instinct.
Then I came across the work of Professor Simon Blackmore at the Precision Farming Institute at Harper Adams university. The world’s leading expert on precision farming, his vision completely inspired me. 15 years ago, he had an idea.
What if we didn’t use tractors? What if we used lots of small robots instead?
Robots could manage the feeding, seeding and weeding autonomously. Robots increase the working window available to farmers, including wet days. Robots can use more of the field, including headlands. A smaller, lighter, more agile machine reduces the damage caused to the growing medium. No more compaction. Robots can also work within fields of all shapes and sizes that have hedgerows, protecting biodiversity.
And then we add data to the mix. We digitise the field. The potential for efficiency here is phenomenal. To be able to provide crop care on a plant-by-plant basis. To know what is thriving, and what needs a feed. Which bits of land should be set aside. Which should not be planted at all and allowed to lie fallow. Which land would benefit from crop rotation. Or what to plant when, and where, to maximise yield. Simply put, this means the ability to apply permaculture techniques at scale.
Kinder to soil, kinder to the environment, more efficient, more precise and more productive. The best of both worlds.
I wanted to make this a reality and see these benefits on my farm. Working with Ben over the last year to commercialise the use of robotics in agriculture, our founding principle for the Small Robot Company is that this business is by farmers, for farmers. We have been working very closely with farmers to understand how agricultural robotics can answer their needs, and make this into reality.
The first thing that immediately came back was the risk. Farmers did not want to be tied into yet another expensive hardware cycle. And so our Farming as a Service model was born, which is both a hardware and a software service for farmers. Farmers pay a per hectare subscription fee for a robotic hardware service which digitises the farm, and delivers crop care at per-plant precision. By focusing our business around a service, rather than a product, and by structuring our pricing on a per hectare basis, we have a business model which is low risk for farmers to adopt. They do not have to own any of the hardware, or worry about hardware becoming redundant or out of date.
We have been developing our hardware, software and service offering throughout 2017. Our first prototype robot is now built and successfully working; field trials are currently in progress in farms in Shropshire; and we are currently building the world’s most detailed living data model for our AI software to exploit. The first crop we are going to focus our service on is wheat, because we believe that in the UK over the next 5-10 years, these producers of commodity products are the farm businesses that will be under the most financial pressure and these are the farm businesses that technology can do the most to help.
We are now formally launching the company. We have secured initial seed funding from the farming community to build the prototype robots and conduct the field trials, and have our first customers signed up to use our services. We will be looking for additional funding from Indiegogo and other sources with a view to starting commercial work in October 2018.
Small is the future. Let’s make the dream a reality. Let’s take farming forward.