WHAT’S IN MY CRYSTAL BALL? ‘ROBOT WHISKY’, RURAL RESURGENCE AND AN END TO CHEMICAL WORRIES

Please join me in a celebratory whisky toast this Burns Night, and make it a toast to the future of farming - 2018 will be a great year for the industry!

Yes we are still fighting at least three ongoing battles on our family farm; we can’t make as much profit as we would like to, we are struggling to make a lasting change to our yields and we need to do a better job of understanding how we work with the environment - and now there’s Brexit to contend with too. Everyone I speak to in the farming community very much shares these views.

But finally there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We are on the verge of the next farming revolution. Arguably the last analogue industry, farming is at last set to go digital.

The first definitive steps to digitalisation will happen in 2018. The technology will be commercialised within three to five years and mainstream at scale within ten.

In 2018, we will finally see this technology moving from field trial to field. Harper Adams is at the forefront in the UK with its innovative agritech robots and its Hands Free Hectare autonomous farming project. Commercial field trials - including our own - that demonstrate robotics’ potential at scale will be completed within the next growing season.  

And what about that whisky? Yes, ‘Robot whisky’, made with barley largely farmed by robots, will be hitting our shelves in a few Burns Nights’ time.

The malting barley grown at Howle Manor, my farm in North Shropshire, will be monitored and analysed by robots from next year. And commercially, products such as whisky, beer, bread and biscuits that are made with robot-farmed crops will be available within 5 years. I anticipate that over time we will see robotics used to help establish consumer trust over issues such as provenance, traceability, and environmental impact.

More seriously though, it's about much more than robots. It's about a digital future. Robotics are a headline-grabber, but only the first piece of the puzzle in a much bigger picture. The fully-fledged digital farm will comprise a much broader ecosystem encompassing robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence. Ultimately, we’re looking at the Digital Transformation of Agriculture.

This is why robots are significant, and also significantly different to the automation of existing systems. If we automate existing systems there are cost savings to be made, and no doubt the adoption of these systems is a less radical change for farmers. However, automation enables only incremental improvements on what currently exists.

Digitisation, which will be enabled by robotics, unlocks the potential for exponential improvements in our ability to collect, process and act on data. With a granular view of the land, it can be deployed to best advantage - whether that’s agriculture, reassignment or development - to make farms much more productive businesses. Moreover, having a granular digital view will mean we can apply permaculture techniques at scale.

The potential here is phenomenal.

Profit is the number one problem keeping farmers awake at night. As many as 85% of UK farms are currently reliant on subsidies. But with digitisation we will see a big increase in the number of small farms which are independently viable without subsidy. This is great news both for those long standing family businesses, but also exciting for the development of the rural economy.

One way in which it could change the productivity of farms is to free the labour up from tasks which do not add value and give more farmers more opportunity to move up the value chain and to reconnect with their customers; making bread for example, as well as wheat. There’s already a strong desire for crafted food products and digitisation will enable an increase in the ability of rural businesses to cater for this. Agri-tourism is already worth more than food production in the UK and there is more potential for growth here. This will breathe life into rural communities, creating new jobs, and with it, a rural resurgence.

By 2030, the digitisation of farming will transform best practice and farm management.

Chemicals meanwhile are the big concern for consumers. With robotics eliminating the blanket applications of chemicals, these will be slashed by as much as 95%. We will see an end to these worries within 10 years. That bane for farmers, the legislative stick, will no longer be needed or feared.

Longer term, with rising global populations, yield has been the question. Technology is finally developing quickly enough to ‘feed the world’ within 20 years. Any impediments will be political, rather than agricultural.

Everyone I spoke to at the Oxford Farming Conference, agreed change is necessary. Current farming practices are not sustainable. Not in terms of productivity, nor profitability, and certainly not environmentally. Farming, and in particular farm management, needs to become a fully digitised process.

The transition to robotics and the digital farm is definitely coming - there’s no avoiding it. So how can we as farmers make the most of this next farming revolution? The first practical step is to map out a potential path to adoption and look at what we should do to get digital-ready.

I’m currently researching a book on this, The Digital Farmer, to be available in time for the next growing season.

The views of the farming community will be paramount for this. Please help us to make this project by farmers, for farmers, by taking part in our industry survey here.