The countryside has been designed to make existing farm machinery as efficient as possible. It has not been designed to make the plants as productive as possible, or to enable the natural environment to thrive as much as possible. The Digital Farm could change all of that.
When you travel through the countryside in your home country, do you ever stop to think how much of the way it looks is as a result of farm machinery? Of course, the type of farming changes with the landscape but there are very few rural areas in the developed world which are not, in some way, shaped by the machinery that we use to manage our farms.
The arable farms in the area around my family farm typically have big square fields containing a single crop, often referred to as a monoculture. This not a natural occurrence - it would be unusual for a single, genetically identical species to dominate a wide area without some significant intentional design on the part of human beings.
But do we ever stop to think about why we have designed the countryside to look like this?
The reflex answer given by many is that we have big, square fields growing a single crop so that we can maximise the productivity of our farmland and thereby feed the world. To some extent, this has been true in the past. Indeed, the growth of average UK wheat yields from around 2t/ha in 1900 to around 8t/ha 1990 is surely due, at least in part if not exclusively, to the widespread mechanisation of farming in the early / middle part of the 20th century.
However, it cannot be said to be true today. That 8t/ha average yield in 1990 is still the same average yield today, almost thirty years later.
The machines that we use today may be bigger and more powerful, and they are certainly more expensive, but they are not enabling us to be more productive.
In fact, our countryside has not been designed to make the fields as productive as possible. It has been designed to make the machinery as efficient as possible.
We can see this change on my own farm.
On the wall in our farm office is an old tithe map from 1820, showing the farmhouse and the fields directly adjacent to it. On the map, this land is divided into about sixty small fields, each with hedges carefully marking the boundaries of the plot. Today, that area is two big fields. Why did we do this? It was not to make our soil more productive or healthier; it was not to give each plant the opportunity to achieve its yield potential. We did this so that we could use bigger equipment and cover the ground more quickly, maximising the efficiency of the man-hours required to manage the farm. The old field demarcations followed the natural variation in soil type that we see across our farm. Today, we largely ignore those variations because to manage them in the detail that they require would be an inefficient use of time and machinery.
We treat the field as a single, uniform production unit. We use big square machinery and we fill that field with a single crop so that when we are drilling, spraying or combining a crop we know that we can treat the entire field in the same way at the same time.
Way too much of our thinking as farmers is driven towards achieving scale and efficiency. We measure each other on the amount of land we manage and on the size of the machines that we drive. We try to manage our costs of production by spreading our machinery over ever bigger areas to increase our efficiency. But our focus on scale necessitates sacrifices and the sacrifice that we have chosen to make as farmers, whether consciously or unconsciously is accuracy.
None of the machinery that we use on farms today has been designed to be as accurate as possible - it has been designed to be as fast possible, to cover as much ground as possible. And the big square fields containing their monocultures are the price that we have decided to pay.
However, in the wake of technology being developed by Small Robot Company and others, it is possible that the most productive farms of the future will look completely different to farms of our recent past.
We are developing technology which will enable us to move away from thinking about the field as our management unit and enable us to move towards thinking about the individual plant as our management unit.
Small Robot Company is developing technology which will enable us to re-design our countryside. Our three small robots (Tom, Dick and Harry) will enable us to move away from thinking about the field as our management unit, and enable us to move towards thinking about the individual plant as our management unit.
We are aiming to digitise the soil by analysing every square metre in a field. We are aiming to place an individual seed in the ground (Harry) and then monitor the development
of that seed as it grows into a plant (Tom), whilst caring for it with as few inputs as possible and as much accuracy as possible throughout its life cycle (Dick).
If we are able to care for an individual plant up to the point of harvest, then the next logical step is to harvest a field on a plant by plant basis. The combine harvester is the ultimate averager in farming. As farmers, we look at a field and say; “Well, on average, this field is ready to harvest. So let’s harvest!”
What if we designed something different? If we know the exact location of an individual plant in a field and we can identify when that plant is ready to harvest, suddenly an entirely new way of farming becomes possible.
We could have multiple commercial crops within the same field, immediately making the field more productive. We could design our cropping system in way that made the best use of the available nutrients in the soil, with nitrogen fixing plants growing alongside the plants that require more nitrogen. If we have parts of our field which are always less productive, we could put a non commercial crop in there, such as a mix of plants which thrive in poorly drained soil or plants which are particularly beneficial to pollinators mixed into the commercial crop.
If we had this mix of crops growing in our arable fields it would immediately reduce the amount of sprays required because it would be much more difficult for disease to take hold in a crop. If we reduced the amount sprays, it would in turn increase the number of beneficial predators in fields, which would in turn reduce the number of pests and a virtuous cycle becomes apparent.
Currently, we do not do any of this because it would make the machinery inefficient.
What about all of those fields which are currently not productive, such as fields on a steep bank or fields that are an awkward shape or fields that are the end of a bumpy track and have poor access. We don’t grow crops on any of these fields at the moment. Why? Not because the soil is inherently useless but because it makes the machinery inefficient.
Pause for a moment and think about the consequences of this ambition for farming....
If we change the machinery that we use on our farms, we are able; as a direct consequence, to completely re-design the way our countryside looks and the way it feels. We can move away from a system in which farms tend to maximise either productivity or environmental outcomes and move towards a system which allows them to achieve both.
This is why I believe that Digitisation, enabled by new hardware and software in the form of robotics and AI, provides the possibility for a better future for food and farming.
I’d love to hear from you as to how you believe Digitisation could change farming - please do leave me a comment and share your own thoughts on this.