Reconnecting with the Soil @Groundswellaguk

This week I am speaking at the Groundswell, a great show and conference in the UK which aims to re-focus farmers on their core asset - the soil. Preparing for my speaking slot on the first day of the conference has got me thinking.

On the wall of my office on our farm in Shropshire, there is an old tithe map from the 1840s. I’ve always found old maps and farm history fascinating - it’s amazing to consider where we have come from, and equally amazing to consider where we have ended up.

The tithe map shows our farm as it was 180 years ago and when I first looked at it, I found it difficult to translate the map I was looking at to the farm I know today. I could see the farm house on the same site that it is today, but I couldn’t make sense of the fields.

Eventually, the picture became clear to me and I realised that what used to be around sixty small fields, each individually lined with a hedge, is today two 30 hectare blocks right next to the farm house. As I studied the map more closely I realised that the way the fields had been divided up made sense - there is a clay seam that runs through both fields and these parcels had been divided up. Further up the bank the soil type changes, going more loamy before becoming very sandy at the top, and again the hedgerows reflected the changing soil conditions.

As I pondered on this, it occurred to me that each patch would have been managed individually, possibly by different people. We know that some parts were run by the villagers at the time, and names like “Common Leasowe” indicated which fields these might have been. 

Whoever was in charge of each patch would have had a defined area of soil which they knew intimately - they would have understood the characteristics of the soil, how and when to work it, which crops grew best in which conditions and so on. As the crops grew, they would have checked them every day, learning all the time about what worked and what didn’t. The minute attention to detail must have been incredible. Importantly, the management and cropping of the sandier patches at the top of the field would have been entirely different to the management of the heavier patches at the bottom. 

Then I thought about how we manage it today.

All of the hedges have gone, I am sorry to say - ripped out by my  great-grandfather and grandfather in an effort to increase productivity using machines at a time when the country was desperate for more food post World War Two. What was sixty fields is now just two.

Now we think of those two fields as two uniform production facilities. We still have an understanding of the variation in soil type but, if we are honest, it isn’t fully reflected in our management of the field. There is some variation in seed rate, chemical and fertiliser application but probably in a counter-productive way - where there are patches which are not as good as others, we typically increase our application of inputs to compensate.

Today’s farming system is designed around making the machinery as efficient as possible; it is not designed to make the soil as healthy or as productive as possible. We have decided to have two big, square, 30 hectare fields because it means a quicker job for the sprayer, a quicker job for the combine harvester.

The long term consequences of this are potentially disastrous, not only for the economic future of my family business but also for humanity when the impact is multiplied out over millions of farms around the world.

This is where I think new technology will help to change the way we farm and, in a perverse sort of way, reconnect us with the way we used to do things.

Robotic monitoring systems, gathering data on every single plant and every square metre of soil, will create a truly digital understanding of our field. Artificial Intelligence analysing this digital view will allow us to see, and crucially to understand, the huge variation in soil types which is inherent in all of our fields. Highly accurate in-field action robots will be able to use this AI technology to vary the way that the soil is managed - planting seeds at different rates, or not planting at all, based on a prediction of profitability rather than on hope; treating only the plants that need to be treated and only with the amounts that they need. Ultimately, digital technology will enable us to move away from monocultures in fields to the point at which we are harvesting on a plant by plant basis.

This is where robotics, but probably more significantly where Artificial Intelligence, is leading farming and this is what Small Robot Company is working towards. 

As we release each new piece of technology, I look forward to gradually increasing my connection with the soil around the farmhouse at Howle Manor, and maybe using the Digital Age of farming to re-learn some of the lessons that have been forgotten in the Mechanical Age.

If you would like to learn more about Small Robot Company and our work, and find out ways to get involved, please visit our website - www.smallrobotcompany.com