Farms of the future: Colchester farmer looks into his crystal ball
- Credit: Su Anderson
I have been asked to gaze into my crystal ball – to try and imagine where agriculture may be in the mid 2020s and where I would like it to be. Being an arable farmer I will focus on combinable cropping and the environment rather than looking into the livestock, poultry and horticultural sectors.
I think it is difficult to comprehend the technological changes that we are likely to see over the next decade. Exactly when these will come to fruition I’m not sure but they will certainly change the farming landscape. The changes over the past decade, with GPS autosteer on machinery, automatic set-up of combines, sensors to redistribute fertiliser where it is required and precision soil analysis to make better use of our applied nutrients, seem like big advances but I think these will pale into insignificance compared to the new technologies that are coming.
One of the really big challenges facing agriculture at the moment is the slowdown in the pipeline of new plant protection products and the mounting pressure on the agrochemicals that we do have access to from a very vociferous minority of people. However to maintain food security, not just for the UK but for the growing world population, it is paramount that we maintain access to these products and more importantly that we have new products being registered to overcome the threat of resistance. The reason I mention this here is that the new technologies that are on the horizon are going to massively reduce the amount of chemical that is used, in many cases by 80-90%, but it will still be required. We will have real-time sensors in the field that can assess the disease pressure according to localised weather conditions and humidity so that spray timings will be much better targeted. We will have robots riding around the fields in an automated fashion that will be able to identify the difference between the crop and the weed and will be able to destroy the weeds with lasers. You can imagine a swarm of these solar charged robots with field boundaries mapped into their software that are roaming around the field working day and night.
Sensors will be fitted to the spray nozzles that very accurately target the use of herbicides to exactly where they are required.
Last year the UK grew the world’s first ‘hands-free’ hectare at Harper Adams University where a hectare of crop was grown without a human entering the field. This will become the norm in the UK where driverless tractors will be able to navigate up and down the field autonomously carrying out the operations from planting of seeds through to combining. The tractor driver of the future will be an incredibly tech-savvy operator that is able to organise a fleet of machines and has responsibility for programming them to do exactly the job required. Do I seriously think we will have moved that far by 2025? We will be well on the route to autonomy but it will not yet be mainstream.
I mention the environment in my introduction – the generations of the 1950s - 1990s were tasked by government policy, both from the EU and UK, to produce more.
World farming and science and research have risen to that challenge admirably and we should be celebrated for producing enough food in the world to feed 7.5bn people.
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However the realisation of the last 20 years about the impact that these 7.5bn people are having on our planet is going to mean that the challenge for the here and now and future generations is going to be that of really focusing on delivering environmental goods alongside producing food. Natural capital is the current hot topic and soil has never received as much focus as it does currently! Land managers will need to rethink what we can deliver and provided that we are able to profit from environmental delivery I have no problem being judged not just on tonnes/ha on my food producing hectares but also on bees/m of floristically enhanced margin or birds/ha of wild seed mixture.
I genuinely believe that the next decade is going to see technological advance like we have never seen before, it will be an incredibly exciting time for young technologists to be involved in agriculture. This technology will lead to real advances in how efficiently we are able to produce food with less inputs being used.
I believe we will need to recalibrate our minds as to what we are tasked with delivering by government policy and the general public. Food protection and environmental enhancement really do belong side by side and are definitely not mutually exclusive.