How does this agri-tech revolution affect me in the Fens?

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William Martin“I’m not a great mover in those kinds of circles,” says William Martin, referring to his fellow presenters at the upcoming Agri-Tech East REAP Conference on 9 November, with the theme ‘Innovation for an Agricultural Revolution’. “I’m a fairly classic example of somebody who can understand the techniques of precision farming and everything else, but has yet to fully understand how the applications are going to deliver financial rewards in my business.”

William is set to bring a farmer’s perspective to REAP’s Sofa Session (‘Towards a New Agroeconomy’) at the Wellcome Genome Campus Conference Centre in Cambridge. He farms a 1,000-acre family farm in Cambridgeshire, growing combinable crops and sugar beet.

William is chairman of the NFU Sugar Board, which represents the commercial and political interests of over 3000 sugar beet growers in the UK. William explained that sugar beet farmers have been keen to adopt new practices and are open to innovation but that the small profit margins mean that new developments need to be de-risked by other sectors first.

Soil management is a major challenge

I am looking forward to hearing Gary Zimmer’s views on biological agriculture at REAP.

Farmers are facing a challenge when it comes to soil management. Our soil oxidised several years ago; although we are now farming a fairly stable soil, it is not as versatile or forgiving as it once was and the cropping system that we operate seems to be putting a strain on the soil. This raises many questions – is it about different techniques with the same kind of crops, or is it that the cropping we are doing is no longer appropriate? And how much of that is about how much the soil has changed and how much the weather has changed?

I think that some of what is written in the press often infers, ‘if you’d just listen for a moment you’d see the error of your ways’, but it’s not quite as simple as that. This language can put farmers’ backs up and make them less receptive to thinking about change. Sympathetic messaging is important; soil is our most precious asset and we would never do anything wilfully detrimental to its health.

Research paying back in sugar beet

Image: nfuonline.com
Image: nfuonline.com

As for growing sugar beet, there has been a culture change in what we are aspiring to do on the farm.

I think that research is paying back for sugar beet and has improved its resilience as a crop. If you look at yield curve, numbers have continued to increase for sugar beet at a consistent rate over the last 10 to 20 years, whereas other crops have plateaued. This is because there has been a continued investment in sugar beet and a rapid uptake of the research results. This has delivered stronger results than we have seen in other crops.

There has also been quite a sharp focus for on-farm applied research, looking at quite basic technical matters. For example in the past when harvesting we used to chop the tops off the sugar beet and chop some root off with the leaves, but now we aim to recover all of the root material to increase the yield. There is quite a bit of work underway by machinery manufacturers to find new machines to reach this target – it is all about increasing recovered and delivered yield.

Disease control is also strong in sugar beet – over the last 15 years we have adopted the use of fungicides to control the foliage disease in sugar beet, which has given us longer campaigns. The leaves used to go brown and rather dismal through November, whereas now they stay bright green through until January. The sugar beet stays in the ground and continues to grow right through the autumn in a way it never did in the past. That allows photosynthesis to take place while the sunlight is there and the yields have gone up substantially as a result.

Improving profitability

Meeting the demand for a crop profitably is a continuing challenge for farmers; we are usually working from last year’s experience and will respond to the market.

This crop year, people are going to be close to spending more on producing sugar than they earn from it. Until now, sugar beet has remained overall a rewarding crop to grow and I am going to keep growing sugar, but it is an annual decision. If the pricing structure available for the next crop is unappealing, then one must consider alternative options. We have secured an agreement with British Sugar to introduce one year and three year contracts, with market linked bonus elements. This deal will provide farmers with more confidence for the future in a competitive market.

Policy makers can exert influence by the incentives they offer. If money is put into encouraging non-food activities and these become more profitable than food, then the farmers will respond accordingly. The future may be digital…. but not yet. I think there is a bit of a trap that people fall into in using technology for the sake of it, rather than considering the financial benefits.

Image: nfuonline.com
Image: nfuonline.com

Is big data ready?

For some, the data collection aspect can be a bit of a hobby and the enthusiasm for generating data can overwhelm its use, and become a slightly more sophisticated and complicated recording system than a decision aid. There’s a bit of chicken and egg here, because unless we do generate the data we don’t know what the data might be able to tell us. I’ll leave it to people who find it much more exciting than I do, and then in five or ten years’ time when they’ve worked out all the teething problems, I will join them. It is perhaps a bit Luddite of me, but I will let them forge ahead.

 

Will William be convinced that the technology being discussed at REAP  is ready for deployment in agriculture? Come and join the debate at REAP!

 

REAP 2016

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