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ATW23: Explore first-hand how technology is at the root of vegetable consumption

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

What goes into producing a parsnip for your Christmas dinner plate? Thursday’s Agri-Tech Week event, hosted by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, took us to Frederick Hiam in Suffolk to find out how our favourite festive roots and staple cereals are produced and processed.

The event attracted a hoard of farmers eager to discover more about Hiam’s robotics and automation. Hiam has implemented these technologies in the past few years to make their business increasingly resilient.

Robotti

The day began with an introduction by Jamie Lockhart, Managing Director, who provided the group with insights into the long-established business and its partnerships. We then split into groups to explore the factory.

Jamie and his colleagues gave us incredible detail into their journey of adoption – what has worked, what has been a challenge, and what they have learnt along the way. A few key themes stood out…

Strength in numbers: the mutual gains of collaborative partnerships

The tour featured some of the different businesses that Hiam are working with, including Select Software, Vegetable Consultancy Services and Autonomous Agri Solutions.

It was clear that the strong working relationship between the growers and tech partners has accelerated innovation at Hiam. Despite initial risks and efforts, the collaboration allows Jamie’s team direct input, shaping technology development according to their needs – creating almost bespoke solutions – without sacrificing usability.

Collaboration also helps spread the risk between businesses – distributing potential challenges while capitalising on the diverse knowledge and expertise contributed by each party involved. The significance of partnerships becomes evident in the realisation that collaborating with neighbouring companies, those in disparate sectors, or even potential rivals, can yield substantial benefits for all involved.

There is certainly strength in synergy!

Vegetable Consultancy Services
Frederick Hiam

Diversifying beyond the norm: maximizing farm productivity and minimizing waste at Hiam

Farm diversification often conjures images of glamping huts or event spaces, however diversification opportunities go well beyond this – as Hiam has discovered.

As well as their own produce, Hiam has the capacity to process crops from other growers, for a fee. They have also created flexible processing systems so that they can package products in a variety of ways to suit the needs of each individual retailer.

Secondly, they have expanded their own on-farm electricity production, which helps mitigate energy price volatility.

Hiam has also diversified by finding new ways to monetise what has traditionally been thought of as ‘waste’.

To achieve this, Hiam is taking a two-pronged approach: they’re producing less ‘waste’ in the first place by having accurate grading systems that ensure only the wonkiest of wonky vege is actually discarded. They’re also working with a variety of food manufacturers with different needs so that “wonky” vege is used more economically such as in producing soups and cooked meals.

In these ways, on-farm waste is reduced, and more of the crops are put to effective – and economic – use.

Looking ahead: future proofing and continuous improvement

A big project involved investing in digital infrastructure across the whole site. By getting the foundations right, Hiam is future-proofing the business.

It’s also enabling upgrades to old systems so they can integrate with the new platform – rather than buying new, expensive bits of kit that might not work quite as they need to. One centralised system will be simpler and more efficient to manage, and it removes some of the administrative hassle of coordinating with multiple suppliers.

Hiam has utilised recent government grants to de-risk investments and explore new research projects to better improve their product.

They have projected costs for labour (assuming they can even source adequate workforces), which has allowed them to calculate their ROI to replace with automated lines. Perhaps most importantly, Jamie has kept on top of what is happening in the business, and how that fits with wider trends.

Jamie Lockhart
Jamie Lockhart, Frederick Hiam

Whilst it is difficult in the busy ‘day-to-day’ to take time to reflect on how the business is doing and what challenges we might face in the next five years, it is clearly time well spent to help mitigate or even eliminate risks.

One thing is for sure – I will be enjoying my Christmas parsnips even more now I understand just what it takes to get it onto my plate!