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The big four from the OFC 2024

Agri-TechE Blog
Agri-TechE

At Agritechnica, Microsoft reassured us that data interoperability is a challenge seen across all industries. Discussions at the Oxford Farming Conference reminded us that many of the issues faced in agriculture aren’t unique to our industry, but rather are symptoms of wider trends.

Four key themes emerged during the conference, this month our blog considers how universal these are, if agriculture’s problems are reflected in a macro context and how we can learn from them.

Limited routes to market

The conference launched with a report on the state of the UK supply chain, which relies on a handful of retailers marketing 95% of our produce. Whilst undeniably a challenge, monopolies of trade are seen across other sectors and markets from Amazon to pharmaceuticals.

An interesting opportunity discussed at the OFC is how this status quo can be challenged through business diversification.

Presentations featured inspiring stories – such as Hill Farm in Cumbria developing a chain of ethical service stations, Jimmy Shanks transforming his dairy farm waste to energy – establishing Scotland’s indoor-grown tomato industry, and Warner’s Distillery adding value through processing.

Providing opportunities for consumers to shop outside the big retailers, that provide alternative customer experiences, offer new routes to market for the courageous entrepreneur!

Jim Shanks, from Standhill Farm, image courtesy of OFC

The price of sustainability

It’s no surprise that, like everywhere else, sustainability took centre stage.

Prof David Hughes emphasised the inevitability of “greening” for the industry, a sentiment echoed across other sectors faced by the ‘go green or go broke’ reality.

But sustainability and profit needn’t be pitched against one another.

UPS’s AI delivery route optimisation technology reduced their carbon footprint by the equivalent of 20,000 cars annually – to the tune of $200m USD savings per year.

Alternatively, costs can be passed up the chain. There is a misconception that consumers won’t pay extra for more ethical or sustainable products, but this tide seems to be changing, particularly among certain demographics.

Consumers want value – not to be confused with cheap – which British producers are well-positioned to fulfill, as Prof Hughes highlighted, the majority of UK citizens feel positive towards British Agriculture.

For those still unconvinced, with Defra offering grants to farmers to adopt new technologies and renewable energy sources (with hopes the Sustainable Farming Incentive will have reached 70% of farmers by 2028) now is the time to embrace change, when the financial risk is reduced.

Public perception of agriculture

Many felt that agriculture is vilified by the media for their – apparently disproportionate – impact on emissions. Controversial headlines seem to dominate, fuelling an uphill battle for change.

Fortunately, agriculture has a unique advantage over other industries.

Food.

Through compelling visuals of UK production, sharing inspiring farming stories, and highlighting our role in supporting nature and biodiversity, we have a real opportunity to positively reshape the farming narrative for the better.

At the conference, NFU President Minette Batters reminded us how the ‘Feed the Nation’ campaign during the pandemic saw an outpouring of support for British farmers – we should harness that momentum!

Attracting new talent to the workforce

A big question at the OFC was: how can be bring more people into agriculture?

Recruitment across the board has become more challenging for both employers and job seekers, but most industries are short on staff and struggling to attract new entrants.

Agriculture is no different, yet it comes with the added challenges of succession concerns – the perception that farming is reserved solely for farming families with inherited land.

However, agriculture boasts two distinctive strengths over other sectors – it’s an outdoor profession offering hands-on roles with opportunities for innovation and technological advancement. Plus, it fulfils a crucial role in feeding the nation and contributing to the greater good.

As well as attracting young talent, agriculture enables career changes for experienced professionals with highly sought-after skills, from engineering to data science to effective administration. As the theme of the conference suggested, diversity in the industry can only help make it stronger and more resilient.

OFC Chairman, Will Evans. Image courtesy of the OFC.

The general sentiment was one of empowerment, with the industry itself keen to lead the charge and take control of the direction of travel. And with a real willingness to enable the industry to become more diverse, the Oxford Farming Conference was certainly an inspiring and positive start to 2024.

We might have similar challenges to those faced by other industries which we can learn from, but we can also showcase how innovation and technology can give us effective solutions.

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Following the OFC, we reviewed the findings of the report ‘Is the UK Food Supply Chain Broken’ and the opportunities for agri-tech to provide a way forward.