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Food, Farming and Nature Conservation consensus at Groundswell

Agri-TechE Article
Rothamsted Research Rothamsted Research

“Producing for food, nature and climate” was the phrase frequently used by Janet Hughes of Defra as she gave a pragmatic presentation to a packed tent at Groundswell 2023. Once a fringe event, the topics discussed at the regenerative agriculture festival have become increasingly mainstream with a greater consensus growing over key issues.

Flex and adapt approach

Janet was keen to reassure farmers, and others in the Big Top, that a less prescriptive approach will be adopted with the new Environment Land Management schemes (ELMs) – offering greater flexibility to pick and mix and to create a tailored scheme that works for the farm.

In particular, she talked about the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, reiterating that this is to continue since its improvement through farmer input, and is now considered efficient. Defra aims to deliver its outcomes through this scheme.

For the Sustainable Farming Incentive, the learning points from over 4000 farm trials are being incorporated to expand the scope. The standards will not be ‘bundled’ as first devised but instead offered as a portfolio for farmers and their advisers to select from.

Janet Hughes, Defra
Janet Hughes, Defra

She says: “We are testing and learning as we go, balancing the need for ‘certainty’ that farmers require for planning with a ‘flex and adapt’ approach to make the schemes good and fit for purpose.” Her vision is to develop a farming system with feedback loops that deliver productivity and prosperity while delivering on food production and the environment.

She reassured the audience that 530 schemes had been accepted for the higher tier Countryside Stewardship and the standard had been good. There are plans to increase access and also to offer a hybrid approach to allow smaller projects within a wider mid tier scheme to be eligible for support under the higher tier.

She also acknowledged that there was a plethora of grants and schemes and Defra is looking at ways to make it easier to find the relevant support and make an application.

Growing consensus

The next session looked at how there is a growing consensus over the direction of travel for farming.

The Food, Farming and Nature Consensus had evolved from discussions at the Oxford Farming Conference, it aims to bring all stakeholders together to find common ground to tackle systemic issues.

All signatories to the pledge agreed upon three shared principles:

  1. A healthy natural environment underpins food security.
  2. Farming has a vital role in producing food but also in tackling the nature, climate and health crises.
  3. Diversity in all its forms will enable resilience and innovation in the face of growing economic and environmental challenges.

Helen Browning, Katie Lo Luxton, Lord Benyon, Stuart Roberts
Helen Browning, Katie-Jo Luxton, Lord Benyon, Daniel Zeichner, Stuart Roberts

After a scene-setting by Katie-Jo Luxton, RSPB Director for Global Conservation, three political figures – Rt Hon Lord Benyon (Con), Daniel Zeichner MP (Lab) and Stuart Roberts (Lib Dem) – gave their views of the way forward. Again, there was a consensus, with the panel reassuring those in the room that whatever the outcome in the general election, the road towards Net Zero will accelerate not deviate.

Measure to manage

Daniel discussed the importance of establishing baselines for measuring progress and to ensure that the community is doing the right things in the best way. He stressed the importance of a Land Use Framework that would build consensus on how land use is optimised.

The panel also discussed the need for trade deals that did not allow UK farmers striving for high standards in animal welfare and environmental stewardship to be undercut by overseas competitors operating in a less regulated landscape.

A number of Agri-TechE members were exhibiting at Groundswell, including:

Rothamsted Research encouraged visitors to test the ‘Cow Burpometer’ to understand more about methane emissions.
On the Barenbrug display plots there was an opportunity to see grass, forage and herbal leys.
NIAB’s trial plots demonstrated a range of novel crops that could support diversification.
Hutchinsons soil pit demonstrated clearly how shallow the top soil is on this part of the farm. Soil and cost mapping provides support for decision-making.
Groundswell 2023

Smart farming technology to tackle black-grass problem

Agri-TechE Article

An innovative project for black-grass control that aims to use precision farming technology, sensors and AI  xarvio Field Managerto deliver a smart sprayer for targeted applications has gained funding from the Farming Innovation Programme – Small R&D Partnership Projects. The collaboration will include Agri-TechE members BASF Digital Farming and Rothamsted Research along with experts from Bosch and Chafer Machinery.

Black-grass economically damaging

Black-grass (Alopecurus myosuroides) is a weed that inhibits the growth of wheat crop, reducing its yield and therefore damaging the productivity of farms.

It is threatening the sustainability of UK cereal production.

David Comont from Rothamsted Research said: “Black-grass has become the UK’s most pressing weed problem, resulting in considerable wheat yield losses annually and causing ever-increasing herbicide use as farmers attempt to control this species.”

It is estimated that the weed is responsible for annual wheat losses of up to 800,000 tons, with associated economic losses of approximately £400 million.

Using the Bosch Smart Spraying camera technology and software, Chafer will design innovative boom sprayers to detect, identify and map black-grass at different growth stages within cereal crops across a farm. The smart sprayer technology will be tested on commercial farms selected from the Rothamsted Black-Grass Research Initiative (BGRI).

Agronomists from Rothamsted will label the images and will support Bosch in training algorithms to recognise black-grass in cereal crops. This information is then processed and analysed by BASF Digital Farming and delivered to its advanced xarvio Digital Farming Solutions crop optimization platform.

In the platform, the information will be used to map infield populations to support the development of integrated weed management plans for targeted black-grass control.

Additionally, beside a superior performance in black-grass control, the project could result in reduced herbicide volumes sprayed in-field. This would minimise unintended direct consequences on other organisms and reduce the potential for leaching into other vulnerable ecosystems, such as waterways.

Daniel Ebersold, Head of Digital Farming Project House (Smart Machinery) at BASF Digital Farming, said: “Developing “smarter” systems which can automatically monitor and more precisely spray this weed has the potential to maximise control, whilst reducing both herbicide use and costs to farmers.

“By working together on this important project our shared aim is to find an innovative solution that will measurably reduce the impact of black-grass infestation over time.”

More about BASF and Rothamsted Research.

ATW22: Wednesday: Data in Agriculture

Agri-TechE Article

Benjamin Turner, Georgia Mitrousia, Sam Cook, David Comont, Paul Harris (Front)

“Data, data, everywhere, and so many bytes to chew.” Fresh insights into the use of data in agriculture was the topic of the day at this Agri-Tech Week 2022 event, hosted by Rothamsted Research. From automated identification of flying insects, use of AI to map and control blackgrass, field-edge yield decisions and farm digital twins, it’s clear that the world needs a new, better relationship with data for agriculture.

From description to prescription

“The ‘Sense-Plan-Act’ cycle which drives current data-driven thinking on farms can only lead to incremental improvements, as it based on hindsight” commented Benjamin Turner, Agrimetrics COO, in his opening scene-setting talk. Transitioning from descriptive (what happened?) through diagnostic (why did it happen?), to predictive (what will happen?) and finally to the Holy Grail of prescriptive (what should I do?) is, as Benjamin explained, increasingly difficult and expensive.

But not impossible. And increasingly necessary to harness the opportunities of new value propositions, new business models and making data “AI-ready.” It also relies on sound data stewardship to underpin integration of big data sets.

The rewards are worth the effort.

“Digital twins”, explained Rothamsted’s Paul Harris (who is building a twin of the North Wyke farm research facility in Devon), “are typified by being updated in real-time – so need as much data from sensors being delivered via IOT-powered solutions as possible.”

With over 76 million data measurements so far informing the development of the twin, the 12 years of data gathering are providing a wealth of real-time dynamically updated sets.

Sam Cook talks about flea beetle

You don’t get much more dynamic than flying insects, and Rothamsted’s Sam Cook leads the Integrated Pest Management work, focussing on pest control in oil seed rape. “Wingbeat frequency, head-to-body ratio, flight speed and the degree of melanisation (or blackness) are all parameters we can use to identify insects in the field,” she explained.

Sam has used the data to create a library of known insect species, then deployed machine learning to create algorithms to identify individual species. With 80 – 95 % accuracy in identifying pollen beetles, pod midge and flea beetles, one of the biggest challenges is checking the insects are really flying across the camera beam, rather than simply capturing them mid-jump…..

Weed pests are also targets of AI-driven mapping and targeting, as Rothamsted ecologist David Comont explained, using image automation from drone imagery to rapidly scale up the potential to monitor and manage blackgrass. “We shouldn’t rely on trained human-powered field surveys in future” he commented “Neural networks can recognise weeds using image segmentation for every pixel of a drone image, and use this to inform a “smart sprayer” capable of automatically detecting and spraying weeds patches and event individual weeds.”

So the pests have been eliminated, the weeds have been sprayed – but what about the decline in yield at the field-edges? The “EcoStack” project is integrating data sets from 59 farms across 19 crops from 13 countries around yields management schemes, crop type, local environment and landscape features. Project Manager Helen Metcalfe is part of the team aiming to “stack” the data sets to learn more about the “Edge Effects.”

The talks were topped off with a workshop around the so-called “10 Vs” of big data.

Hold on…….ten?!

V is for…vagueness!

For those still getting to grips with the 5 “Vs” – velocity, volume, value, variety and veracity – when considering data management, it came as a bit of a shock to discover there are 5 more. Particularly as no-one has truly can claim to have got to grips with the Big Five so far. The new ones to tax our brains are:

  • Variability – is the data source dynamic and evolving, is it time-bound or seasonal, or does it have other types of non-static behaviour?
  • Venue – Are data sources from multiple platforms, multiple owners with different access and formatting needs – should this sit in public or private cloud systems?
  • Vocabulary – how to describe the structure, content, provenance concepts and models across an agreed language
  • Validity – Linked to veracity, this is the need for quality governance, and robust systems for master data management.
  • Vagueness – Still the term “big data” is used without an agreement understand of what this means, and around overall developments around the field.

As Benjamin Turner said – “It’s time for “Data Sharing 2.0” – which fuels technological advances over the next 30 years, leading to system level change.”

Rothamsted Enterprises, at the Harpenden campus, provides support for early-stage companies, some of whom have been spun-out from research by the institute. It has for several years sponsored the Start-Up Showcase at the REAP conference also taking place in Agri-Tech Week.

More about Rothamsted Research

ATW Logo 2022

Agri-Tech Week is a partnership initiative founded in 2014 by Agri-TechE with the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association. The week features a mix of in-person and virtual events that are designed to showcase exciting developments in agri-tech. It is coordinated by Agri-TechE working closely with partners across the innovation ecosystem and aims to provide opportunities to attract new customers and partners and to broker collaborations and international connections.

Making sense of agriculture – has digital twin technology come of age?

Agri-TechE Article

Combining economic data with inputs from agri-environmental sensors in a digital twin will enable producers to model ‘what if?’ scenarios, reducing risk and increasing reward – farmers will discuss at REAP.

Seeing the impact of change in an agricultural system takes time. So digital models that replicate the real world but that can be used to answer, ‘what if?’ questions would potentially reduce the risks and accelerate the adoption of improved strategies. The evolving technology to support these ‘digital twins’ is to be discussed at the Agri-TechE REAP conference ‘Making Sense of Agriculture’ on the 8th November 2022.

Understanding the farm from multi-dimensions

Belinda Clarke, Director
Belinda Clarke, Agri-TechE

Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE, comments: “Progressive farmers in our membership, want to use their data for smart decision support and to increase automation on-farm.

“The technology to create digital twins for farms, models that show in multiple dimensions the environmental impacts, how the system works, business revenues and nutrient flows – and, crucially, where everything is located – are fast becoming a reality, but there are still technology hurdles and gaps.

“Universal internet connectivity and interoperability are among the big ones, but there is also the matter of human interpretation of the models by those who know and understand the land and livestock. It is vital that the technology is farmer-centric.”

Digital vineyard accelerates onboarding

Ian Beecher-Jones
Ian Beecher-Jones, JoJo’s Vineyard

Ian Beecher-Jones of JoJo’s Vineyard is a speaker at the event and an early adopter of precision agriculture. His background is from a broadacre perspective, so when he started to plant up the vineyard about four years ago, he was keen to introduce automation.

He explains: “A number of tasks, especially mowing and under vine management, are very labour intensive. However, to enable automation there is a need to digitise the vineyard accurately and correctly and make a representation that is shareable, so that whoever we are working with – drone, robot or satellite providers – can access the digital infrastructure of the vineyard.

“Without this infrastructure model, every time a new technology is introduced, or a grower wants to introduce new software to the vineyard, they need to survey it to get successfully onboarded.”

This time-consuming process is a major obstacle to on-farm adoption of technology and Ian is looking to launch a ‘digital vineyard’ later in the year to provide a testbed for different robotic and sensor technologies.

Agri-Tech attracting interest from Amazon, Microsoft and Google

Elizabeth Fastiggi, AWS
Elizabeth Fastiggi, AWS

The increasing interest of non-traditional players, such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google, in agri-tech is an indication of the change of pace of innovation. Elizabeth Fastiggi, Head of Worldwide Business Development for Agriculture at Amazon Web Services (AWS), is the keynote speaker at REAP 2022. She sees automation as playing an increasingly important role in agriculture, especially with broader adoption of robotics and computer vision.

Commercial per plant farming service

A good example of this trend is Small Robot Company, which is rolling out its ‘per-plant’ farming service commercially, just five years after it first debuted its concept in the REAP Start-up Showcase. The precision farming technology is being adopted by farmers keen to reduce inputs and environmental impacts.

Sam Watson, co-founder of Small Robot Company, comments: “Very soon it will be unusual for a farmer to take any decision on their farm without the support of AI, and for a farmer to apply a blanket application of anything in their field.”

More than just data

Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith, Scientific Technologies

Matthew Smith of Scientific Technologies agrees. His company is developing a software platform to capture multiple types of data to enable businesses to identify their best course of action in order to meet the demand for more food, while transforming to more sustainable production. He comments: “It is much more than just data; there are gaps in proper intelligence about what the agricultural system is doing and how it might change. This requires knowledge of how the systems work, for example soil biology and physics.”

The Smart Agri-Systems initiative at the University of Leeds aims to build this understanding. It is applying the Internet-of-Things (IoT) concept to agri-environmental monitoring, generating data on soil chemical, physical and biological variables, and also on climate and vegetation.

REAP speaker Dr Marcelo Valadares Galdos, a Soil Carbon Specialist and climate scientist, now at Rothamsted Research, was involved in the smart farm initiative, creating agricultural digital twins and agri-environmental sensor networks for decision support. This has included experimenting with novel sensors and use of robotics for soil monitoring.

Marcelo Valdares Galdos
Marcelo Valdares Galdos, Rothamsted Research

He explains: “For the last several decades we have been applying computer representations of crops and soils for scientific research. Now, by combining climate projections with information on land use and agricultural management practices, we can develop ‘what if?’ scenarios, which are useful to identify ‘climate-smart’ options that contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

“One of the advantages of this approach is to see ‘what could I do to improve the sustainability in my specific farm or region with my microclimate and my soil type?’

Even more interesting when you add economics

“I think the most interesting approach is when you include economics as well – input costs, commodity prices, environmental externalities and so on. The question then becomes ‘What could I do in an economically viable way to become more sustainable?’”

“The idea of digital twins encompasses the workflow of the data, from collection and analysis through to visualisation and its presentation on a dashboard of real-time data with actionable insights.”

Still need the innovative human

Others argue that the parallel need to be addressed is closer involvement between human experts and AI. Casey Woodward is founder of Agrisound, which is developing a precision pollination service for farmers by using technology that listens to insects. He comments that there is a gap between ‘big data’ and ‘big insights’.

“Interpretation of the data can be delivered through increasingly complex algorithms and models, but creating trust in these models to take financially risky decisions is very difficult.

“Human intervention will still be required to translate data from sensors and provide recommendations that can be actioned.”

The discussion continues at REAP.

REAP 2022: Making Sense of Agriculture, digital twinREAP 2022: ‘Making Sense of Agriculture’ – Tuesday 8th November 2022 

From yield mapping and precision livestock through to digital twins and cloud computing, at REAP 2022 we will be exploring the technology and looking at the implications from a field to landscape level. Making technology farm-centric is core to Agri-TechE’s mission so a key feature of the conference will be a panel of farmers and producers discussing the emerging technologies and future scenarios.

From Pharma to Farmer: open innovation in agri-tech

Agri-TechE Blog

The pharmaceutical industry has taken an open approach to innovation for many years now – looking outwards, beyond the boundaries of the company (or even the industry)– bringing with it new ideas, technologies and information.

Lawes Open Innovation Hub at RothamstedThis month we’ve been thinking about how open innovation can benefit agri-tech thanks to inspiration from recent events run by two of our members: (more…)