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Oxford Farming Conference – ‘Is the food supply chain broken?’ report launched

Agri-TechE Article

A collaborative approach is needed to move the UK agri-food industry from “one that survives to one that thrives”.

This is one of the messages emerging from the report ‘Is the UK food supply chain broken?, launched at the Oxford Farming Conference 2024.

The report – which is based on interviews with 40 stakeholders from across the industry – recognises the role that innovation and risk-sharing has played in averting crises over recent years and has made a number of recommendations.

The authors conclude that instead of a ‘cheap food policy’ based on the assumption of abundant imports, future governments could leverage the strengths of the sector and the country’s natural capital and choose to champion UK-grown food for home consumption.

Long term agreements would support innovation

Agri-TechE Director of Communities Becky Dodds has reviewed the issues highlighted by the research and sees opportunities for agri-tech.

Becky comments: “Of particular interest were examples in the report where retailers had entered long term agreements with their suppliers to share risk through cost of production pricing models.

“It is vital, however, that these types of contracts do not penalise improved productivity. Instead, these collaborations could enable joint investment in approaches that will overcome intractable issues in the industry and improve sustainability for the longer term.”

Agri-TechE supports an innovation ecosystem that addresses real-world problems through innovation in technology, production methods and business models. It brings together farmers and growers with tech developers, researchers, and technical and commercial service providers, but greater involvement by the entire value chain would be a gamechanger.

However, despite significant progress being made in the development and adoption of agri-tech, scale-up is still an obstacle. Becky argues that retailers have much to benefit through greater support of emerging technologies.

She says: “Increased co-design and cost-sharing in the development of agri-tech would accelerate the development of commercially viable solutions and meet the needs of the whole supply chain.

“In this way the UK agri-food industry would move forward together, to become independently profitable.”

Review of the OFC report: ‘Is the UK food supply chain broken?’

The report ‘Is the UK food supply chain broken?’ observes the new business landscape of today’s supply chains – with volatility created by geopolitical challenges, unprecedented inflation, increased interest rates, climate change and the cost of living crisis. It recommends everyone responsible for feeding UK consumers to re-think their approach to supply chains before it is too late.

It then identifies a number of factors that have ‘broken’ the supply chain and makes recommendations for industry and policy:

  • Cost of production increasing – labour contributes 50% of costs, and wages increased by 28% between 2022-24. The supply of skilled workers has decreased with migration restrictions.
  • Input costs increasing – fertiliser prices increased by 77.7% from 2021 to 2022 (peak inflation was 200%). The last UK production plant has closed. Energy costs are similarly inflated.
  • Change in retail industry and contracts – the big four (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons) have lost their share of the market (77.4% in 2011 to 64.4% in 2023) to newcomers Aldi and Lidl. This has resulted in a squeeze on margins and change in contracts to long-term fixed price.
  • Audit cost – the average financial cost of an audit is £2,000 – £2,500, and audits can take up to two days to complete. Some producers are audited almost weekly, with one producer saying they had received 190 audits in one year, many of them unannounced.

However, investment in innovation has improved productivity.

The report gives the example of soft fruit production, which has grown in value from £206m in 1996 to £1.5bn today. It credits this expansion to investment by the sector in innovations including varietal development, new growing techniques, and use of technology to extend the growing season from six weeks to six months.

Agri-tech can facilitate change

In many cases agri-tech is part of the solution and it offers potential to change the narrative. To illustrate the opportunities, we have highlighted a few projects from the ecosystem.

B-Hive has collaborated with nationwide potato supplier Branston Ltd and Harper Adams University to improve productivity in potato growing, harvesting and storage.

Precision livestock production – for example Breedr is enabling the production of ‘digital twins’ of real-world cattle that can be traded online, and tools to support more precise delivery to specification. This is improving the value of the contracts for suppliers and the consistency of supply for meat processors.

Price risk management – Stable uses data science to manage risk against price rises. Clients customise a contract to insure themselves against volatile prices and pay-outs are automated.

Diageo sees positive impact of regen agriculture

Meet the Network

Climate-sensitive farming is an important element of Diageo’s sustainability planning. With 30 percent of its Scope 3 emissions coming from agriculture, the beverage company is introducing a number of ambitious regenerative agriculture programmes with its wheat and barley producers to improve resilience and reduce emissions.

Andy Griffiths, Head of Sustainable Procurement at Diageo, is a speaker on the REAP Supply Chain panel, and ahead of the conference we asked him about these projects.

Quantifying the impact of regenerative farming on soil carbon

The first phase of the Scottish programme will focus on approximately 20 farms in three key barley and wheat sourcing regions. It aims to support a reduction in scope 3 carbon-emissions as part of Diageo’s 10-year ESG action plan.

AgriCarbon will help Diageo build the baselines of how much carbon the soil currently holds and track soil carbon changes over time across both geographic contexts, while James Hutton Limited will investigate how regenerative farming practices can improve soil structure, biological activity and water retention rate.

Andy says: “We are still in the early stages of the project in Scotland, we are however leveraging the learnings from our Guinness programme in Ireland to inform this project and using one of our key technical partners, AgriCarbon, to build deeper insight into soil carbon levels and rates of change.

“Many of the GHG emissions benefits from regenerative agriculture come from aspects such as reduced fuel usage and chemical inputs. These can be assessed through farmer reporting and modelling,

“While practice based modelling can be a useful first step in determining soil carbon, we are working with AgriCarbon to conduct physical sampling and analysis of the fields involved.

Andy Griffiths, Diageo

Promising findings

“AgriCarbon’s solution is more cost efficient than traditional soil sampling and analysis, but there is still a need to further reduce costs and the invasive nature of sampling. This will help to scale farmer uptake and assess the performance of different regenerative agriculture interventions, more efficiently.

“Changes in soil carbon can take a number of years to measure confidently and credibly, the measurement processes we are using are enabling us to assess directional comparisons.

“Based on recent assessments, it would appear that the practices deployed by the farmers engaging in this programme are having a positive effect.”

Co-funding farmers to implement regen agriculture

Andy is also involved in the Landscape Enterprise Networks (LENS) model. Its focus is to enable organisations with a dependency on a landscape, to collaborate with farmers and land managers and co-fund regenerative agriculture interventions.

This will support landscape transformation, and is not limited to organisations within the agri-food chain. Others – such as the leisure and hospitality sector – who have a dependency on the landscape, will also be able to collaborate.

He explains: “The LENS model is outcome focussed. It puts farmers, land managers and communities at the centre of decision making, enabling them to identify what they need in order to deliver the outcomes identified by the funders.

“By creating a ‘green commerce’ model, LENS enables funds to flow into and within the landscape and associated communities.

“This approach enables organisations to address the dependencies and impacts they have within their value chains (insetting / within value chain mitigation), in an efficient and scalable manner.

“The East of England programme is a great example of LENs in action and is continuing to grow in scale and impact, providing insights from which the other LENs programmes can leverage.”

REAP 2023 logo

REAP Conference 2023:
Adaptation Through Innovation; Beyond the Comfort Zone

Wednesday 8th November, 9:30 am – 6:30 pm
Rowley Mile Conference Centre, Newmarket

Surviving and thriving under increasingly extreme and unpredictable challenges is the theme of the 2023 REAP conference. To build a productive, profitable and sustainable agri-food industry, we must move away from the comfort zone and become open to the new opportunities that exist when we ‘stretch’.  Be a part of that future – bring yourself and your ideas to REAP.

REAPing the benefits of supply chain insights

Meet the Network

Unpredictable disruptions have challenged the agri-food chain over recent months, but it has shown amazing resilience. The Supply Chain panel at REAP 2023 will hear how AM Fresh Group, Diageo and Tesco are applying innovation to help mitigate climate related risk and improve sustainability. This will include a discussion of the opportunities being created for producers and agri-tech to support them.

New legislation  – Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures –  has come into effect this year, and that is driving the journey to Net Zero from the top of the supply chain. This global move towards sustainability is evident from projects initiated by the speakers on the panel, with reporting on their websites aligned to the requirements of TCFD.


The Supply Chain Panel at REAP 2023

Naomi Pendleton

Naomi Pendleton
Group Sustainability Director at AM Fresh Group

AM Fresh Group is an international organisation that works with partners across a vertically-integrated supply chain specialising in citrus, table grapes, tropical fruits and superfoods. 

The company uses the best traditional breeding practices with advanced biotechnology to develop new varieties of grapes, citrus and other high value fruits. It has a portfolio of patented varieties and supports a programme of continuous innovation supported by customer insights. 

The company has a successful program to reduce waste in its citrus chain and Naomi reported on a pilot project with black soldier flies at an Agri-TechE meeting. Naomi says: “Between our two fresh produce manufacturing sites, we generate 5000 tonnes of food waste each year, which represents approximately 1.6% of our throughput. We started our relationship with AgriGrub in 2019 at their pilot site in Hasse Fen with a mission to be zero food waste by 2025.”

Andy Griffiths

Andy Griffiths
Head of Sustainable Procurement at Diageo

Diageo is a global leader in beverage alcohol with a collection of brands across spirits and beer including Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Baileys, Captain Morgan, Tanqueray, and Guinness.

Like many organisations, Scope 3 makes up a high proportion of the total emissions for Diageo. These come in part from the production and processing of their raw materials, such as barley, wheat, rye and dairy, and contribute almost a third of Diageo’s total value chain footprint.

Through its ‘Grain to Glass’ sustainability programme, the company is taking action to mitigate climate related risks in a data-led and systemic way. It is supporting farmers to transition to regenerative agriculture and to improve the resilience of farmers’ livelihoods to climate change. The aim is to use the analysis to identify opportunities for improvement on-farm, so the company can focus efforts where it will make the biggest positive impact.

One of these projects is in Ireland which aims to reduce carbon emissions of barley used to brew Guinness. Another is a collaboration with growers in Scotland to gather on-farm data, which together with satellite imagery and AI-informed predictive analytics, will improve baseline carbon footprint data and provide insights into other on-farm environmental metrics.

Peter Illman, Tesco

Peter Illman
Sustainable Agriculture Manager at Tesco

Peter takes responsibility for delivery of the sustainable agriculture strategy within fresh produce, and has led the UK’s largest-ever commercial rollout of low-carbon fertiliser, which has won high praise from the industry.

Tesco has made a commitment to halve the environmental impact of the average shopping basket by 2030. Peter comments: “Part of our responsibility to consumers is that by adapting, learning and investing, we aim to guarantee both a secure supply of affordable, fresh food, and a healthy, thriving food system.

Following the success of its pilot, the company has recently announced that it will extend its trial of eight market-ready low-carbon fertilisers manufactured from food waste, chicken litter and algae. The aim was to determine the most eco-friendly and cost-effective alternatives to conventional fertiliser. Initial results found the alternatives were just as effective as conventional fertilisers while slashing emissions by up to 50%, with no extra cost to farmers.

The session will be chaired by:

Jon Williams, BASF

Jon Williams
Public and Governmental Affairs Manager – Agricultural Solutions, UK and Ireland at BASF

As a leading company in the crop protection industry, BASF has a broad portfolio of fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, seed treatments and pest control products. In addition, it also provides biological crop protection products and solutions for improving plant health as well as nutrient management in the soil.

BASF is currently running a number of trials with farmers to investigate ways to optimise nutrient use in the field and to measure and monitor environmental variables.

REAP 2023 logo

REAP Conference 2023:
Adaptation Through Innovation; Beyond the Comfort Zone

Wednesday 8th November, 9:30 am – 6:30 pm
Rowley Mile Conference Centre, Newmarket

Surviving and thriving under increasingly extreme and unpredictable challenges is the theme of the 2023 REAP conference. To build a productive, profitable and sustainable agri-food industry, we must move away from the comfort zone and become open to the new opportunities that exist when we ‘stretch’.  Be a part of that future – bring yourself and your ideas to REAP.

How accessing science is accelerating innovation at G’s

Agri-TechE Article
Meet the Network

Investing in a network of connections is the way that G’s is accessing science, explains James Green, the Group Director of Agriculture.

James is chairing the Emerging Agri-Tech session at REAP 2023, when he will be having a series of short chats with some of the UK’s leading agricultural researchers.

Science relevant to G’s

James explains the importance of science to his farming business: “The connections we seek out are those that broadly fit with what we are trying to achieve on-farm – such as regenerative agriculture, improving the soil microbiome, smart water management, better crop prediction, automation – but we also want to keep an open mind, because we are looking for fresh thinking and you don’t know what will come from left field that may be useful and perhaps disruptive.

James Green, G's Fresh
James Green, Group Director of Agriculture for G’s

“Not every meeting will lead somewhere, but someone from outside the business will have different perspectives that are of interest.”

Importance of the innovation ecosystem

James continues: We keep in touch with the academic community, talk to consultants and other businesses, and participate in networking organisations like Agri-TechE and grower association R&D panels.”

It was at an Agri-TechE meeting that G’s met Microsoft – and this developed into a project that now enables an accurate forecast of when a crop of iceberg lettuces is ready to harvest and signal the potential opportunity for interventions to speed up maturity if required. This led onto the use of ‘eye in the sky’ technology first to count the heads, and this year to plant-by-plant nutrition to increase consistency in the crop, thereby saving resources and improving quality.

James continues, “It is particularly important for G’s to network and share resources, because the type of equipment we need is specialised. Not many organisations need a harvester designed to pick Romaine lettuces, so we need to look internationally and work with other partners to spread the costs of innovation.”

Agri-TechE members lettuce harvesting at G's. Accessing science is important to the grower
Agri-TechE members lettuce harvesting at G’s during a members’ event

Accessing science through dialogue

In-house, G’s has dedicated teams focussed on agronomy R&D, digital ag and data science. It has a future farming team spearheading its move into regenerative agriculture, that is actively talking to experts researching ways to improve soil health.

James continues: “As we move to low input regen farming then the crop varieties, we are using haven’t been bred for that. However, it could be that there is genetic material out there that has been bypassed, and that would be well-suited to exploiting a more natural soil environment. We are starting to have these types of conversations with seed breeders and academics, who are exploring the potential of self-fertilising crops.”

“Our mantra is to produce more with less – less fuel, less fertiliser, fewer chemicals, less water – even to the extent of using no artificial fertilisers or no chemicals, which is really where we’d like to be in a few years’ time.

“We think that’s feasible, although we don’t yet know exactly how in all areas, which is where the science comes in.

Emerging Agri-Tech Session at REAP 2023

At REAP 2023 James will be asking the ‘so what?’ question to which farmers in the room would want to know the answer, to scientists including:

  • Dr Richard Green Harper Adams University: Grasslands
  • Dr Jolanda van Munster SRUC: Livestock
  • Dr Ewan Gage Cranfield University: Vegetable Nutrition
  • Dr Jacqueline Stroud University of Warwick: Soil
  • Jonathan Ashworth Earlham Institute: Biodiversity
  • Dr Myriam Charpentier John Innes Centre: Crop Traits
  • Dr David Withall Rothamsted Research: Insects
  • Dr Ali Kafash Hoshiar University of Essex: Soft Robotics

“I am really looking forward to chairing this session at REAP and hearing about what is coming over the horizon,” he concludes.

Agri-TechE members lettuce harvesting at G's
Agri-TechE members lettuce harvesting at G’s

REAP 2023 logo

REAP Conference 2023:
Adaptation Through Innovation; Beyond the Comfort Zone

Wednesday 8th November, 9:30 am – 6:30 pm
Rowley Mile Conference Centre, Newmarket

Surviving and thriving under increasingly extreme and unpredictable challenges is the theme of the 2023 REAP conference. To build a productive, profitable and sustainable agri-food industry, we must move away from the comfort zone and become open to the new opportunities that exist when we ‘stretch’. Be a part of that future – bring yourself and your ideas to REAP.

Tesco Sustainable Agriculture Manager to join the discussions at REAP

Agri-TechE Article

Peter Illman, Sustainable Agriculture Manager at Tesco, is supportive of agri-tech innovation. He is responsible for the flagship Tesco Agri T-Jam pitch event, which announced this year’s winner NatureMetrics on 15th September, and he has led the UK’s largest-ever commercial rollout of low-carbon fertiliser, which has won high praise from the industry.

Tesco part of Supply Chain panel at REAP 2023

Peter will be joining Andy Griffiths, Head of Sustainable Procurement at Diageo, and Naomi Pendleton, Group Sustainability Director at AM Fresh, for the Supply Chain Panel at Agri-TechE’s REAP conference. He will discuss the approaches that the retailer is adopting to improve resilience across the industry.

Sustainable supply chains

Tesco has made a commitment to halve the environmental impact of the average shopping basket by 2030.

Peter comments: “Part of our responsibility to consumers is that by adapting, learning and investing, we aim to guarantee both a secure supply of affordable, fresh food, and a healthy, thriving food system.

“We have seen many exciting, innovative companies coming through the Tesco Agri T-Jam, but they need practical support in order to scale; co-development with early adopters is an important element of this.”

Peter takes responsibility for delivery of the sustainable agriculture strategy within fresh produce, working with key stakeholders to deliver net zero, manage pesticides across its global supply base and deliver Tesco’s commitment to LEAF and nature.

Peter Illman
Peter Illman, Sustainable Agriculture Manager at Tesco

Low carbon fertiliser trial with farmers

To support this the company has recently announced that it will extend its trial of eight market-ready low-carbon fertilisers manufactured from food waste, chicken litter and algae.

The aim was to determine the most eco-friendly and cost-effective alternatives to conventional fertiliser.

During the first year of the trial, five suppliers cultivated 1,300 hectares of land using different fertilisers, producing 70,000 tonnes of fresh produce – including lettuces, carrots, and potatoes.

Initial results found the alternatives were just as effective as conventional fertilisers while slashing emissions by up to 50%, with no extra cost to farmers.

Peter is keen to gain the input from farmers, researchers and technologists at REAP.

NatureMetrics winner of 2023 Tesco Agri T-Jam

This year’s Tesco Agri T-Jam pitch event was dominated by innovations which can contribute to Tesco’s aim of building more sustainable supply chains.

NatureMetrics won the 2023 Tesco Agri T-Jam Competition, securing fast-track introductions to the Tesco supplier network, a trial with one of the retailer’s supply chain partners and membership of Agri-TechE.

NatureMetrics won the competition for its innovative solution which measures biodiversity using eDNA analysis of soil, water, and insects. The innovation converts this complex data into simple metrics which can be viewed through its Nature Intelligence Platform, allowing users to comprehensively report on biodiversity improvement in their supply chain.

Companies from the Agri-TechE ecosystem that have previously featured in the T-Jam include:

Francisco Norris of Zelp at REAP 2019
Francisco Norris of Zelp at REAP 2019

The other 2023 Tesco Agri T-Jam finalists were:

Viridian (Angus Middleton) plans the sustainable use of land, using high-tech data modelling to calculate how landscapes are functioning, and then designing ways to manage the whole landscape system to solve local problems.

Flexifarm (from Diometer) (Kevin Gooding) is a cloud-based data integration SaaS platform for farms integrating with 3rd party hardware, software and data with advanced features and analytics. It aims to increase farm productivity, health and safety, and remote systems management.

Map of Ag (Joe Towers) created the “What If” Tool to optimise dairy farming operations and lower emissions by analysing factors like feed types and manure management. The tool offers farmers a customised analysis platform where they can use sliding scales to see their impact.

Bloomfield (Mark DeSantis) provides plant digitisation, providing automated, direct line-of-site pixel-level insection of harvests. Using imaging and AI, the technology allows growers to assess the health and performance of each and every plant, regardless of plant type, location or number.

Laguzze (Laurent Vigouelle) is a fertiliser made from seawater that provides more than 60 trace elements. The fertiliser acts as a natural repellent against all types of insects and pests and offers a significant reduction in fungal diseases.

Yard Stick PBC (Chris Tolles) measures soil carbon, making it possible to quantify carbon stocks on more land and allow more growers to increase their knowledge of their land. The technology is designed for field evaluation of soil carbon stocks and changes.

SMAPPLAB (Donat Posta) provides insect infestation monitoring and forecasting, using AI image recognition to provide actionable insights to growers. The platform offers a simple hectare-based subscription model to increase sustainability and profitability.

Protiomix Ltd (Stephan Jaffe) utilises waste streams generated by food and beverage sectors, converting this into an environmentally sustainable quality, carbon-negative feed and pet food production process.

Sunamp (Ana Amaral) offers a low-carbon solution that can reduce operational costs by running chillers during off-peak time to store energy to be used during peak time. This increases resilience for suppliers by not fully depending on the grid operation.

REAP 2023 logo

REAP Conference 2023:
Adaptation Through Innovation; Beyond the Comfort Zone

Wednesday 8th November, 9:30 am – 6:30 pm
Rowley Mile Conference Centre, Newmarket

Surviving and thriving under increasingly extreme and unpredictable challenges is the theme of the 2023 REAP conference. To build a productive, profitable and sustainable agri-food industry, we must move away from the comfort zone and become open to the new opportunities that exist when we ‘stretch’. Be a part of that future – bring yourself and your ideas to REAP.

Space-tech meets agri-tech as plans for new space cluster are revealed

Agri-TechE Article
Taking agri-tech experiments into space (credit: ESA / NASA)
Lettuce in space (credit: ESA / NASA)

A quiet revolution is happening on the farm: increasingly satellite-enabled technologies are steering tractors, directing the precision application of fertiliser, and mapping plant and soil health. The opportunities created at the intersection between agri-tech and space-tech and the new Space Cluster for Norfolk and Suffolk are to be discussed at an event in January 2023 organised by Agri-TechE in partnership with the New Anglia LEP.

There is expertise within the Agri-TechE cluster in space-tech including Space Cooperative Europe, who recently called for three experiments to take to the International Space Station. 

Entrepreneurs seizing the challenge

Entrepreneurial companies already capturing this opportunity include Agreed, a climate-tech start-up that is building a remote sensing tool to help farmers use more nature and less nitrogen.

Kelly Price, Agreed CEO and Co-founder
Kelly Price, Agreed Earth CEO and Co-founder

Food production is dependent on nitrogen, most of which comes from fossil fuels, but it is estimated that 50% of the nitrogen applied to crops is lost to water as nitrates or into the atmosphere. Agreed is on a mission to improve nitrogen use efficiency.

Kelly Price, co-founder and CEO of Agreed, explains: “Space-tech in the form of satellite data enables us to incorporate observed (actual) data into models at scale to support decision-making. To that end, we’ve received a grant from the European Space Agency to incorporate their satellite data into our model.”

The company’s Chief Technical Officer brings expertise gained from NASA commercialising satellite weather data.

Launch of National Space Strategy driving investment

Agri-tech innovation is to receive a boost from space-tech. Following the launch of the UK National Space Strategy in 2021, The New Anglia LEP led a successful application to the UK Space Agency to establish a Space Cluster for Norfolk and Suffolk.

This will build on existing strengths such as the satellite ground station and quantum cryptography expertise at Adastral Park, advanced materials and engineering at Lotus and Hethel Engineering and climate science, spectral analysis and crop science expertise in the greater Norwich area.

Julian Munson, New Anglia LEP
Julian Munson, New Anglia LEP

Julian Munson of the New Anglia LEP is Chair of the Space Cluster for Norfolk and Suffolk; he comments: “The vision is to grow the space sector and there are significant clusters of activity across the region in sustainable agriculture, crop science, climate change, marine science, offshore wind, transport and logistics that will benefit from this.

“The proposed activity includes developing a regional satellite application hub and regional micro-gravity launch and test facility to enable testing of products in a ‘space environment’. The meeting will be an opportunity to discuss the plans and explore the requirements for the agri-tech sector.”

Call for robust infrastructure for rural connectivity

Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE, says that prediction, decision-support and automation technologies are among those that are building on space-tech. “Over recent years we have seen how innovation at the intersections of different disciplines creates new business opportunities. High-resolution satellite data augmented by drones is enabling early detection changes in crop health and prediction of yield; this type of information is invaluable for risk mitigation, and is just one illustration of the practical applications of space-tech in agriculture.

“However, the success of precision agriculture depends on creating a robust infrastructure for in-field and earth-to-satellite communications and we would see this as a priority for the new Space Cluster.”

Space-tech meets agri-tech on 26th January

The event ‘Space-Tech Meets Agri-Tech’ was held at the Easton Campus of Easton and Otley College at 2pm on Thursday 26th January 2023. Speakers included Luke Ryder of Satellite Applications Catapult, Jodi Bardin of Citicourt and Kelly Price of Agreed. This event was funded by New Anglia LEP’s Connected Innovation project, which was jointly funded by the Norfolk Strategic Fund & Suffolk Inclusive Growth Investment Fund. 

Space East is appearing in the Innovation Hub at the 2023 Royal Norfolk Show.
Read more about the 2023 Innovation Hub >>

Innovation Hub 2023

Howseman Agriculture’s ‘irrigation as a service’ reduces water and waste

Meet the Network

Andrew Howseman and DripUK Irrigation as a Service
Andrew Howesman

A recyclable drip tape system that reduces water, energy and labour while ensuring soil moisture levels at a critical time has been trialled by Norfolk farmers. Howseman Agriculture, with its sister company DripUK, is the first in the UK to offer Streamline X Re-Gen, a drip tape that can be recycled at the end of the season. The company will be discussing smart irrigation in the Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show. 

Irrigation as a service

Andrew Howseman is Managing Director of Howseman Agriculture, leaders in the field of drip irrigation for potatoes and onions. He explains that the company is offering ‘irrigation as a service’ and has developed a circular system that reduces the cost of irrigation for farmers. He will be talking about the service in the Innovation Hub of the Royal Norfolk Show.

“One of our tape suppliers, Netafim, has developed a product called Streamline X Re-Gen that can use polymer extracted from drip tape. We have worked with Netafim to develop a tape retrieval system that removes the drip tape from the field so that it can recycled.

“We will supply 800 rolls of drip tape this year, sufficient for 200 hectares, which previously would have gone to landfill. The recycling route removes the problem for the grower and they have a certificate to show conformance to an assured produce scheme.”

Potato farmers will see the benefit

The new development is part of a commitment by Howseman Agriculture to invest in machinery that makes drip irrigation more cost-effective. The company can provide a complete service, including installation and removal, enabling irrigation systems to be installed in a timely manner.

Potato Trial
Potato Trial

Andrew says that growers of both pre-pack and process potatoes will benefit. He continues: “We can install the system almost immediately after planting. This gives growers the crop insurance they need to ensure soil moisture levels are exactly where they need to be at tuber initiation.

“We are very aware of changes to abstraction licences that are on the horizon and cannot emphasise enough to growers how important it is to start to look at our systems now.

“Our results are ongoing and not always conclusive, as a wet growing season can level out any gains we would normally see, but in a very dry year we can prove some very significant gains in yield and quality.

“The system offers potato and onion growers lots of benefits in addition to water – fertigation and even biological pest suppression are both areas that we are working hard on.”

Norfolk farmers pioneering new technology

Richard and Will Overton at H.A. Overton & Sons on Laurels Farm in Catfield, near Great Yarmouth, were among the first to trial the new drip irrigation system.

Richard Overton comments: “We saw a need to replace the ageing irrigation reels and saw drip irrigation as an opportunity to reduce the labour requirement and lower the water and energy usage ahead of the restrictions on licencing in this area. The trials have gone well and we are looking for a significant reduction in both the water and energy required to produce our pre-pack quality potatoes.”

Richard and Will trialled 12 acres last season and have increased to 30 acres for 2022.

Howseman Agriculture with DripUK will be participating in the Innovation Hub hosted by Agri-TechE in partnership with the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA) and sponsored by BBRO, at the Royal Norfolk Show on the 29-30th June, as the show looks to come back bigger than ever for 2022.

More about Howseman Agriculture


Innovation Hub 2022

Outfield raises £750,000 to progress orchard management system

Agri-TechE Article

How many apples on this tree, in your orchard, across your farms? Until Outfield launched its drone-based imaging system to map the orchards it was impossible for growers to know this vital information.
Now the company has raised £750,000 in its first funding round, to expand its yield estimation capability. The orchard management system is now used by growers across three continents for high value crops including apples, pears and plums. Jim McDougall, Director of Outfield, talked about the development of the technology at REAP 2021 along with one of the farmers that have helped to develop the technology so it meets the needs of growers. He says: “This investment will enable us to develop the customer base as well as adding new functionalities to the platform.”
Fruit growers are using Outfield map their orchards and to create detailed maps of tree condition and fruit loading. The technology helps growers visualise and track key parameters in their orchards, enabling them to produce more fruit to specification, reduce fruit loss and decrease the amount of chemicals used. Outfield already works with growers in the UK, Europe, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand. The funding round was led by the UK merchant bank Turquoise in its 11th deal for the Low Carbon Innovation Fund 2 (LCIF2). The investment is part of a £750k round that also includes Cambridge Agritech, Deeptech Labs and Amadeus. Jim says: “We are delighted to welcome LCIF2 as an investor in Outfield. Now is the time for new precision technologies to revolutionise this sector, supporting global food security and managing the environmental impacts of fruit growing”.

Axel de Mégille, director at Turquoise, commented: “Outfield technology will enable growers to improve yields on their production as well as decrease CO2 emissions associated with the use of chemical fertilisers.  We were impressed by what the Outfield team has built so far and are proud to be part of the next step of their journey”. This funding is being used to expand Outfield’s global reach and extract even more insights from rich data their growers are gathering, allowing for further impacts in the sector.
More about Outfield

Sweet and water efficient strawberries – NIAB EMR and Delta-T Devices collaborate at WET centre

Agri-TechE Article

Smart irrigation resulted in a 7% increase in the yield of strawberries for one large commercial grower, following the trial of a precision irrigation system designed by NIAB EMR with equipment from Delta-T Devices and Netafim.

Delta-T Devices is an industry partner of the Water Efficient Technology Centre (WET) based at NIAB EMR in Kent supplying sensors and data loggers for both research and commercial projects. Delta-T first appeared alongside NIAB at the Innovation Hub in 2016 and became involved in WET the following year.
Yields of strawberries reached 72t/ha at the WET centre in 2020, double that of the industry average of 45 t/ha with a significant reduction in water use.
The initial trials were in small polytunnels, but WET Centre enables industry scale conditions with commercial farm polytunnels and tabletop  configuration, ie where the strawberries are grown on substrate on raised platforms.
The research is focussed on the use of automated irrigation control systems, with as little human intervention as possible.

Smart irrigation

Minimising water wastage is of huge importance given its increasing scarcity. In future, it is anticipated that intensive horticultural growing systems will become increasingly based in urban locations, where very strict water waste prevention protocols (and legislation) are likely to be the norm.
Delta-T’s programmable GP2 Data Logger allows different control algorithms to be set for separate experimental irrigation regimes, and then for researchers to measure and compare the outcome of each approach. These experiments enabled the  key plant stress points to be accurately determined, and the optimum moisture content levels in the growing substrate to be determine at each stage of the life cycle of the strawberry plant.
The aim was to ascertain the minimum amounts of water needed to achieve the desired level of strawberry plant quality and yield.

Colour of growbags impacts growth

Further research has shown even the colour of the plastic on coir growbags can have a big impact on crop growth.
The WET Centre team investigated the correlation between plant water use and vapour pressure deficit (VPD) – using the Delta-T Devices SM150T Soil Moisture and Temperature Sensor and RHT2 Relative Humidity and Air Temperature Sensor.
The outputs of this research have been fascinating – showing that black grow bags absorb sufficient additional solar radiation to create warmer root zones (especially earlier in the growing season), whilst white bags reflect more light up into the canopy of the growing crop (see image below for effects on substrate temperature).
Timing of plant growth and fruiting can therefore be manipulated by something as simple as selecting a specific grow bag colour.

Impact of sheeting on photosynthesis

In addition the sheeting, frames and particularly the row position within the polytunnel structures can affect light availability to plants and thus growth and Class 1 yield. Researchers measured Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) levels within polytunnels using the Delta-T Devices QS5 PAR Sensor. PAR corresponds to the spectral range of radiation that plants require for growth and photosynthesis, and levels seen in 2020 were well above the 10 year average.
To explore the effect of this phenomena the team used the GP2 Data Logger and Controller (connected to QS5 PAR sensors) to automatically open and close venting in the roof of the polytunnels – based on the meeting of pre-set threshold requirements and to adjust the irrigation accordingly.
This system was designed to optimise the phytoclimate as the sun passed overhead and leverage the unusually sunny weather of 2020 to maximise yield to levels otherwise not achievable.

Could digestate save you £110 per hectare on fertiliser inputs?

Agri-TechE Article

Could cover crops be used to stabilise nutrients provided by digestate and improve its use as an alternative to chemical fertiliser for the following crop?
Digestate is a by-product from the anaerobic digestion (AD) process used on farms to generate biogas from waste. It provides a rich source of nutrients and organic matter. Estimates suggest it could save £110* per hectare on artificial fertiliser application.
An Innovative Farmers Field Lab led by Agri-Tech East, with NIAB taking the research lead suggests this estimate is achievable and the results are to be discussed at an open meeting on 12th September.

Nitrogen levels increased

soil pit digestate project
Farmers were supported with soil analysis

Lydia Smith at NIAB comments: “AD Digestate is a good source of nitrogen and other nutrients (phosphorus, potassium, sulphur) and repeated applications of digestate can improve nutrient levels in the soil, but must be managed to ensure they are used by crops rather than pollute water courses.”
“The field lab was set up to answer a number of questions and in particular the farmers were interested in the use of cover crops to stabilise the nutrients present in the digestate, so that crops benefit.”
“It is important to make nutrients available to crops and the Innovative Farmers project has shown that nitrogen levels are considerably increased in the trial plots, and could reduce the requirement for chemical fertilisers, and hence costs.”


The digestate field lab is a consortium of six farmers that all have AD plants within their farming businesses. The lab is coordinated by Agri-Tech East, research is led by NIAB and Cranfield University. It is facilitated by Innovative Farmers, the not-for-profit network that enables farmer-led research.
Liz Bowles from Innovative Farmers said: “It has been great to see the farmers and researchers working together to make this field lab both scientific and practical, and we look forward to hearing their observations at the meeting which will hopefully encourage other farmers to get involved with the next stages of the research.”

Different soil health measures 

With help from NIAB, the farmers designed the trial and chose analyses and measurements that would be taken.

  • Yield data was collected and used to determine Nutrient Use Efficiency (NUE)
  • worm count
  • VESS (Visual Estimates of Soil Structure)
  • GAI (Green Area Index) of cover crop and following crop.
  • Soil samples were analysed for selected nutrients (available N, P, K, Mg), pH and organic matter.

Reducing loss to watercourses?

Laura says the findings are interesting

One of the concerns about using digestate is that if soluble nitrates are not taken up by crops, they can leach through the soil into watercourses or lost to the atmosphere as ammonia – avoiding this was a key question the farmer-led group wanted to answer.
Laura Bouvet Knowledge and Innovation Facilitator for Agri-Tech East commented: “Farmers must comply with NVZ (Nitrate Vulnerable Zones) regulations: where a farm is within those zones there are restrictions on use, storage and spreading periods. The farmers wanted to gain a better understanding of how to use digestate effectively within these regulations.
“Some treatments used cover crops and these were found to reduce the available nitrogen in the soil. This suggests that digestate is best applied within a rotation to avoid loss into groundwater.”

Reducing volatile gas?

One of the farmers and speaker at the event, Stephen Temple, also experimented with applying sulphur as the digestate comes out of the AD plant. Acidification is thought to prevent ammonia volatilisation but care needs to be taken if it is spread to prevent foaming.

Role of microorganisms?

George Crane, NIAB
George Crane of NIAB is one of the researchers

The project benefited from a parallel funded project, which is looking at the populations of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi that form a synergistic relationship with the plant. They colonise the root zone and help to make key nutrients more available to the plant.
Studies by a NIAB PhD student have found that inoculation with these fungi resulted in a greater uptake of nitrogen by the crop, and that the amount and type of roots were affected if certain nutrients were in abundance.
This could indicate that over-supply of nutrients may make the crop plant less resilient to changing adverse environmental conditions if its root system development was depressed.

Next steps

The field lab is producing promising results and these will be discussed at the Agri-Tech East event. A decision on extending the project to look at dosage rates will be made shortly.
The farmer-led trial has also been a learning experience for all involved. Each of the plots was on a working farm and the soil preparation, planting and monitoring had to fit within other farming priorities.
One farmer noted: “As a group, we have also learnt about the importance of establishing protocols ahead of data collection, to make sure they are realistic and achievable for everybody. I am looking forward to a good discussion about next steps.”
The event: Ruminating on the role of digestate in managing healthy soils will be held at NIAB Park Farm, Cambs CB24 9NZ on 12 September 2019 from 15.00 – 19.30. Farmers and others with an interest in digestate are welcome to attend.
*Using the typical values for whole food-based digestate set out in the AHDB Nutrient Management Guide and applying 30cu m/ha to a winter wheat crop in spring on a sandy soil with a P index 2 and K index 2-, growers can save a significant £110/ha on artificial fertiliser application.

How to create value from food waste

Agri-TechE Article

2-4 million people could be fed their 5-a-day nationally on fruit and veg that is currently rejected for cosmetic reasons such as colour, shape and size, it has been estimated by WRAP.
AMT Fruit, part of the Munoz Group, is one of the UK’s largest citrus specialists, and they are addressing the problem in a number of inventive ways, were discussed at an event ‘Closing the Loop on the Circular Economy’.

Naomi Pendleton, Head of Technical and CSR at AMT Fruit Ltd, spoke at the event. She explains that the company works with over 250 growers to supply Tesco with 11 million boxes of citrus each year – that’s approximately 140 million nets of citrus.
circular economyShe says: “We have been focusing on reducing food waste in our global operations for a number of years, and through our efforts to date we have reduced overall operational waste by 30% from 2015 to 2018, the majority of which (81%) is citrus fruit waste.

“This has been achieved in a number of ways including: revising and broadening product specifications; expanding our sourcing countries; introducing new product lines; and developing partnerships with food charities, which have seen the donation of 1 million portions of fruit.”

AMT conducted consumer research to gauge attitudes and as a result was able to work with their retailer customer Tesco to accept an increased amount of ‘scruffy’ fruit and to introduce a new giant line of over-sized fruit. This resulted in Spanish growers supplying an extra 10% of their crop to Tesco. Further improvements to the delivery strategies have extended the shelf life of citrus fruits by 40 million days.

However despite these efforts the organisation still has in excess of 2,000 tonnes of waste each year from the UK operation.

Create value from food waste

Naomi explains: “Our citrus waste is too wet and acidic and full of rots and moulds which makes it unpalatable for animal feed. We were having to send all our waste to AD plants. At the start of 2018 we were introduced to Joe Halstead from AgriGrub, who was looking for locally sourced viable waste products on which to grow his black soldier fly larvae.”

AgriGrub feeds waste vegetables and fruit to the larvae of Black Soldier Flies and when they are an optimum size they sell the larvae – branded as Calci worms – to pet food distributors and retailers as a form of live feed for reptiles. Their virtuous by-product is called frass, and is a sustainable source of nutrients for plants, and a novel bio-repellent for crop protection.

There is already a significant body of evidence on the efficacy of chitosan (the active component in frass) as a biopesticide. However for many years the cost of extracting the chitosan was considered too great, as the process involved boiling crustacean shells in sulphuric acid. Frass from insects, however, needs little processing and represents an economically viable source of chitosan for agriculture.

Joe Halstead explains: “We are focusing our attention at the moment on higher margin crops which have few treatment options for pests and diseases as this is likely to give us the best return in the least time. However longer term I hope and expect frass to have broadacre application, especially where neonicotinoids are being phased out. Our first frass trials, on brassicas, showed a 94% reduction in aphid numbers on frass treated plants versus controls.

“It is in the field where routine synthetic pesticide usage is most damaging to our environment, so ideally we’d like to see frass and its bio-repellent qualities used in the field to repel insects rather than killing them. This spares non-pest species and allows beneficial insects to persist in the local environment.”

Naomi says the relationship is working well: “This is a great example of a circular economy created through a mutually beneficial relationship. Our presentation will discuss this relationship, how it works and the benefits for all, including those for local farmers.”

Find out more Closing the loop on the circular economy 

Dr Belinda Clarke, says: “Food waste is a major issue and the work AMT Fruit is doing with AgriGrub is one of a number of inspirational approaches that use waste from one process as input to another.

Event is over.