Continued technological innovation is revolutionising British farming – and showing no signs of slowing down.
From drones and robotic fruit pickers, to precision crop mapping, farmers are finding practical uses for new technology within their fields and farm yards.
Despite the potential benefits of new gadgets and machinery, deciding whether and when to adopt them is difficult. Should farmers try to get ahead of the trends to reap rewards in an increasingly competitive market, or hold firm and hope the price of hi-tech equipment falls as it becomes more established or possible teething problems are ironed out?
Benefits for businesses of all sizes
A visit to Royal FloraHolland’s flower auction and distribution centre near Amsterdam highlighted the enormous scale and potential of technological change. The centre sells over 12 billion flowers and plants a year, with many orders dispatched across the world in a matter of hours. Auctions are controlled by computers that direct drivers with electric trucks to dart around the warehouse, fulfilling the orders.
Such is the pace of technological advancement however that this system may well be outdated in years to come. The future is likely to involve robotic trucks and buyers bidding remotely from offices across the world, with the number of human workers needed cut from thousands to dozens.
It’s not just large agricultural businesses utilising new technology either. Smallholders are also riding the wave of innovation to help make their businesses more efficient. Increased access to information and resources is likely to benefit new starters, and make diversification seem less daunting.
Opportunities for future generations
Although for some new technologies can seem intimidating, the next generation will be equipped for the challenge. Universities like Harper Adams are attracting some of our brightest students, with farm technology proving an appealing opportunity.
As the UK’s leading agricultural insurer, NFU Mutual are working closely with universities and the wider industry to ensure we understand and can cover the possible risks that new technology brings. Our cover includes a drone insurance policy and we are also continuously keeping up-to-date with changes across farming practises.
In order to help provide as much opportunity as possible for students in agriculture, we have an Undergraduate Bursary Award scheme designed to help our most promising future farmers.
2018 saw a record number of applications for the initiative, with a number of high-quality entries from male and female candidates and farming and non-farming backgrounds. This diversity highlights the interest in farming as a future career, with technological opportunities likely to be a determining factor.
We’re keen to spread this message beyond our universities and colleges too. This includes a programme to support young farmers clubs and help them run skill development workshops. As part of this programme we took a group of young farmers to the Oxford Conference, bringing together those at the cutting edge of farming, science and politics from around the world to discuss the key issues facing farmers.
What skills will future farmers need?
Excellent agricultural awareness and more traditional farming skills will of course continue to be vital for future farmers. Sound business and management abilities also remain a required quality, as farm profitability becomes an increasingly difficult challenge amidst dwindling subsidies.
As a result of this, marketing and PR skills are now also a priority. Whether selling to commodity markets or directly to consumers, farmers need sharp marketing skills to exploit gaps in the market and spot new opportunities for possible diversification. Promoting good farming practises via social media is also imperative in showcasing how you raise livestock and grow crops.
Farming in the UK is still very much a family affair, something that will hopefully remain. It’s a matter of pride for many farmers that their livelihoods have passed from generation to generation and for this to remain sustainable using new technologies and innovations are crucial in making future farms sustainable and profitable.
So, rather than shying away from new technologies, incorporating them alongside traditional values of hard work and expertise can create a successful long-term outlook for UK agriculture, regardless of what the future holds.