Do we really know what’s coming?

One of the questions I am often asked is: “How does farming in NZ compare with the UK”?

Right now I think it’s a slightly loaded question with all the Brexit talk – subsidies and all that. But in reality given the context of the question is usually in the knowledge I head up a UK-based subsidiary of an NZ agri-software business, what many are really asking is: “How will technology change what we are doing, and is NZ ahead of the UK”?

Now this is a harder question to answer. I guess at a high level I would say adoption of technology in the NZ dairy sector is some years ahead of the UK, but equally, there are big advances in UK arable and hort which one might say are further ahead than NZ. One thing I would say is that NZ farmers are, more typically, open to change and innovation and less wedded to the way it is.

But I think there is something bigger going on than simply comparing one country with another. Sure NZ is a focus for our sector just now because of the way it has, in a generation, turned itself into a very globally focused and innovative economy; one that tops the global rankings for ease of doing business (and one that I would say punches well above its weight, and that’s not just the All Blacks!). No. I think we are witnessing the early stages of an utterly transformative period in global agriculture.

And that’s why I ask the question: “Do we really know what’s coming?” By this I mean, how is technology (and maybe digital and data in particular) going to change the sector?

In short, from where I sit, I would say those of us in the tech world do have a good hunch about what’s coming and the potential impact it will have. But I am not at all convinced the “average farmer” (which is a horrid term) does.

To me it is inconceivable that a farming business (whether in the UK or elsewhere) will be in any way competitive without the use of data-driven decision support tools in the future. The level of accuracy and objectivity that data will deliver (and we are seeing this already) simply puts subjective observation in the second tier of good decision making.

That isn’t to say good husbandry and farming experience have no place in the future (of course they do – I know some brilliant, intuitive and innovative farmers) but those who apply that experience with the latest technological tools will become the Premier League while others languish in the lower divisions.

Give me an example I hear you cry? Ok! A couple of weeks ago I sat down with the CEO of an innovative dairy cow data capture company (based in the UK) that is effectively putting Fitbits on cows. The volumes of behavioural data they are collecting from those animals is now substantial. But it’s what they are doing with it that so impressed me.

By using clever algorithms to understand normal and outlier behaviour of animals they are achieving two great things. The first is the ability to provide alerts flagging animals that are not exhibiting typical behaviour. In other words, “go look at those ones, that’s where you should prioritise your time”.

But the second is what really excites me. Who’d have thought that by analysing cow behaviour data it would be possible to identify lameness, mastitis and other disorders days (even weeks) ahead of when the clinical signs might be observed? I don’t care if you are the best herdsman in the world, it is hard to compete with decision support from data that is identifying things well before they are ever observable by the human eye.

This “power” has the potential to transform the way we run our farms. The application of digital technology will not only potentially save time and labour, it will enable better focus on meeting market requirements, predicting and avoiding problems, and increasingly importantly, be able to provide a substantial evidence base to back and improve welfare standards and all sorts of other production areas currently under scrutiny.

But this future is a far cry from where many on our farms sit currently. Sure there are those that are the early adopters, but I think there is a large majority who simply don’t see this massive change coming, or if they do are in denial.

There are many analogies over the years of where technological change has been transformative and where at the time many did not see it coming: Henry Ford and so on. But it’s the sheer scale of change from tech-driven ag that I think we underestimate at our peril.

The upside is that all this talk of agriculture being a high-tech industry that our children and students should be enthused about is not just talk. It is absolutely true. The more we can find demonstrable examples of great (even cool) innovation, the better it will be for our farming sector, not only because we can farm better, but because we can also excite the right people into the industry.

In my 25-plus years in the ag world in the UK and NZ, never have I felt there is a better time and more opportunity for non-farming people to get involved in the industry, whether that’s in agribusiness, science or on the farm.

And if, as I suspect, we see a reasonably aggressive scaling back of direct farm support in the UK (assuming we Brexit!), that could open the door to a new generation of tech-driven farmers, unencumbered by the past and able to deliver from the potential of the land and associated technology alone. They will be the new competition.

Can’t see it coming? The iPhone is only a little over 10 years old. Things will look very different a decade from now in agriculture. That’s really not very far away. Are you on the train or is it leaving without you?

Sounds like DEFRA’s been listening

Back in March I posted an article on LinkedIn arguing the case for future farm support to be channelled into technology solutions that can deliver productivity gains and better deliver of social and environmental goods.
 
Well it seems the UK government is listening. Its publication of the Agriculture Bill last month which will determine farming support for a post-Brexit UK (noting that there will be differences in devolved administrations), caught my eye on three counts:
 
  • The phasing out of direct support payment
  • The introduction of funding for farmer-led R&D and collaboration on productivity innovation
  • A new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme
 
Of course the devil is in the detail, but on first glance (and at odds with some farming leaders) I like the look of what’s being proposed. Here’s why:
 
First, phasing out of direct support finally puts an end to the subsidy crutch that for too long has made British farming unproductive. We lag hopelessly behind many of our major competitors on this metric and while transitioning to a brave new world won’t be easy, it is vital to give farming the boot up the backside to become more innovative by necessity.
 
The fact that there may no longer be a requirement to farm to receive progressively reduced payments over seven years is a good thing. It gives farmers wishing to exit a dignified means of doing so, and might even start to make land occupation (rents or purchase) a little more reflective of economic viability – a good thing for innovating farmers and new entrants alike.
 
Second – and the one which in many ways I am most excited about – is the directing of funds towards farmer-led R&D and innovation. This is potentially game changing and totally in tune with a more technology-driven future for the sector. 
 
Back in March I noted the announcement of the Innovate UK Transforming Food Production fund of £90m as being a welcome start, but really just a drop in the ocean. I really hope the government through the Bill is bold enough to provide significant budget into this farmer-led area and not just pay it lip service.  There are some exciting initiatives we are involved in that fall squarely into what the government is driving at here. But this funding MUST encourage innovation that is focused on food production as well as other areas. As I wrote in the spring, more food is needed in the next 50 years than has been consumed in the entire history of humanity! It’s a big challenge that needs big thinking.
 
Third is the ELM scheme. For me there is also a huge technology role here. Delivery of public goods has to be measurable and we are now in the era of big (and small) data, machine learning and AI that could deliver real transformation in ways that can transparently demonstrate public value. The taxpayer should expect nothing less.
 
Moving away from direct support and into the territory of funding innovation and targeted activity is a sea change and something I believe to be a good thing. Ultimately, this approach is about the development of solutions which should, over time, stand on their own two feet. That’s what we are focused on and why so many of our clients come to us asking the question: “How will digital and data help us do the job better?” 
 
So, yes I understand why farm leaders are concerned. But this is not the time to cling onto the past. It is absolutely the time to tear up the rule book, imagine what the future should look like, and back truly innovative thinking and innovative farmers to get us there.