What if time was not a constraint in agriculture? Agri-techE conference debates

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Timing for the harvest this year is extremely challenging, said farmer Tom Pearson at the start of September. “50% of our crop is still in the ground unharvested because we’ve not been able to get any haulage to take wet grain to dryers. We can’t cut the grain and let it sit in the barn as after 72 hours, the grain quality will start to deteriorate.” Produce has a tight window of opportunity, but innovations are emerging that may make it possible to stagger the harvest to reduce the pressure. Technologies to remove the constraints of time are to be discussed at Agri-TechE’s REAP conference on 10th November 2021.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE, the leading innovation ecosystem for agri-tech comments: “One of the fascinating research discoveries has been an understanding of how plants measure time; an area known as chronobiology. The question now is how to apply that understanding. The big excitement is that these discoveries don’t just apply to daily rhythms, they probably also apply to drought stress biology, pest resistance biology and much, much, more.

“In parallel with that greater understanding of chronobiology, we are seeing advances in earth observation and satellite technologies that are making precision agriculture more precise and extending its potential application worldwide. When coupled with advances in remote sensing, prediction and risk assessment, we are looking at a perfect storm for the rapid deployment of technologies in the field.”

REAP speaker, Professor Alex Webb of the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, agrees. His team had a major breakthrough when they discovered that circadian clocks increase the size of Arabidopsis plants, confirming the advantage given by this timing mechanism. Further research revealed how the circadian rhythm can be controlled, providing the potential to overcome time. Using these principles to advance modern farming is an area of research known as chronoculture.

Professor Webb says we are at a tipping point where “we’ve got the fundamental biological knowledge and we’ve got the means to exploit it – from expensive automation like robots, cheap automation like smart irrigation, smart data analysis tools and the ultimate: Controlled Environment Agriculture.”

But Professor Webb is the first to say that he is looking to REAP to gain input from progressive farmers. “Chronoculture is not just about night and day, it also includes seasons. It introduces the question: do we aim for potentially high-benefit, high-risk approaches, or do we go for incremental benefits, such as incorporating this clock information into smart agriculture to slightly change the timing of a few activities?  That is a question for the farmers and growers.”

Tom Pearson will be one of those farmers at REAP.  The conference attracts some of the UK’s most innovative farmers keen to see the direction of travel of emerging technologies and to lend their expertise to ground truthing the most promising.

He says: “An investment on the farm is for the long-term so it is helpful to know what the world will look like in 5 or 10 years’ time. I understand how difficult it is to evidence a product and I am happy to help, it is easy to underestimate the complexity. We have one season a year, and only perhaps one in seven years is comparable – trying to get proof of concept in ever changing field conditions is only going to get more difficult as climate becomes more variable. Trying to solve the challenge is being held up by the problem itself.”

Tom is one of the farming leaders of the H3 project (Healthy soils, Healthy plants, Healthy people), which is comparing regenerative agriculture to traditional farming and looking at biodiversity, soil quality and food quality.  He says “Measuring each of these elements is becoming possible. There has been a lack of clarity over the future, but the wait is coming to an end. Interest in carbon sequestration, for example, is gaining momentum. We want to establish baseline data now, to be ahead of the curve when someone comes along asking to do a big collaborative natural capital project.”

Tom is part of the farmer advisory group for the Small Robot Company, which launched in the REAP Start-up Showcase and has since gained funding and widespread industry support. The company is one of many that have benefited from the Agri-techE ecosystem and will take part in the exhibition in this years’ virtual REAP conference.

Dr Clarke continues: “Getting input from end users at an early stage is vital to ensure technology is fit for purpose. Over the last seven years we have seen the solutions maturing through close collaborations between farmers, technologists and researchers and this is creating models for technology adoption that are attracting international interest.”

Part of the conference this year will be an International Café, with representatives from the US, Far East and Europe talking about support for expansion in their geographies – including investment, incentives for establishing a base, and the requirements of their regional farming.

“The big facilitator for agri-tech will be the near global connectivity that is coming, with the latest satellites being launched by OneWeb and others,” continues Dr Clarke. “This will make it possible to connect multiple, low-cost sensors to the cloud and analyse the data effectively and to control automation in the field. UK agri-tech advances are driving this revolution.”



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