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Agri-Tech Week 2018: How farming change is driving tech innovation across East Anglia

Modern farming technologies and data systems will be explored during Agri-Tech Week 2018. Image by Drone AG, one of the exhibitors at the REAP conference.

Modern farming technologies and data systems will be explored during Agri-Tech Week 2018. Image by Drone AG, one of the exhibitors at the REAP conference.

Drone AG

Agri-Tech Week returns in November to highlight the extraordinary East Anglian ideas and innovations aiming to revolutionise our future food industry. CHRIS HILL reports.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYDr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

With Brexit ushering in the first domestic Agricultural Bill in 70 years, farming is at a crossroads – creating a driver for change that will accelerate innovation in the industry.

That is among the central themes of a series of events demonstrating how East Anglia’s world-renowned agricultural science and tech community is working to address the productivity challenges of the future.

Agri-Tech Week, from November 5 to November 9, is the annual showcase run by Agri-Tech East, the UK’s leading agri-tech cluster organisation, bringing together farmers and growers together with scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs and investors.

Events will be held across the region, exploring the latest innovations and insights which could improve yields, enable smarter farming decisions or reduce reliance on agro-chemicals.

In-field research being shared at the AHDB's Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm initiative at the Elveden Estate. Pictured: Agronomist Graham Tomalin explains the herbicide trials. Picture: Chris Hill.In-field research being shared at the AHDB's Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm initiative at the Elveden Estate. Pictured: Agronomist Graham Tomalin explains the herbicide trials. Picture: Chris Hill.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East said farmers must be central to emerging research, which needed government investment and support.

She said: “Ensuring that farmers are at the centre of agricultural R&D was one of the less talked about elements of the Agricultural Bill, but improving productivity and making the most of new technology is vital to the health of the sector and this is to be underpinned by financial support,” she said.

“Defra has outlined that the Bill will make funding available for farmers to help them develop the research projects that they want and need. The aim is to put farmers firmly in the driving seat of research, incentivise the use of innovation on farms, and supporting increased sector productivity.

“The government has also committed to making payments during the seven-year transition period to enable farmers to invest in new technologies and methods that boost productivity.”

Farming technology in action at the Elveden Estate. Picture: Sonya DuncanFarming technology in action at the Elveden Estate. Picture: Sonya Duncan

Earlier this year, Agri-Tech East hosted a workshop as part of Defra’s consultation process, offering members the opportunity to feed into the new legislation’s associated policies.

“A key outcome from this meeting, which included farmers, agronomists, tech developers and academic, was the need for smaller, front-loaded pots of money that involve a less bureaucratic application processes,” said Dr Clarke. “Our members also emphasised the need for research outputs to be fed back to the agri community, both successes and failures, to ensure all learnings are captured.”

The centrepiece event of Agri-Tech Week is the REAP (Realising our economic and agricultural potential) Conference in Cambridge, which will highlight innovation on both global and local scales.

Keynote speaker Dr Zhenling Cui, of the China Agricultural University, Beijing, will talk about a 10-year project involving 20 million Chinese farmers, which has shown that using science to underpin best practice can create a 20pc uplift in yields of wheat with a 60pc cut in nitrogen inputs.

Closer to home, Prof Gerard Parr, head of the School of Computing Sciences at the University of East Anglia, will explain how the East of England Smart Emerging Technologies Institute (EoE SETI) is bringing together regional universities, research parks and industry partners to design a “highspeed digital testbed” to drive industrial-scale innovation over fixed and wireless connections. For agrifood this includes artificial intelligence (AI), imaging, genomics, robotics and smart sensors as part of large scale trials.

Meanwhile the REAP Debate will question agri-tech investment should be prioritised – with a panel of experts debating if should it be to extract greater value from current crops and practices, or whether the opportunity should be taken to radically change the way we use our land and generate food.

ON-FARM RESEARCH INSPIRES NEXT GENERATION

State-of-the-art environments can be inspirational for early-stage career scientists and farmers, said one of the coordinators of Agri-Tech East’s Young Innovator Forum (YIF).

Emma Kelcher is technical manager at Elveden Farms, near Thetford, which boasts one of the most advanced post-harvest storage facilities in Europe, housing up to 5,000 tonnes of potatoes.

It is also an AHDB SPot Farm (Strategic Potato Farm) and is involved in trials aiming to put the findings of the latest potato research into practice - demonstrating crop plots and techniques in a commercial scale-growing environment.

“Farming is changing and developments in technology mean that the lead times are much shorter, you can get the benefits of research out into the field in a much shorter time,” said Emma.

“Getting farmers and scientists talking together to really understand what is going on in the field is vital and through YIF we are creating an informal opportunity to do this.”

AGRI-TECH WEEK 2018 SCHEDULE

Agri-Tech Week from November 5 to November 9, aims to showcase excellence in agri-tech innovations, brokering links and fostering new relationships between businesses, researchers and government.

• Monday 5, Afternoon: “Solving the challenges of crop protection”, University of Hertfordshire.

This event, which will highlight some of the key methodologies that are emerging to tackle disease and pest threat in the face of environmental change.

• Monday 5, Evening: “Scientific advances in agriculture”, Earlham Institute, Norwich Research Park.

This three-part workshop will discuss how research at the Institute can be applied in the field, and explore what steps must be taken to ensure transferability of research from lab, to computer, to real applications.

• Tuesday 6, Afternoon: “Above, Below and Around”, University of Essex, Colchester.

The university will be launching the Essex Plant Innovation Centre and showcasing its research including drones, agricultural robotics, plant and soil health.

• Tuesday 6, Afternoon: “Precision spraying now and in the future”, hosted by AHDB at Garboldisham Village Hall, near Diss.

All you need to know about the business and agronomic benefits of precision spraying.

• Wednesday 7: REAP Conference 2018: “Agri-Tech For a Productive Future”, Wellcome Genome Campus, Cambridge.

Agri-Tech East’s flagship conference features start-up showcase, industry debate on alternative futures for agri-tech innovation; hackathon updates, exciting technology demonstrations, and on-farm learnings.

• Thursday 8, Afternoon: “Big data and the supply chain”, Easton and Otley College, Norwich.

An interactive event hosted by hosted by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, Easton and Otley College, and University of East Anglia including a presentation of the ‘Who Buys My Food’ app which gives customer insights from Tesco Club Card and other sources.

• Friday 9, Afternoon: “Soil Health and Circular Economy”, NIAB, Cambridge.

An interactive event for SMEs and farmers looking at methods of soil testing, techniques for soil improvement and the use of waste materials to increase organic content.

For more information, see the Agri-Tech East website.

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