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Farming scholar aims to unlock the potential of his industry's disconnected deluge of data

PUBLISHED: 16:19 03 November 2019 | UPDATED: 16:31 03 November 2019

2020 Nuffield Farming Scholar Jamie Lockhart, of Honingham Thorpe Farms, is researching the potential of data and agri-tech within agriculture. Picture: Chris Hill

2020 Nuffield Farming Scholar Jamie Lockhart, of Honingham Thorpe Farms, is researching the potential of data and agri-tech within agriculture. Picture: Chris Hill

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Modern farm machines and agri-tech devices are generating a huge deluge of disconnected data - but a Norfolk farmer has accepted the challenge of finding out how they can be integrated together for the maximum benefit.

Soil nutrient mapping at Honingham Thorpe Farms. Picture: Chris HillSoil nutrient mapping at Honingham Thorpe Farms. Picture: Chris Hill

Jamie Lockhart, farm manager at Honingham Thorpe Farms, is one of two 2020 Nuffield Farming Scholars from Norfolk who are set to start their international industry studies next year, and report back in 2021.

He hopes to travel to New Zealand, the USA and the Netherlands to research his study topic of: "Unlocking the potential of data use and agri-tech within agriculture.

He said farmers have become "frustrated gatherers of data", and he needs to log in to as many as 15 systems to access all the data feeds coming into his farm office, ranging from tractor telematics to soil nutrients and rainfall levels, as well as temperature and moisture levels in grain stores.

"We, along with many other farmers across the UK, have been collecting various forms of data for the past 15 plus years," he said. "A large proportion of this data is sitting unused on various floppy discs, USB sticks and more recently in clouds gathering dust and not fulfilling it's potential.

2020 Nuffield Farming Scholar Jamie Lockhart, of Honingham Thorpe Farms, is researching the potential of data and agri-tech within agriculture. Picture: Chris Hill2020 Nuffield Farming Scholar Jamie Lockhart, of Honingham Thorpe Farms, is researching the potential of data and agri-tech within agriculture. Picture: Chris Hill

"I would like to explore the barriers that are preventing farmers utilising this valuable information to help their businesses be more sustainable.

"As farming enters a period of uncertainty, with the loss of direct support payments it will be more important than ever for farmers to understand their costs and to identity which parts of their business is profitable and those which are not.

"I believe with the use of technology and the data it produces we should be able to set individual fields as cost centres, recording all activities, inputs and outputs. We can then identify which areas can be profitably farmed and which areas might be best used to deliver public goods.

"The technology is available today, but it is offered to farmers in different formats with one system not being compatible with another. We need a common format that will allow information to be gathered and shared to unlock its potential."

Mr Lockhart said he hopes to explore how New Zealand farmers have innovated to adapt to life without government support, and how the Netherlands has used technology to become Europe's largest food exporter.

In the USA, he is particularly interested in the Farm Business Network, where more than 8,500 farmer members are sharing their precision data to generate an independent and unbiased information source, enabling them all to make better agronomic decisions to improve their collective productivity.

"I think we are guilty of being quite reactive in how we use information at the moment and we need to start building patterns so we can look forward and predict, rather than look backwards and react," he said.

READ MORE: Goat's cheese maker seeks the global secrets to sustainable business growth

Mr Lockhart also hopes to visit machinery manufacturer John Deere's headquarters to learn about their data collection tools, their vision for the future and their "willingness to operate an open Application Programming Interface to allow better access to their data for the benefit of their customers".

His long-term "holy grail" would be for all farm monitoring data to be visible on a single screen in the farm office or on the farm manager's mobile or tablet, giving instant access to any measurable metric, and highlighting any areas that need attention.

But he also hopes to use his Nuffield experience to install a practical technological test-bed at Honingham Thorpe.

"Because we are an open-minded business, we already have various types of trials running on this farm so and I would like to think we can set aside an area of this farm that is going to be truly connected and is used for companies to come and trial and test their pieces of equipment - almost a plug-and-play type scenario," he said.

"My vision in my head is if we have got this section of the farm and a company comes along with a new product which they say it is all-singing and all-dancing, and we have already got our 10 or 15 systems working, we can ask: Does it contribute? Does it amalgamate into the existing network?

"If you go back to VHS and Betamax video recorders, at the end of the day if you have got a VHS recorder and someone says: 'I've got this fantastic new film you need to watch but here it is in a Betamax format', then it is no good, it doesn't work."

Mr Lockhart thanked the Royal Norfolk Agricultural association for sponsoring the award, and the Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust for the opportunity.

Norfolk's other 2020 Nuffield Farming Scholar is goat's cheese maker Sam Steggles, at nearby Fielding Cottage in Honingham, who is researching how to successfully navigate sustainable food business growth.

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