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How Norfolk won its world-beating reputation for farming innovation

Crop scientists at the John Innes Centre have played a key role in a breakthroughto sequence the entire wheat genome. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Crop scientists at the John Innes Centre have played a key role in a breakthroughto sequence the entire wheat genome. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

From crop development to agri-tech engineering, Norfolk's modern farming industry has always had an enviable reputation for innovation, writes EDP agricultural editor CHRIS HILL.

A combine harvester at work at North Burlingham near Acle. Picture: Mike PageA combine harvester at work at North Burlingham near Acle. Picture: Mike Page

Centuries after it became the birthplace of the agricultural revolution, Norfolk's trailblazing reputation for farming innovation is still as strong as ever.

The county is recognised as a world leader in agri-tech and crop sciences, with its farmers embracing a vast array of precision techniques and data-driven technologies to improve their efficiency and yields.

Satellite-guided farm machines, soil nutrient mapping and infra-red crop analysis from aerial drones are commonplace across Norfolk's arable fields, while the livestock sector has embraced robotic milking machines and digital animal tracking.

But Norfolk's agri-tech industry is not merely a test-bed for these ideas - it is a driving force in their development.

Shipdham farmer Chris Eglington has developed the UK's first crop-spraying drone. Picture: Sonya DuncanShipdham farmer Chris Eglington has developed the UK's first crop-spraying drone. Picture: Sonya Duncan

The instinct to innovate has been sharpened in recent years by economic pressures, climate change, rising demand from a growing world population, and the need to remain profitable after EU subsidies are phased out after Brexit - all while working to improve the environmental footprint of agriculture.

And there is no better example than Norfolk's champion farm business for 2019, the Holkham Farming Company, which has been challenged by landowner the Earl of Leicester to farm without pesticides by 2030 - prompting the creation of a 100ha trials area to test resistant varieties, "regenerative" cropping and integrating livestock into the rotation, as well as a £1.5m investment in winter cattle housing

Among the countless other examples of innovation within Norfolk's large farming businesses is at Honingham Thorpe Farms, which is working with Loddon-based tech firm enLight to connect disparate systems so real-time data on water quality, animal tracking, soil pH and grain stores can be monitored and managed from a single remote dashboard.

At the 22,500-acre Elveden Estate, spanning the Norfolk-Suffolk border near Thetford, hundreds of trials have been carried out to analyse the effectiveness of various herbicides, nutrients, irrigation regimes and pest control strategies across different potato varieties - winning farms director Andrew Francis the Arable Innovator of the Year title at the 2017 British Farming Awards.

Earlham Institute project leader Dr Ji Zhou using crop analysis technology in wheat field trials.. Picture: Anthony CullenEarlham Institute project leader Dr Ji Zhou using crop analysis technology in wheat field trials.. Picture: Anthony Cullen

But there is also an army of smaller tech start-ups and entrepreneurs such as Crop Angel in Shipdham, which recently tested the UK's first crop-spraying drone, and Scottow-based firm Gropod, which aims to revolutionise potato production by giving growers complete environmental control inside aeroponic "pods".

The extent of agri-tech innovation in Norfolk is an indicator of the county's vast importance to the nation's larders, growing an estimated 7% of the UK's food.

But it also reflects its agricultural diversity, stretching from the rich salad-growing soils of the western Fens to the cattle on the grazing marshes of the Broads in the east, and from the malting barley kingdom in north Norfolk to the sandy Brecks in the south, perfect for potatoes and pigs.

This highly productive land has become a base for engineering firms making hi-tech harvesters and crop sprayers, and it has also attracted major processors which are also investing in new technology - including Crisp Maltings at Great Ryburgh, near Fakenham, which last year opened a £3.2m speciality malt plant to get Norfolk barley into craft beers; Kettle Foods, which has built a state-of-the-art £2.7m new potato processing building in Norwich; and Cranswick, which is spending £74m building on what is believed to be the most advanced poultry unit in Europe at a site near Diss.

Dan Hewitt, owner and founder of GroPod at Scottow Enterprise Park. Picture: ANTONY KELLYDan Hewitt, owner and founder of GroPod at Scottow Enterprise Park. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

And Norfolk's agri-tech credentials have been further embellished by the world-leading scientific reputation of the Norwich Research Park.

Recent breakthroughs at the John Innes Centre include engineering a genetically-modified (GM) wheat plant which can produce white flour with extra iron - potentially bringing health benefits to anaemia sufferers.

The neighbouring Sainsbury Laboratory is trialling a GM potato designed to resist the devastating crop disease of late blight, and the Earlham Institute has developed a system using artificial intelligence, computer vision and ultra-scale imagery to accurately analyse and categorise lettuces in the field - giving Fenland growers detailed data on which to base their harvesting decisions.

And the British Beet Research Organisation, also based at Norwich, has helped make Norfolk's sugar beet farmers among the most efficient in the world, continually improving yields of this important UK crop - more than a third of which is grown for British Sugar in Norfolk.

A tour of the crop trials during the AHDB's Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm initiative at the Elveden Estate. Picture: Chris HillA tour of the crop trials during the AHDB's Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm initiative at the Elveden Estate. Picture: Chris Hill

INNOVATION IN THEIR VEINS

Norfolk farmers are "implicit innovators" who instinctively seek new ways to improve the performance of their crops and livestock, says Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East.

"Norfolk farms are an extremely active hotbed of agricultural innovation and implementation," she said.

"The attention to detail and awareness of the potential for new innovations to make a difference is truly unique among Norfolk farmers.

The Dino autonomous weeding robot was trialled for the first time in the UK at a farm in Breckland. Pictured: Prag Mistry of Agricultural Innovations with the machine. Picture: Chris Hill.The Dino autonomous weeding robot was trialled for the first time in the UK at a farm in Breckland. Pictured: Prag Mistry of Agricultural Innovations with the machine. Picture: Chris Hill.

"It goes back to the idea that farmers are innovators at heart. There is a degree of innovation in every farming season, of monitoring and testing and finding new ways of doing things to improve the yield from last year.

"Farmers are implicit innovators, even without realising it. The appetite to explore new ways of doing things is in their veins.

"Every farmer looks at this year's crops or animals and compares them with previous performance. If that is not innovation and showing a propensity for constant improvement, then I don't know what is.

"There is nobody I speak to across the UK and Europe who is not aware of the highly successful, ambitious and productive agriculture - and associated tech development - that goes on in Norfolk and the wider region.

Wheat variety trials on display at Morley Farms, near Wymondham. Picture: ANTONY KELLYWheat variety trials on display at Morley Farms, near Wymondham. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

"Every school child knows the heart of the four-course rotation was developed in Norfolk and over the centuries we have built on that foundation to the point where we now have world-leading R&D (research and development) running alongside that highly innovative appetite from Norfolk farmers.

"Agriculture may have a reputation of being backward-looking, but nothing could be further from the truth when you see the complexity of today's agricultural machinery, the use of data and the detail in which farmers can now understand the behaviour of their crops, animals and soils.

"There are new crop varieties being developed in Norfolk, new breeding technologies, and obviously agricultural engineering solutions for things like on-farm energy and biogas.

"It is really exciting to see how some companies that started five years ago are now attracting significant investment to develop and implement their solutions on farms, such as predictive crop yield modelling. We are seeing technology from smart cities being implemented in agriculture to enable 24-hour monitoring and analysis on farms.

"All this new tech is all about building on and expanding the exemplary knowledge that Norfolk farmers have built up over the generations."

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