New agri-tech innovations could help farmers adapt to major changes

An Outfield drone collecting data on fruit orchards. The firm is one of the exhibitors in the Start-

An Outfield drone collecting data on fruit orchards. The firm is one of the exhibitors in the Start-Up Showcase at Agri-Tech Week 2020. Picture: Jim McDougall / Outfield - Credit: Jim McDougall / Outfield

The amazing science and tech advances aiming to help East Anglian farming adapt to seismic change – and the global partnerships which could develop them – were highlighted at a virtual conference.

John Barrett, director of farming company Sentry, is chairman of the Agri-TechE stakeholder group. P

John Barrett, director of farming company Sentry, is chairman of the Agri-TechE stakeholder group. Picture: Chris Hill - Credit: Archant

Innovations ranging from crop scouting robots to alternative pesticides and machine learning data systems were showcased at the REAP conference, the centrepiece of Agri-Tech week – a series of online events hosted by industry bodies and research institutes across the region to bring farmers together with technologists, scientists, entrepreneurs and investors.

John Barrett, director of farming company Sentry and chairman of the stakeholder group for event organisers Agri-TechE (formerly Agri-Tech East), opened the conference by illustrating the industry’s need to adapt to the mounting challenges of climate change, the looming loss of EU subsidies after Brexit, and evolving consumer needs during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need to change our businesses if we want to survive, and even more so if we want to thrive,” he said.

“Innovation is the agent of change, and today is about learning how businesses are innovating in order to allow us to adapt to change.

Agri-Tech Week 2020: Keynote conference speaker Prof David Montgomery.

Agri-Tech Week 2020: Keynote conference speaker Prof David Montgomery. - Credit: Prof David Montgomery

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“We are looking at how better to understand the impact of the ‘microscape’ on the landscape, and vice versa – recognising that understanding the interdependence of these many scales operating in agriculture is key to managing them effectively.”

The event’s “emerging agri-tech” session highlighted the latest research in agri-robotics to select and harvest ripe strawberries, and a project at the Earlham Institute on Norwich Research Park using DNA sequencing of biological material in the air to provide early warning of airborne crop disease.

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Meanwhile, new prototypes in the “start-up showcase” included:

• Earth Rover’s crop scouting and harvesting robots to help vegetable and salad growers reduce wastage and reliance on chemical sprays.

Livestock farmer Ian Sturmer with the Breedr app, one of the innovations being showcased during Agri

Livestock farmer Ian Sturmer with the Breedr app, one of the innovations being showcased during Agri-Tech Week 2020. Picture: Breedr - Credit: Breedr

• The Land App, a digital mapping app to help farmers prepare for the government’s new policy focus on “natural capital”.

• BeeSecure, a device that translates bees’ vibrations into real-time data for beekeepers and farmers.

• Willand Group’s climate-controlled structures for meat production to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

• PheroSyn, using synthetic insect pheromones as an alternative to pesticides.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE - Credit: Agri-Tech East

READ MORE: Agri-Tech Week 2020: Building farming innovations from the ground upThe keynote speaker was Prof David Montgomery, an author and professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has travelled the world meeting farmers at the forefront of what he hopes could become the “next agricultural revolution”, focused on improving soil health. He spoke of the potential for reforming government subsidies to incentivise practices that build soil fertility and carbon storage.

“The farmers who have been successful at converting degraded soils into much more fertile soils, putting organic matter back and literally bringing life back to their soils, all shared there general types of practices,” he said. “They were doing minimal disturbance or no-till farming , they were maintaining a permanent ground cover with cover crops, and they were using diverse crop rotations.

“It is not so much about conventional versus organic, and there are lots of opportunities to use technologies to help improve soil health, but the lens through which we view agronomic practices should increasingly be one that emphasises and prioritises the idea of rebuilding the health and fertility of soils to set up a sustainable future for farming that could be more economical to farmers and more environmentally beneficial to the world.”

READ MORE: Dutch agri-food sector launches virtual trade mission to East AngliaThe international theme continued with the announcement of a new partnership between Agri-TechE and Western Growers – whose members are responsible for over half of US fruit and vegetable production.

The partnership will focus on connecting farmers, scientists, academics, technologists and entrepreneurs in both the USA and the UK to collaborate on shared strategic priorities, including field harvest automation and food safety solutions.

Dennis Donohue, director of Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (WGCIT), said: “We have some big challenges facing us, such as extreme weather, need for harvesting automation, concerns about resistance to pesticides, and water shortages. With Agri-TechE, we saw the potential to create a viable relationship that would accelerate the development of solutions, and ultimately, solve the issues our growers are facing.”

Agri-TechE director Dr Belinda Clarke said: “Being part of an ecosystem helps accelerate innovation. Our early-stage high-growth technology companies need to expand beyond the domestic market and working with the Western Growers offers huge potential. Likewise, the adoption of technology on a large scale will de-risk and drive down the cost of automation for our local growers.”

Agri-TechE has also invited a trade mission from partners in Missouri next year, and conference visitors included a delegation of Dutch agri-food businesses from Oost NL, the East Netherlands Development Agency, which hopes to forge closer links with East Anglia’s farming community after joining the agri-tech business network.

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