Agri-Tech Week 2020: Building farming innovations from the ground up

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

Agri-Tech Week returns next week with online events across East Anglia – showcasing new farming technologies and exploring how interactions between tiny ‘microscapes’ and global landscapes can help the sector meet its ambitions and responsibilities.

Rust disease spores within a wheat leaf, photographed through a microscope at the John Innes Centre

Rust disease spores within a wheat leaf, photographed through a microscope at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: John Innes Centre - Credit: John Innes Centre

Microscopic changes can have huge global impacts – for example, interactions on a microbial scale in the soil can drive the carbon cycle and affect climate change.

So agri-tech advances to improve soil health could increase productivity, expand carbon storage and enhance biodiversity while creating new revenue streams for farmers.

That is one of the key themes to be discussed during Agri-Tech Week 2020, which will also feature the latest research insights on topics ranging from the novel control of nematodes and aphids to crop sensing tech for field vegetables and the implications of the “new normal” on agricultural production.

This year’s event, from November 9 to 16, has been redesigned a series of online seminars hosted by industry bodies and research institutes across East Anglia.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE

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

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The central REAP conference on November 10 will discuss a “technology roadmap” for achieving agriculture’s “net zero” emissions targets, while also highlighting start-up successes ranging from livestock management apps to precision farming data platforms.

Dr Belinda Clarke is director of event organisers Agri-TechE (formerly Agri-Tech East), a business-focused membership organisation that brings farmers, technologists, researchers and investors together in an “innovation ecosystem”.

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She said: “2020 is going to be known as the year that the microscopic had a dramatic influence on the global. In agriculture the complexity of actions and interactions at different scales is part of the management challenge.

“Small, incremental changes can have major impacts. A good example of this is soil health. Increasingly, we are realising the impact of the ‘micro-scape’ – bacteria, fungi, insects, soil particles, root exudates – upon the soil, from its ability to cycle and capture carbon to its ability to mitigate climate 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

“To achieve global ambitions for agriculture, food production and land management, we need a much better understanding of how systems at these different scales operate and interact.”

Soil is so critically important to people and the planet that its health must be the top priority for future farm payments, according to this year’s keynote REAP conference speaker.

Prof David Montgomery, professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington in Seattle, said as the UK moves away from the EU’s subsidy system after Brexit in favour of environmental payments rewarding “public goods”, there is an opportunity to reappraise how public goods generated by sound land management should be rewarded.

“I would strongly favour reforming but not eliminating agricultural subsidies,” he said. “In my view, they should be restructured from top to bottom to prioritise soil health.

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

“We should incentivise practices that build soil health by linking specific verifiable practices, like no-till and cover crops, to credits based on regionally calibrated studies to establish an expected benefit, such as increase in carbon content or maintenance of it in the soil. This would reward farmers not only for increasing carbon but also for good practice that has helped retain it.”

Prof Montgomery, author of the award-winning book “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations”, gained a global view of soil health by meeting productive farmers worldwide to understand the common principles of good practice.

“I have seen how the recipe of minimal disturbance, keeping the soil covered with living plants at all times and growing at least three or more crops in rotation works on farms around the world,” he said. “The simplest advice boils down to ‘ditch the plough, cover up and grow diversity’. However, there is also an urgent need for innovation to accelerate soil building.”

Another key feature of the REAP conference is the Start-up Showcase. This year, entrepreneurs and start-up companies who previously used the conference as a launch platform will be returning to discuss their work with farmers – showing how the agri-tech ecosystem is fast-tracking digital farm innovations.

They include Breedr, a smartphone app which tracks the performance of livestock and connects to a secure trading network online, allowing farmers to optimise productivity and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat and dairy production.

Other returning exhibitors include Outfield Technologies, which has produced an orchard management platform to provides growers with accurate fruit yield estimates based on drone imagery, and California-based firm Arable, whose Mark 2 product provides localised weather and plant health status in real time via a mobile phone, providing the basis for precision crop protection decisions and helping to time the smart application of nutrients and water.


• Monday November 9, 9.30am-11am

ADAS hosts: “Use of crop sensing in field vegetable and potato crops”

The INNO-VEG project is developing a new approach for carrying out research on field vegetable and potato crops by using crop sensing data to assess treatment differences.

• Tuesday November 10, 9am-4pm

Agri-TechE hosts: “REAP Conference 2020: From micro-scape to landscape – innovating at the frontier”

The conference explores emerging approaches and technologies that promise improved farming decision-making at every level.

• Wednesday November 11, 2.30pm-5.30pm

AHDB hosts: “Technologies to enhance soil monitoring and crop management”

The Rotations Partnership, a collaboration between industry partners and four research organisations, will discuss novel imaging techniques being used to investigate organic matter, soil porosity, soil compaction, and yield prediction.

• Thursday November 12, 10am-midday

Norwich Research Park hosts: “Crops and non-chemical pest control – genetics, environment and biodiversity”

This event explores these complex interactions in a changing climatic and regulatory environment. Presentations will include soil health and sustainable farming practices, aphid resistance, and cabbage stem flea beetle – opportunities for genetic resistance and beneficial insect control strategies.

• Thursday November 12, 4.30pm

Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association hosts: “Back to reality? Pushing the boundaries in agri-tech and innovation”

The global Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a rapid transformation in digital communications and connectivity. This has accelerated changes already underway in agriculture. But how have the new conditions affected the industry? Does the ‘new normal’ open up new opportunities and, if so, how can these be exploited to benefit knowledge exchange and innovation in agriculture?

• Friday November 13, 10am-12.30pm

NIAB hosts: “Soil health and the circular economy – a sustainable future for agriculture”

The use of farm waste to improve soil structure, health and performance are key themes for this practical seminar.

For more information and to register for online events, see the Agri-TechE website.

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