Royal Norfolk Show: The future innovations which could boost farming efficiency

The Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show. Paul Smith, head of development at Biomation, with the

The Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show. Paul Smith, head of development at Biomation, with the Aquagrain product which holds water in soil. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

Innovation was a key theme at this year's Royal Norfolk Show – with new ideas, strategies and technologies on display with the potential to boost the efficiency East Anglia's food and farming industries.

The Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show. Elliott Corke of HexCam with his drone which can be us

The Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show. Elliott Corke of HexCam with his drone which can be used for multi-spectral imaging and disease analysis in crops. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

Whether it is hi-tech entrepreneurs, top-level crop science or farmers tinkering in workshops, innovation has always played a key role in agricultural growth.

And ingenuity at all levels was very much in evidence at the Royal Norfolk Show this week.

Show president Prof David Richardson made innovation one of the key themes of this year's event – an extension of his own roles as a renowned microbiologist, vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia, and chairman of the Norwich Research Park (NRP).

An expanded 'innovation zone', hosted by Agri-Tech East, became the showcase for new ideas from technology start-ups, seed specialists, plant scientists and university researchers.

The Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show. Peter Bickerton, public engagement officer for Earlham

The Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show. Peter Bickerton, public engagement officer for Earlham Institute, with the Air-seq prototype, analysing spores in the air. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

Among them were Elliott Corke, from aerial imaging specialists HexCam, based at Honingham Thorpe. The company was demonstrating one of its state-of-the-art drones, but Mr Corke said this was merely a vehicle for cameras which could give valuable data to inform farming strategies.

'People get very focused on the drone but at the end of the day, it is just a camera mount,' he said. 'Linking up with Agri-Tech East, we are trying to make sure that the images we provide are fit for purpose for farmers and agronomists. It is about knowing what to do with the data.'

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That includes 3D modelling of farms for land management, thermal images which can check the performance of solar panels, and multi-spectral cameras which can carry out NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) mapping, assessing infra-red reflections to assess how much chlorophyll is in green leaves as a measure of plant health.

'Once you have identified an area of disease, it can be mapped into a satellite-based system to reduce the amount of chemicals you need to use,' said Mr Corke.

Winners of the Normac New Ideas competition at the 2016 Royal Norfolk Show. Pictured: Adam Larwood,

Winners of the Normac New Ideas competition at the 2016 Royal Norfolk Show. Pictured: Adam Larwood, from Mill Farm, Shipdham, with his mounted bean drill - Credit: Archant

Another East Anglian innovator on show was Paul Smith of Ipswich-based Biomation, who has developed a product called Aquagrain – a soil-improving hydrogel, made from sterilised waste meat and bone from abattoirs.

The granules absorb 30 times their own mass in water, holding moisture at root level before breaking down to return organic matter and nutrients into the soil. The idea is that it could enable farmers in the most arid parts of the world to grow food with less water and fertiliser – but as it could also be used on the sandy soils of places like Breckland, it could equally be of benefit in East Anglia.

'Of course there are many variables, but in our trials, we can typically extend the permanent wilt point to 12 days – meaning the plant will survive 12 days longer than a plant without water in sandy environment,' said Mr Smith.

'We have got a joint development agreement with two multinationals in Germany and Japan, we are doing field trials in Spain, and we are just about to start in Morocco and South Africa. We will run field trials in Norfolk and Suffolk next spring, and the product should be on the market in 18 months.'

Winners of the Normac New Ideas competition at the 2016 Royal Norfolk Show. Pictured: Michael Snare,

Winners of the Normac New Ideas competition at the 2016 Royal Norfolk Show. Pictured: Michael Snare, of Sycamore Farm, Hingham, with his sheep handling trailer. - Credit: Archant

Meanwhile, the Earlham Institute at the Norwich Research Park, formerly known as the Genome Analysis Centre, is working on an early warning system to alert farmers to potential crop disease threats.

Peter Bickerton demonstrated an early prototype of the Air-seq project, which aims to identify airborne pathogens which could cause fungal infections like yellow rust.

'Today's wheat plants are at massive risk of disease and at the same time farmers have to use less pesticides for environmental reasons,' he said. 'One way we can help is with genome sequencing to identify disease resistance, but the other way is to identify the diseases themselves and inform the farmer about it in real-time.

'This machine sucks in air and in this vortex whatever spores are in the field will be collected in suspension. We can take them back to our lab, and sequence the spores and tell the farmer what is coming their way. It is called field pathogenomics, but it is easier to think of it as an early warning system.

'It is hard for farmers to know when to spray, so if you know before time whether your field is under threat from fungus, you can be much more targeted.'

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East, said the ongoing challenge was to find commercial investment for innovative ideas.

'Everyone wants the game-changing silver bullet, and we hope someone finds that, but there is always room for incremental improvements,' she said.

'There is no shortage of interest in innovations for agriculture. The challenge remains to de-risk the adoption. One of the ways we are helping to do that is looking at technologies that have been proven in other sectors. If we can prove they work and there is a market elsewhere, it much less risky for a farmer to invest in them.

'And they need to see how it will help their business. We all love a shiny new toy, but how will it change the way they do things? How a new innovation can help the bottom line is what we are constantly trying to demonstrate.'

On-farm innovations

Innovations created by problem-solving farmers were also on display at the show through the New Ideas Competition run by the Norfolk Farm Machinery Club (Normac).

The Peter Bullimore Trophy for the winning club member went to Adam Larwood of Mill Farm in Shipdham, for his cultivator-mounted bean drill, while the non-members' prize went to Michael Snare of Sycamore Farm, Hingham, for his modified sheep handling trailer, complete with a fold-down platform for shearing.

The 49-year-old said: 'I made it because I am getting problems with my knees and my hips, the sheep work was getting harder, and I thought I would make life easier. We wanted something we could use to handle the sheep with less stress while we are all getting older. That was the main motivation.

'All the welding, the paint spraying and the fabrication has been made myself. It started off as an old livestock trailer and we extended it and moved the axles to suit what we wanted.'

Mr Snare said there is a patent pending for his design,which he hopes to produce conmercially.

Normac's county co-ordinator Chris Thomas said: 'Farmers get an idea and if they are useful with a welder they put it together. Every farm is different, and they all have slightly different problems. Very often those problems cannot be addressed by a machine off the shelf, so they have to adapt to make things work.'

The Normac Trophy for machinery innovations went to crop store designers Crop System at Gimingham.

Are you working on a farming innovation? Contact chris.hill@archant.co.uk.

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