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Jeremy's Blog 31st May 2024: Innovation in Farming

This article by Jeremy Moody first appeared in the CAAV e-Briefing of 30th May 2024

Last week’s annual Field Day in Scotland on a vegetable farm across the Tay from Dundee saw a demonstration driverless tractor. A 150hp Agxeed diesel/electric tracked tractor was directed out of the building from a console, as though it were a drone. It could then work, driverless, to a programme in a predefined field, a next step in precision farming. Such technology, developing for some time, is beginning to reach arable farms, whether this line from Holland, Robotti from Denmark or from elsewhere, as robotic milking is now part of dairying. With a lesser need for and cost of labour but currently slower though continuous work rates, the reasons of economies of scale for larger machinery may weaken.

However, other areas of work remain formidably difficult to automate. That farm still uses intensively manned rigs for the first selection and picking of cauliflower heads in the field. Yet, Brussels sprouts can now be harvested by machine, automatic optical sorting on vegetable processing lines is vastly further advanced.

The labour market is itself a driver of innovation. There will be more need for skilled, technically competent and willing staff. The fruit, vegetable and other sectors also depend on hard field work and face challenges of the supply of labour and the rising minimum wage. Labour’s new employment rights paper implies further increased rates while Scotland’s Agriculture Bill now includes “fair work” (with its £12 Living Wage) as a factor for receiving support, already applied to the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme. Farms then cut other costs, secure better prices, innovate or abandon the enterprise.

Gene editing may be about to take its next steps from in England (but currently not Scotland) with possible assistance in responding to climate change, environmental, productivity and health issues as well as reducing crop protection chemistry. In the meantime, the cauliflower enterprise grows varieties bred for resistance to club root but we could doubtless go further.

The Tayside farm has a scale allowing farming diversity as well as specialisation, spreading risk and seeking opportunities. A striking revival of a long-ceased crop sees flax once again grown for fibre here for a second year – not grown in the UK for many decades until recently. Grown for linen, not linseed, this responded to an opportunity seen in a higher value commercial market but requiring learning not only the agronomy but retting to get the fibre.

Innovation, finding new things to do and new ways for existing enterprises, is one of the critical components of ensuring that we have an efficient and competitive agriculture, winning home markets and exports where we can. Alongside innovation with skills and investment, we need the competitive lettings market on which a business like this relies. Opening that up beyond such higher value sectors so that good farmers can find the land they need to thrive, paying the rent to justify that, woud take us that further step in feeding a growing population amid other competing uses for land.

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