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20 May 2021

How data could help your business

As featured in Arable Farming Magazine

How data could help your business

by Arable Farming

Putting data at the centre of agriculture is providing new insights for growers and companies further up the supply chain and could lead to a Big Bang moment in agriculture. Marianne Curtis reports.

As data-enabled agriculture is accelerating in adoption and impact, enabling quick, simple interrogation of data and rapid actionable insights has never been more important.

That is the view of the Agri-TechE network, which includes organisations which have developed platforms to gather, manage and analyse data in an unprecedented way, yielding new, real-time insights and ways of informing decision-making.

The National Food Strategy shows that growers receive the lowest returns in the supply chain and this needs to change, argues Antony Yousefian, agritech director of Bardsley England, Kent, one of the largest top fruit growers in the UK, at 840 hectares.

He is also CEO of the agritech company he is incubating in the business, Bx.

Mr Yousefian describes farming as extreme manufacturing that is high risk but the least digital industry on the planet.

It is not a technology problem it is a people problem. Risk management has been done elsewhere in industries such as banking. We need to take those people who have solved risk management in those industries and bring them into our industry.

Improving feedback loops, which are slow in agriculture, could help, he explains.

Feeding back what is happening in R&D, what is happening on-farm or in production, is analogue. The right people can solve this. In banks in the 1980s and 1990s it was pen and paper. In agriculture a lot of processes are pen and paper.

Their feedback loops were days. With digital transformation they are now nanoseconds. We are about to see a Big Bang moment in agriculture.

If we can incubate agritech on farm, feedback loops will become rapid knock-down barriers in agriculture and the speed of development will go through the roof.

The tech team at Bardsley England are all from outside agriculture, says Mr Yousefian.

There are many experts in agriculture around the business. We are bringing people in from Google, Microsoft, virtual gaming companies people who are experts with data, can understand it and work with farmers to get deeper understanding.

The team has started by building databases, says Mr Yousefian.

With a bottom-up approach, we are bringing data standardisation to every single orchard which allows us to put in different data pipelines, such as weather feeds and data from satellites, easily and we can start managing data very well.

The new data infrastructure has generated insights that can reduce waste, explains Mr Yousefian.

Quality control At harvest, every harvested bin of apples is geotagged and QR coded. The team has also set up a feature where the farm manager gets an instant alert when deterioration in grading or quality of picking is picked up by quality control.

Before it was pen and paper and we didnt know about any fall in quality in the picking process.

The feedback loop was days, sometimes even weeks when spotted in store later.

Now as soon as the problem has been digitally alerted and someone has checked they can instantly alert not only the farm manager, but the store team and packhouse team who can quickly shift the affected bin of apples to pack straight away. Before, waiting for someone to enter data into a spreadsheet could take days or weeks.

Using the new data set-up, apps can also be developed in minutes, he says.

We have had frost events just recently and can spin up an app to capture data on what is happening regarding frost damage in an orchard in 10 minutes.

We can quickly quantify the damage to orchards from frost and the impact on forecast and budget. This used to take weeks. If farm managers come to us with ideas, we can do rapid product innovation.

Sharing knowledge key to solving potato storage challenge

Loss of CIPC came as a blow to the potato industry, but one company, LiveTrace, has been quick to respond and by sharing knowledge and best practice is enabling the sector to adopt new approaches to storage.

The LiveTrace Grower Management system brings together data from a variety of sources such as Farmplan, Muddyboots, Gatekeeper and the John Deere Ops Centre, with weather data from Sencrop, all on to one platform and offers bespoke apps to help manage variety trials and storage.

LiveTrace was established by Jon Kemp and his brother Phillip to provide potato suppliers with improved supply chain management.

Following the ban of CIPC, alternative sprout suppressant treatments such as Biox-M (spearmint oil) and DMN are being used.

But to ensure the quality of potatoes kept in storage for six to eight months, careful management and attention to detail is required.

Jon Kemp explains: Store managers are now required to frequently inspect and record the condition of potatoes in store, then, where needed, apply the sprout suppressants quickly using a hot fog.

Applying the fog fogging requires new skills, better timings and an understanding of how and when to apply. So, every person looking after stored potatoes has had to learn fast.

Condition To support the industry, LiveTrace has developed a new app ‘LiveTrace Fogging.

This is an online store diary which records crop temperature, fan hours and crop condition (sprouting, breakdown etc) with photographs and a comments section.

Our Cloud SAAS software allows sharing of information. The photographs are timed and dated to enable store managers to look back at previous store visits and compare. Each store has its own record page to show target temperature, variety and photo gallery, for example.

The software is designed with sharing in mind, with seven layers of access depending on the users permission status.

Mr Kemp firmly believes knowledge sharing is the future.

We made the decision to share our new Fogging app with companies in the processing potato supply chain so all the major players have access to the database. Each fogging application is recorded using the app.

This creates an invoice for the grower alongside sprout suppressant quantity, crop condition, date, fan speeds and a photograph. Confidence Live reporting on the dashboard is graphed by variety which is very useful to gain confidence to change the fogging process to make improvements to the application techniques.

Sharing data reduces administration and improves traceability, he says.

For example, we are working with a haulage firm to allow paperless passports, load ticket weight and GPS tracking. Everything is in one place, says Mr Kemp.

Agriculture lagging behind in carbon credit schemes

Net zero commitments, consumer preference and the pricing of carbon and sustainability risk more generally in global capital markets are driving the sustainability agenda.

However, carbon credit schemes in agriculture are a small niche compared with other pricing initiatives around the world.

Matthew Guinness, head of sustainability at Hummingbird Technologies, explains why. The key reason is most carbon credit schemes cover renewable energy projects or change of fuel use. It is easier to count solar panels or windmills than to count carbon emitted or sequestered by an acre of farmland or any other land type.

We cant rely on self-reporting for reasons of veracity and reliability. And we cant rely on large-scale ground truth testing because of cost and scalability.

Our view is that remote sensing monitoring and verification of land use and ultimately of carbon is going to be a crucial component in scaling up these incentive schemes for farmers.

Principles To avoid unintended consequences, it is important to measure agricultural practices and management principles, as well as outcomes, says Mr Guinness.

While sustainable agriculture has not been consistently defined, regenerative agriculture practices, such as minimum soil disturbance, using cover crops and crop diversity/rotation, are attracting attention, he says.

There is a huge groundswell of activity and investment in regenerative agriculture supply chains around the world. Big food and beverage companies are starting to bang the drum about this. Companies which have millions of hectares of supply chains will need to know what is going on in these.

Large-scale monitoring and detection is going to be or is already required and organisations are in the process of scoping out how theyre going to do that.

Many key practices and outcomes can be measured using remote sensing, which offers substantial benefits in terms of scalability, he says.

Its not a silver bullet and you cant measure everything but by complementing existing models and ground truth samples it is a very useful tool in terms of offering that low cost solution.

For example, by detecting reflectance level at different points in the wavelength of NIR spectra, it is possible to infer the level of crop residue on the surface and from that model the tillage type employed.

Satellite imagery makes this scalable.

Research efforts are also going into detecting and monitoring soil organic carbon itself, says Mr Guinness.

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