Helping farming meet challenges of the future

Article taken from the Agronomist & Arable Farmer, written by Chris Lyddon

Dr Tony John, Agrovista’s recently appointed director of strategic development, believes that to develop the solutions required to drive farming forward, a well-resourced distribution organisation, with a proper testing system and the right staff, is the ideal.

“In order to make sure that we are able to offer the best level of service in the future, one of the first tasks I wanted to carry out was to look at the potential factors affecting agriculture,” he says.  “We know that the legislative and environmental aspects of our industry are changing rapidly but, in the political environment, food security is high on the agenda.  The net result of this means that there is actually some money coming into agriculture in the shape of grants for improving performance.

“The challenge we all have is that there is a skills gap.  A lot of the information generated is now not being pulled together, but where it is, it’s being done by distribution companies who can do the applied R&D and translate the technology to real-life farm solutions.

“In the future the face of agriculture is going to change, with the rate of discovery of new chemicals reducing and resistance emerging to most of the pests and diseases that we need to control,” he says.  “In the past, we have relied on the R&D manufacturers bringing in new chemistry.  In the future we can’t rely on that since the share of crop protection research that is focused on Europe was down to less than 10% in 2012 from close to 30% in previous years.

“The R&D isn’t coming from a chemicals perspective but we still need to be increasing our output.  Therefore we have to change the way we do things, if we are to maintain or increase the level of food production.

“As a distribution company, we need to consider all aspects of the available technology from seed breeders, from machinery manufacturers, from spray chemicals, from biological research to application technology, across all crops and all areas of growing a crop.

“To achieve this effectively you need a degree of scale, a dedicated R&D team, and a long-term commitment since the vagaries of the seasons mean you can’t solve these problems in one year.”

Every year, Agrovista invests in R&D.  “We are not altruists; we need to make money in order to make this reinvestment and maintain a viable level of service.  It is having a long-term willingness to take 5-7% of your profit each and every year and put that back into discovering the most effective way to use the technology that is currently available, or the technology that we believe will be available in the near future.

“The more forward-thinking companies, and I would like to think that we are one of those, are actually also doing a lot of blue sky, predevelopment of technology.  An additional benefit of this is that it provides a very stimulating work environment.

“An example of this would be our collaboration with Ursula Agriculture, which has some sensor technology with UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles].  We are collaborating to determine how are this technology can be developed,” Dr John says.

“We are doing a lot of ground truthing to determine whether we can detect black-grass populations accurately in season by flying UAVs over trial sites with a view, in the future, of predicting where and what black-grass populations are going to be and to combine this information with other technologies to find alternative methods of controlling that black-grass in the absence of highly effective chemicals.”

You also have to have a commitment to market analysis and a process within the company to pull all that information back in to direct R&D, he points out.  “Decentralised or small regional companies can’t do that effectively.  Of course, it’s good to apply a solution to a region, but you can’t director a long-term R&D process from only regional information.  You’ve got to look at the national picture before consolidating and applying it back at a local level.

Emphasis on training

He also stressed the need to develop staff.  “As we develop new technology we have got to have the right people internally to understand it,” he says.  “Part of that knowledge transfer process actually starts with our own staff.  Do they understand it?  Can they communicate it effectively to the end user, the farmer, and make sure that the innovation actually gets on farm?  It’s no good having innovation in house.  It has actually to get onto farms to be applied.

“In the past 12 months, our Agrovista Academy has spent 287 days on training our staff on non-product related activities,” Dr John says.  “You add in the product-related training and that figure soon exceeds a working year’s worth of training which we commit to each and every year, bringing people up to speed with the latest technology.

“There is no denying the fact, the whole of agriculture is ageing and suffered from lack of investment in the past, therefore we have a skills gap in the industry between the 45-year-olds and 65-year-olds with very few people in between.  Over the last three years we have employed 31 new agronomists with an average age of 29.  We are trying to address that skills gap for the future.”

The average age of Agrovista’s agronomists is 45.  “That is only going to drop further as we continue the investment in new recruits coming in to our business to benefit from all this technology.

“I am not sure that as an industry we are actually very good at communicating the value of the knowledge that we have,” Dr John says.  “You can make a phone call to one of our staff and ask them quite a technical and complex agricultural question and they’ll probably give you the answer straight off the bat.  That is the sum of the 10,000 or 15,000 hours that the agronomist has worked in the area and not just the fact it was an ‘easy question’.”

He acknowledges that not everyone shares these views.  Some believe that R&D is a buzzword.  “But without that five-year vision, that five-year commitment, without refusing to allow commercial pressures to reduce the investment in R&D in a bad year, I don’t think it is possible to bring true innovation on applied R&D to the industry,” he says.

“I am sure many of the methods and technologies we will use in farming in 15 years time don’t exist today.  Somebody will have to develop them.  They are not going to come from a can or a machine.  They are going to come from a combined effort that somebody has thought about, developed, validated and tested over five years, to deliver to the market, to ensure that the UK remains a world leader in growing wheat.

“The way that we spend our money will be different in future,” Dr John predicts.  “The interpretation of a vast amount of information will be essential and even more important to get it right, because the solutions that we will have will require more accuracy.  This is why we are also developing a ‘cloud-based’ technology portal, called Axis to deliver this information in the future.

“These are really exciting times in agriculture and the winners will be those who embrace the technological changes that are inevitably coming.”

 

06 June 2014

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