ANALYSIS - Agriculture is at the start of a digital revolution, and to advance it will need to embrace and understand the increasing amount of data that is being collected, writes Chris Harris.
Speaking at the National Farm Management Conference in London, organised by the Institute of Agricultural Management, Mark Suthern, the head of agriculture at Barclays, said that the industry in the UK is facing a number of head winds, including the challenges of exchange rates, farm gate prices, customer confidence and political and public relations campaigns including the current debate about the exit of the EU from the EU.
However, he said that the modern farmer is having to adopt skills of a computer scientist and digital engineer and biotechnology, advances in biometrics and powerful computers play an increasingly more important role in farming.
"The farmer needs to understand the data,” Mr Suthern said.
He added that to become world class, farming needs to adopt a proactive focus and it needs to bring new people into the sector.
And he called on the UK farming sector to communicate to the public to tell consumers about the important role it plays in the economy.
“We need to explain the importance of agriculture to the UK economy and the importance of food to the UK economy,” Mr Suthern said.
Jane King, the chief executive of the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board said that a world class farming industry needs to be inspired by and competing with the best.
This she said, was the vision of the AHDB and she called on the industry to focus on what the UK farming industry’s competitors are doing and doing well to improve its own competitiveness.
She said the aim of the AHDB is to make British agriculture more competitive and resilient and to accelerate innovation and productivity through research and knowledge exchange.
She said the AHDB needs to help the industry to understand and deliver what consumers will trust and buy both at home and internationally.
Mrs King said that this will mean adapting and also developing new products.
She added that UK agriculture is also facing a consumption challenge.
“The UK consumer base is growing, which is exciting for us,” she said.
However, Mrs King told the conference that while the consumer base is growing eating patterns for many core products, except poultry are declining and she said that consumer behaviour is shaping the retail landscape, in particular through top up shopping.
She added that the rising middle class both in Europe and in Asia presents an opportunity for UK agriculture and Brexit will see a more liberal trading environment.
“We should be excited by the opportunity. We need to be ready and we need to be fitter quicker,” she said.
Agricultural productivity needs to keep pace with the competition, and while there
will be more consolidation in the industry and the supply chain will change, there will be a need for more technology skills to grow the opportunities that will be presented.
She told the conference that through benchmarking and having access to the best science and sharing knowledge UK agriculture will be able to take advantage of the opportunities on offer.
However, she added that the best farmers were concentrating on the details and making marginal improvements over a wide spectrum.
“It is attainable and reachable for everyday farmers. It’s about marginal gain,” she said.
Richard Tiffin, the chief scientific officer at Agrimetrics and professor of applied economics at Reading University showed how new developments are staring to make more and more data available, understandable and useful to the agricultural sector.
He said that a new data platform is being developed by the Agrimetrics - an Agritech Centre of Excellence founded by the University of Reading, Rothamsted Research and NIAB, to help farmers produce food more efficiently and to better respond to food consumers changing needs.
Prof Tiffin, said: “The food system is facing unprecedented challenges as a result of demographic and climate change.
“At the same time, in some cases, the system’s foundations - its primary producers are under increasing economic pressure.
“Many of these challenges can be characterised as being able to better meet the demands of consumers for more, increasingly healthy food.
“However, the growing complexity of the food system means that it is often hard for farmers to understand the demands of the ultimate consumer as well as making the system more vulnerable to unexpected shocks.
“Agrimetrics is building a data platform that will make it easier to access and use data. In this way data can become the currency which enhances knowledge of the system we are all part of. Farmers can be reconnected to consumers, they’ll be able to better meet their needs and procure a larger share of the value in food.”
Martin Dyke, the business development director at AB Agri and John McCurdy the company‘s head of Agri Data Services said that the UK agricultural food supply chains will need to improve their performance to simply stand still and by connecting supply chains from origin, supplier, producer, processor to consumer will help unlock duplicated and non-value adding costs while helping target innovation investment.
They said that leveraging data and technology can accelerate the alignment and the connections between individual parts of the supply chain and help realise these benefits.
However, a threat is being posed by the blind pursuit of Big Data with no real vision for how this might be practically used and applied on farm.
They said that more attention should be given to the interpretation of data to create real insight; the use of this insight to enable smarter decision making and perhaps most importantly, the application and implementation of appropriate actions taken on farm.
“The bottom line - if it’s too time consuming or complicated it won’t get used; there needs to be some alignment in the supply chain between the value delivered by these technologies and the cost of implementation,” said Mr Dyke.
Mr McCurdy added: “If you can’t act on what the data is telling us, then it is useless.”
He said there are plenty of technology and data capture systems but they need to be able to talk to each other to profit the farmer.
Ed Salt, the managing director at Delamere Dairy told the conference that the success of his company has come through investing in people and building a map to attain the “big goals”.
He said it is essential to develop a culture where people can excel and he said for his company management had been a question of stewardship rather than leadership to ensure that everyone who works for the company is profitable.
He said that if a market is attractive, “be prepared for competition” and he added that entrepreneurial companies should not be afraid of changing what most people believe is the norm.
The importance of the role and personality pf the manager to move the modern agricultural business forward was also emphasised by Ekkehard Herrmann, a farmer and manager of co-op farms in eastern Germany and Neil Adams, Agri-food business consultant at Promar International.
Mr Adams said: “There’s more to managing a successful dairy business than monitoring cash flows, planning the breeding strategy and winter feeding regime.
“Interpersonal sensitivity, personal flexibility and emotional resilience are equally important according to a recent Promar study of 65 producers in England and Wales that focused on leadership and leader capabilities within their dairy farming businesses and the influence of their emotional intelligence.
“It concluded that those with the highest level of emotional and social competence made £739 profit per cow compared with £366 for the average and those in the lowest group, £117.
“Those more likely to run more profitable farms were farmers with staff or family teams who had a people oriented personal style combined with a decisive command role.”