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9 September, 2014 - 09:16 By News Desk

Growing agri-tech opportunities on agenda at first Pollinator

Belinda-Clarke-farm

The growing power of technology in agriculture will be evident as East of England companies attend the first Pollinator networking event run by Agri-Tech East in Cambridge UK on September 17.

The iconic Sainsbury Laboratory hosts the inaugural event which will evidence how companies in the region are harnessing new funding to push the boundaries of agricultural innovation.

Produce World, a Peterborough vegetable grower, is a major participant as one of the first organisations to benefit from the Government’s Agri-Tech Catalyst fund. Another exemplar is Cambridge startup KisanHub.

Companies across the region are using cash from the Agri-Tech Catalyst to stimulate collaborative research. Both traditional players and new entrants see agri-tech as a new market opportunity.

The East of England is fertile territory for agricultural innovation, having always been known for its innovation in farming. 

One of the leaders of the last agricultural revolution was a Norfolk farmer called Townshend who pioneered the concept of the four-field crop rotation system. The same process is still widely used today to control pests, boost fertility and increase yield.

A characteristic of modern farming is increasing precision in procedures and applications, for example many of the combine harvesters seen in fields this summer will have steering controlled by GPS. Recent findings in a report by Rural Business Research identified that very small incremental improvements in performance can have a major impact on farm incomes.

The increasing cost of the machinery and other inputs have meant that farmers and growers find benefits in working collaboratively to gain economies of scale.  This also means that growers’ groups are able to spread the risk of innovation, which has implications for research.

As well as being a major vegetable grower itself, Produce World works closely with others including organic farms and specialist brassica growers and is using participation in the Catalyst to ensure that the sector is well represented.

It has a knowledge-transfer partnership with Cranfield University and is supporting a project called ‘Soil-for-life Beta: Optimising Big Data to Drive Sustainable Intensification.’  This is creating a knowledge-base of information about soil types and properties of the land farmed by Produce World.

Jonathan Tole, head of operations, and Guy Thallon, group sustainability and research manager of Produce World, will be discussing at the Cambridge Pollinator how the company benefits from participation in research.

Thallon said: “Produce World is gearing up for this new era of ‘precision-farming’ by exploring a range of technologies designed to improve best practice.

“Forecasting is a big issue within the industry and over production can be hugely wasteful of resources. This is particularly a problem for brassica growers and one of our development projects is a broccoli-forecasting model that is able to estimate the timings and yield of broccoli crops.”

Growers will be able to benefit from this knowledge as Thallon explains: “The brassica industry in particular appears to still have a problem with surpluses. If we can create better forecasting, or indeed grow a range of varieties that mature at different rates we can ensure more efficient production in the future.”

Produce World is also looking to improve its own processes such as logistics and sees greater communication with the wider technology sector as offering new insights.

Also talking at the event will be former City analyst Sachin Shende and his colleague Giles Barker, co-founders of the Cambridge-based technology startup KisanHub.

Following the disastrous harvests of 2006 there was considerable volatility in the international grain markets that changed the way that farmers sold their wheat.  Schende saw an opportunity to create a new generation of on-farm decision-support tools for farmers.

His vision was for an easy to use online tool that would allow farmers to keep track not just of farm data, but also of real-time information about global issues and markets that would have a direct impact on the profitability and productivity of their operation.

Through its involvement in the Cambridge Accelerate Programme the company has already successfully raised £132k to support the development of a cloud-based software platform that underpins KisanHub and it has its first prototypes being piloted by arable farmers. At the Pollinator  KisanHub will be share its experiences of being a tech startup in this emerging industry sector.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East, said she is seeing strong interest from all parties in collaborative projects.

“Agri-tech is an exciting area, particularly for those with an interest in ‘Big Data’ as there are so many variables to measure and endless possibilities for extracting new insights.

“Defining the information requirements of the end users and those at all phases of the supply chain is essential to build business value in this sector and I will be interested to hear the discussion at the meeting.”

• Agri-Tech East’s first Pollinator event, ‘Innovations in agri-tech,’ is at Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge on September 17 from 4pm-7pm. More information is available at www.agritech-east.co.uk

• PHOTOGRAPH: Dr Belinda Clarke (left), director of Agri-Tech East checks out the new generation of agri-tech. On farm decision support is one of the areas to be discussed at the Pollinator.

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