Monday, September 18, 2017

Can new technology solve labour shortages in farming?

There is considerable interest in the potential of new technology for making farming more productive and less reliant on difficult to obtain labour. I think that the development and application of these technologies should form a key part of a domestic agricultural policy post Brexit, but no one should pretend that they offer a quick, readily available and affordable fix.

Big farms already use semi-autonomous satellite-guided tractors and combines, which can drive in straight lines without overlapping. However, these big machines also tend to compact the soil, affecting its long-term viability and plant growth.

Harper Adams University, using government funding from Innovate UK, have adopted machinery to drill, spray and harvest crops autonomously using open source software, cameras, lasers and sensors. They used drones and scout vehicles to monitor the field and collect data by bringing back soils and crop samples.

The first crop is slightly wobbly where the tractor failed to keep to its line. The first hands free crop is expected to yield only 4.5 tonnes per hectare, compared with 6.8 tonnes using conventional methods.

In the horticulture sector, where labour problems are particularly acute, machines to pick strawberries and apples are being deployed, but they pick at only one third of the rate of a human and miss 15 per cent of the crop. Moreover, the machines can cost something approaching £200,000. Most farmers reckon that their large scale deployment is at least a decade off.

However, it is clear that one narrative that is being put forward (see Matt Ridley in The Times today is that access to cheap labour has held back the introduction of new technology in British farming.

The deputy president of the NFU has told a meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference that future growth in agriculture will be driven by overseas labour. There was no sign of government action on labour and trade issues: Lack of action

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