Non-farmers needed to nurture industry's new high-tech era

Farmers are increasingly looking outside the industry to bridge a technology skills gap as they adapt to a wave of high-tech advances, according to a new study.

James Hopwood, head of agriculture at Whole Crop Marketing at Kirkburn near Driffield with a hi-tech drone that scans field of potatoes.

More than two-thirds of the 500 UK farmers who took part in the research conducted by the National Farm Research Unit said they believed emerging technology will impact their business over the next five years and that this would require a new set of skills and talent on their farms.

To address this, 70 per cent of farmers who contributed to the study in Yorkshire said attracting talent from outside the industry was a key priority and 30 per cent said they expect to increase the number of people they recruit from non-farming backgrounds over the next five years.

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Asked which skills they thought the industry would need more access to in five years’ time, 75 per cent of farmers said digital and technology skills, 73 per cent said business skills and nearly half said data analytics and coding.

Some 38 per cent said they were looking to use or already use satellite mapping and 43 per cent said the same about precision farming techniques which use sensors and GPS controlled machinery to service crops and livestock.

Another 57 per cent said they were using or considering remote sensing technology that records real-time measurements on crop height and weather conditions, a third said the same of big data analytics, 41 per cent of drone technology and 46 per cent of robotics.

Connor McVeigh, supply chain director of McDonald’s UK which commissioned the study, said: “The farming industry is currently facing some big challenges but it’s encouraging to see that, despite this, farmers are being front-footed in their investment in technology and skills to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of producing great quality produce.

“As one of the biggest customers of British farming, we want to help the industry meet these challenges head on and thrive in future.”

James Maynard, offering management director for Global IoT & Innovation at Fujitsu, said access to digital and technology skills can “revolutionise” agriculture, adding: “Understanding how technology can be applied to empower farmers to achieve better results is a vital step towards ensuring UK farming thrives.”

Industry body, AHDB Horticulture, is carrying out its own study to gauge the use of automation and robotics in the horticultural sector.

It hopes the results will help inform what technological investments are needed to help address concerns about labour availability and costs, which have grown more acute due to the affect of the National Living Wage and uncertainty over the availability of migrant workers post-Brexit.

Its survey has been sent to growers from a range of horticulture crops and selected businesses will be contacted for in-depth studies.