Yorkshire scientists on the brink of trialling new farm technologies

Chairman of the Crop Health and Protection centre, John Chinn.
Chairman of the Crop Health and Protection centre, John Chinn.
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Scientists in North Yorkshire are just months away from putting groundbreaking new agricultural technologies to work for the first time.

As part of a long-term plan to ultimately boost yields and increase efficiency on farms through the adoption of new agricultural methods, a £4m e-flows mesocosm facility will enable plant protection products to be environmentally tested to ensure they meet stringent regulatory standards.

The technology will be Europe’s most advanced edge-of-field water assessment facility and is expected to help bring a wider range of more effective products to market more quickly to help farmers tackle threats to their crops.

A national surveillance and risk forecasting service is also being developed to understand the risks from crop pathogens and pests so that farmers can react before they strike, as well as mobile trailers that instantly diagnose the prolific blackgrass weed, crop fungus Septoria or gangrene in potatoes.

These technologies and more are being delivered by the Crop Health and Protection centre (CHAP) which is based at Sand Hutton near York and has teams elsewhere, including at Stockbridge Technology Centre, the horticultural science centre in Cawood near Selby.

At the start of a big year for CHAP, its chairman John Chinn said farming is embarking on a high-tech revolution that will lead to huge gains in agricultural productivity.

“I’m 65-years-old and I’m absolutely convinced I will see far more innovation in the last quarter of my life than the first three-quarters,” he said.

“What’s important at the moment is to try and communicate the vision of what we are planning to develop within the next ten to 15 years. It’s very easy for people to pick up one strand of what we are doing but it’s about bringing it all together into a new way of thinking.”

The Herefordshire-based farmer, whose own family enterprise produces a third of the UK’s asparagus crop, said that new way of thinking involves striving for new methods of farming that are more cost effective, more nurturing of soils and the environment, and ultimately lead to higher yields through better science-led understanding of growing conditions.

“We have seen tractors and machinery get bigger and bigger in the fields and this results in soil compaction, so we are putting another big machine on the back, a sub soiler, and go over it to get the soil back up,” Mr Chinn said.

“But as we get driverless tractors and greater automation we will see tractor size come right down and see maybe 20 smaller tractors working in fields that can zap weeds precisely with lasers and carry out harvesting.

“The job of CHAP is to get this new thinking working and communicate sufficiently with farmers, then I think we can rely on market forces.”

Another CHAP project sees LED lighting used to grow crops indoors at Stockbridge; a system that has the potential to enable the UK to grow fresh, tastier produce all year round.

Also being developed there are new facilities to screen biopesticides - natural materials such as plants, bacteria, other microbes, fungi and nematodes - and bio-control products to generate data for registration purposes.

At Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire imaging technology and automated image processing will assess how plants respond to pathogens, pests and weeds, and identify insect sensitivity to pesticides, while at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire the relationship between water use, soil health, pathogens, weeds and roots is being explored in pursuit of the best possible growing conditions.

CHAP’s work is exciting, believes Adam Bedford, regional director of the National Farmers’ Union, who said: “Our local farmers and growers face considerable challenges in feeding a growing population while minimising impacts on the environment. To achieve more sustainable, efficient, productive and competitive farming businesses, we need access to the best knowledge and tools and that’s where CHAP has an important role to play.

“It is not just innovative ‘kit’ that is needed but also optimum practices and management, tailored to particular farming systems. Farmers need the right skills and support to adopt new technologies and approaches, and the long-term security to apply them to their businesses.

“In our meetings with CHAP, it is clear that they are taking a very practical approach, not just researching new approaches to pest and soil management for example, but also ways of engaging directly with farmers on the ground and demonstrating new techniques in a way that is very accessible. This will be crucial as we seek to ensure that farmers are able to embrace the latest technological solutions.”

IN PROFILE

CHAP is one of four national agri-tech bases that have been set up by the Government as part of its Agri-Tech Strategy to better focus scientific expertise on delivering benefits for farmers, growers and the food industry.

Almost £23m has been pledged to CHAP between 2015 and 2019 by the Government and in the future it is envisaged the not-for-profit centre will be financially self-sufficient.

A number of CHAP technologies are due to be up and running by early summer, when they will be available for use by external parties within the agriculture sector.