13 June 2019
The ancient industry of farming and agriculture has had it tough over numerous millennia, but it’s now starting to sow the seeds for a very bright future, writes Robert Shepherd (no pun intended)
Many industries claim to house “the world’s oldest profession”.
Whether it’s a storyteller, tailor, Middle East peace broker or something even less salubrious, someone, somewhere will have their view on what it is.
The farming and agriculture sector cannot quite lay claim to that title, but it could argue it’s the “world’s most important”.
After all, if it wasn’t for healthy and nutritious food, no industry would be able to function as well as it does. If at all. However, farming and agriculture has never been without its fair share of problems.
This is a sector and way of life that has survived some of the harshest climatic, economic and logistical problems over thousands of years, with many farming dynasties losing their livelihood in the process.
Fast-forward from the Neolithic era to 2019 and problems still exist - “the pressure on food farmers to digitally transform has never been greater”, according to Cody Catalena, vice president and general manager, global business solutions at global communications company Viasat. Catalena says that faced with an ever-growing population, farms are at a crossroads in their ability to produce enough food to meet rising demand.
“As with any sector, technology is going to be a vital part of this transformation and this increased strain on supply will require an overhaul in how businesses along the food chain operate as they seek to produce enough to feed the world,” he says. “According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, food production will need to increase 70 per cent if, as predicted, the population reaches 9.1bn by 2050. In order to meet this demand, food producers will need to get smarter to ensure they are able to deliver greater crop yields and manage larger herds of livestock. The proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT) in business has inspired other sectors to think about how they can use technology and farming is no different.”
Of course, IoT is one of, if not the most used term in the technology lexicon at present.
For the average punter on the street, it probably means the Amazon and Google home voice controllers or those doorbells that allow the user to answer the door from any place using their smartphone.
Still, it has been instrumental in helping organisations to streamline processes and digitise operations and Catalena says it has a much larger part to play in helping solve the world’s spiralling demand for food.
He opines that producers need to become much more efficient and relying solely on traditional farming methods is no longer the way forward.
In fact, he goes so far as to say that the agricultural sector “is in dire need” of innovation to help meet the increasing demands placed on it and that IoT applications and devices will help increase the amount of food being grown without compromising on quality.
In theory, it sounds utopian, but how does so-called ‘precision farming’ work in practice?
Roberto Marzo, head of strategy and business development at cloud communications software company, MessageBird, says that cloud communications is bringing the barnyard into the 21st century by acting as the bridge between IoT sensors and farmers – known as smart farming. “For decades, farmers relied on instinct and the human eye to detect problems with the herd - an exhausting 24x7 job,” he continues. “Today, farmers around the globe are taking advantage of data provided and collected via AI and is then served up through cloud communications to detect real-time changes in the herd, aiding farmers to take the necessary action.”
Take Connecterra, for example, whose AI-enabled dairy assistant, Ida, uses a motion sensor attached to cow’s collars to mine data and alert farmers to changes in the cows - from illness to heat sensitivity to changes in productivity or even when the female is ready to breed, Ida is constantly processing this data on each individually ‘connected cow’.
By linking up to MessageBird’s cloud communications software, Ida can then send real-time alerts and actionable insights to farmers via SMS, so that the message gets through on any device, even in the most rural areas - from Europe to Africa, South America to the US.
“These real-time notifications help farmers detect illness and other issues up to two days before the human eye recognizes there’s a problem - enabling farmers to take immediate action – which is vital in the dairy industry,” concludes Marzo.
Mike O’Malley, vice president of carrier strategy and business development for global provider of cybersecurity solutions, Radware, says that with farmers investing in agtech to monitor everything from soil moisture to sunlight intensity, the applications would appear endless. “Agtech represents a huge step forward for the industry,” he says. “It’s a relatively new development in comparison to other sectors that embraced IoT tech early, one brought on not by consumer convenience but by the necessity to make farming more efficient and effective to cope with the demands of a rapidly growing population.”
However, it’s not just livestock that benefits from this technology.
There are other tools than can enable autonomous operations, particularly with watering crops and monitoring irrigation.
“IoT-enabled sensors can continuously monitor moisture levels and plant health,” says Catalena. “By pairing these systems with agricultural equipment, IoT-enabled sensors allow farmers to control when and how much water their crops receive”. “Drones that can capture detailed imagery and data can help monitor crop health and soil quality, whilst also helping farmers plan the planting of crops to optimise land use. Smart farms of the future will also utilise autonomous tractors to pull specialist equipment that helps with precision seeding, giving plants the best chance to sprout and grow.”
Chris Mason, director of business development, EMEA market, of kinetic wireless mesh networks provider Rajant, says the growth of advanced autonomous equipment is empowering farmers globally to feed the growing population while using less farmland and fewer natural resources while increasing yields, reducing pests and diseases without stripping the soil of its nutrients.
“While the realisation of a fully automated farm will not happen overnight, the key to success will be starting with a network that can easily grow to support more and new IIoT-enabled assets, with increasingly autonomous demands, over time – which will in turn, empower the fast-paced and relentless environment of agriculture,” he says.
Beefing up connectivity
While it is undoubtedly true that having the right equipment can only help the industry, how do countryfolk benefit from all this kit if connectivity is poor in rural areas?
After all, the English countryside is synonymous with inadequate reception – be it internet, mobile, TV or radio.
Catalena says to embrace smart farming technology, farms will need fast, reliable connections to service smart devices spread over vast distances.
“IoT sensors and autonomous vehicles need a solid internet connection to operate.” He concedes that this lack of connectivity is the biggest barrier to adopting smart farming technology. “Most farms are, by definition, in remote, rural areas: and are far enough from other habitation that it’s unlikely they would get their own dedicated fixed high-speed connection without considerable expense,” adds Catalena. “Furthermore, the rural areas that do have a connection are being underserved by traditional providers, who are supplying a service fixed to one location – which doesn’t offer the bandwidth or coverage to support the connectivity needs of smart farming.”
It would seem obvious then that farmers need better infrastructure to take advantage of the latest technologies.
What’s more, Catalena says poor connectivity “in this day and age should be no excuse”, with everyone, rural communities included, having been promised greater inclusivity. He says IoT applications and devices in rural areas show that the appetite for more capacity and coverage is greater than ever before, especially outside of urban environments. “The UK’s digital divide is creating a two-tier nation of broadband haves and have-nots,” Catalena adds. “If all food producers are going to contribute, then it’s vital that they all have the same level of connectivity.
Traditional providers typically only offer a fixed connection, but with the average English farm spanning 85 hectares, it’s impossible to serve that from one location without digging up trenches and laying more cables at great expense.
These connections are also typically very slow compared to modern fibre, and don’t offer the capacity needed for live video feeds, let alone trying to operate multiple autonomous vehicles over the entire estate.”
If what Catalena says is true – by all accounts it is – some farms will be able to adopt smart farming to become more efficient, but less privileged ones lingering in the digital divide are not afforded the same opportunity.
“Providing this connection is challenging when we’re increasingly reliant on fibre, whilst 4G is yet to make it into rural areas, let alone 5G,” he adds. “It’s vital that the government properly future-proof the UK’s broadband infrastructure as a matter of urgency to help food producers meet the demands of population growth.” Catalena says the sector “can’t just rely on one or two technologies to deliver connectivity to every part of the UK”.
Instead, he says what’s needed “is a holistic network-of-networks”, a mix of communication technologies like fibre, 5G, satellite and more, to provide the coverage and capacity smart farming needs to every area of the UK.
He says such an approach can provide the stable connection needed to every inch of farmland, “from the Isle of Dogs to the Shetlands”, which means farms all over the British Isles can collectively keep pace with food demand as populations continue to grow.
Mason says the right network technology can open doors to a new age of efficient, automated and sustainable farming.
“The network will empower the use of precision farming technologies, which utilise automated agriculture robots to produce a resilient, productive system that works around the clock to perform typical farming tasks with far greater speed, accuracy and productivity than traditional manual means,” he says. However, Mason adds that for farmers to truly reap the benefits, connectivity must not only be good, it must be 100 per cent reliable, regardless of mobility demands as equipment travels over farmland.
Down time can critically impede production.
He cites Rajant’s own kinetic mesh network, which Rajant claims enables highly-mobile, highly-secure, precision farming practices at all levels of automation.
Mason gives an example of how Rajant can help eucalyptus farmers.
“By powering forest-wide remote monitoring applications to optimise yields, farmers have benefitted from sensor-based monitoring of tree growth pace, identification of disease via computer vision and AI, as well as fire and disaster management,” adds Mason.
Of course, with connectivity comes the issue of security, something O’Malley says must be prioritised. “In order to continue innovating and reaping the benefits of agtech, farmers will have to navigate the same data challenges that are faced in any other sector – and that means dealing with cyberattacks that target their devices as well as their data,” he adds.
O’Malley says the same IoT devices tasked with monitoring farms are actually turning them into “valuable data centres” and that in itself has major security implications. “The average US dairy farmer is a $1 million operation and the average cow produces $4,000 in revenue per year,” he says. “That’s a lot at stake – roughly $19,000 per week given the average dairy farm’s herd. If a farm is struck by a ransomware attack, it would literally be better for an individual farm to pay a weekly $2,850 ransom to keep the IoT network up.”
So, just how do cyber criminals go about it? “5G opens the door to a complex world of interconnected devices that hackers will be able to exploit via a single point of access, such as in a cloud application,” O’Malley adds. “Once inside, they can quickly expand an attack radius to other connected devices and applications.” O’Malley is convinced that parts of Europe and the US food supply chain could be paralysed to the extent that recovery might not be possible if the right precautions are not put in place now.
“The economics of food production will come under intense pressure as we adopt more IoT to support production and replace human labour,” he adds. “As will our practices for keeping the networks and cloud applications secure.” Nevertheless, he says anyone looking to invest in agtech devices or services needs to be aware of the potential risks.
"They must ensure their IoT devices are not easy pickings for cybercriminals who are searching for low hanging fruit,”
O’Malley adds. “It’s important to take proactive steps and not simply wait to become another victim.”
Indeed, technology can only help to improve the workplace, whatever the sector, but if it’s not properly managed, it’s open to abuse.
The modern incarnation of IoT – as far as farming and agriculture are concerned – might still be in its infancy, but the technology itself has long been the farmers’ friend.
“Admittedly, ‘connected cows’ aren’t new,” says O’Malley. “IoT devices have been assisting farmers for several years now and it’s a booming business.”
Still, it looks to be gaining support from the bigwigs.
A recent report published by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy, called Time for a strategy on the rural economy (see below), has set out a range of recommendations across different policy areas to tackle the challenges facing the rural economy.
Since that report, the heads of the UK’s four mobile phone networks O2, EE, Three and Vodafone have announced plans to form a new company to help eliminate rural connectivity not-spots.
Perhaps things will finally start moving quickly after all. Watch this space.
Key recommendations in the Time for a strategy on the rural economy report
• Rural economies are facing significant opportunities and challenges. Issues including the UK’s impending departure from the EU, cuts to local authorities’ budgets, digital connectivity, affordable housing, and an ageing rural population make this an ideal moment for the Government to develop a comprehensive rural strategy, to set out its ambition for rural areas.
• The Government needs to rethink and reform the rural proofing process to ensure that relevant policies and legislation are attuned to the needs of rural communities and rural economies.
• Local Government and other public bodies should develop their own local rural strategies consistent with the Government framework and be responsible and accountable for their implementation.
Rural delivery and place-based approaches
• For a national strategy and its underlying policies to be effective, it is crucial that they are delivered locally using a place-based approach. This must include effective partnership working from all relevant public, private and voluntary bodies, driven by the nature of each local area and with active community participation, breaking down the silos that too often characterise rural policy.
• The Government must bring forward the consultation on the Shared Prosperity Fund as soon as possible and give much more information on its proposed scope to enable rural businesses and communities to begin planning for the future.
• The Fair Funding Review must ensure that rural local authorities are properly compensated for the additional costs of service provision, and that rural areas are fairly treated in future funding settlements.
• National and local Government should review their procurement policies to ensure that small and local organisations have the genuine ability to bid for the delivery of services.
• Government should direct Ofcom to conduct a review of the Universal Services Obligation as soon as possible, focusing on what minimum commitment would be needed to sustain and support rural businesses and communities, especially in remoter areas, and including both download and upload speeds.
• Ofcom should also re-assess the £3,400 payment threshold so that rural homes and businesses are not excluded. This must include consideration of home workers and businesses operating from home in remote areas.
• We welcome the proposal that Ofcom should review the option of introducing roaming in rural areas to address partial not-spots and would urge them to begin this review as a matter of urgency. Government and Ofcom should also encourage mobile network operators to share transmission masts more often in appropriate rural locations.
Housing and planning
• Government should provide a full and comprehensive exemption for all rural areas from the policy to limit affordable housing contributions on small sites.
• Government should consider suspending the local authority Right to Buy or making it voluntary for local authorities in specific locations, to ensure that much-needed affordable housing is not lost where it would be difficult or impractical to replace it.
• Government should revisit the merits of a spatial plan for England, particularly as it relates to rural areas, to ensure that planning policy operates in a framework where land use priorities are properly considered above the local level.
Skills and business support
• The Government should review the impact that the revaluation and current multiplier levels for business rates are having on rural businesses. There is also an urgent need to review the impact of small business and rural rate relief provisions on rural pubs, local shops and other businesses.
• The Government should investigate whether the current tax system is putting off farmers and rural small businesses from investing in diversification. As part of its review into tenancy agreements, the Government should also address restrictions on tenant farmers that may prevent diversification.
Local service delivery
• Government should undertake a full review of funding streams to rural public transport. The aspiration should be to develop a “single transport investment pot” that could be used to better support rural transport using a place-based approach.
• More needs to be done by Government to better understand, track and respond to rural criminality.
• Government must ensure that the challenges and costs of providing health services in rural areas are properly reflected in funding allocations to Clinical Commissioning Groups.