Smartphone technology is making its mark in farms and helping to transform the way the UK grows fresh produce. Produce Business UK considers some of the applications available, looks at the pros and cons of the increasing use of technology and what it offers customers and consumers
Just as many keen gardeners enjoy the blissful solitude of their allotments, many commercial growers also savour those precious moments of peace and quiet when they’ve left their mobile phones behind to focus on tending their crops.
However, some of the mobile phone application (app) technology being developed or trialled for British growers is proving so handy that smartphones have fast become an essential part of the growing process.
The UK’s Horticultural Development Company (HDC) is, for example, in the process of converting its 16 crop walkers’ guides into one, central ‘crop walker guide’ app from which all of the existing content can be accessed.
HDC representative Charlotte Corner explains: “The crop walkers’ guides are one of our most popular publications. They were designed to be portable and pocket-sized so growers could walk the crop whilst using the guide as reference. The app is a natural progression of this.”
Corner reveals that the app, due to be made available in the next 12 months, will enable growers to file a report of any sightings, track the location of the sighting, and email a report emailed to themselves. “It will also suggest ‘further useful reading’ pointing to other HDC publications to support growers in tackling any problems they encounter,” she adds.
A need for new technology
Corner tells Produce Business UK that the idea for an app that enables growers to easily access information on pests and diseases whilst walking amongst their crops actually came from a suggestion made by one of HDC’s field vegetable panel members.
“We looked at how this could best be executed and decided an app should be built that services the needs of all of our sectors [including tree fruit, soft fruit, protected edibles, field vegetables and mushrooms],” she says.
Many growers and their advisors are also seemingly acknowledging that the industry would benefit from using this type of technology. Agronomy and crop protection specialist Agrovista is one such advocate; having just developed Axis – a new cloud computing-based agronomy tool that utilises new crop recording software from Muddy Boots.
Lewis McKerrow, Agrovista's precision technology manager, explains: "Our intention was always to make the system cloud-based so farmers could access and add to their information via multiple platforms, including smartphones, satellite-mapping equipment and their PCs."
Axis will be very practical to use, plus McKerrow says it has an intuitive app-style access screen. “It will include a host of really practical management aids like yield and soil mapping, compliance date alerts, technical agronomic updates, seven-day weather forecasts, spray-window forecasts and product labels," he notes.
Perhaps one of the key advantages of this type of system is that it enables growers to better communicate with the rest of their supply chain – including packers, marketers and ultimately buyers. Agrovista’s head of marketing Nick Rainsley explains that if, for instance, a grower utilises the Muddy Boots’ Green Light Grower Management part of the Axis system they can share field information with staff, managers, spray operators, and agronomists. Producers can also give access to the field/crop records to the marketing or buying companies to speed up audits so everything can be done online. “The records of any crop are always available and totally up to date,” he says.
Jon Barfoot, commercial director of fresh produce grower Barfoots, admits that “there’s absolutely a need” for this kind of technology in the industry. He also notes that the usage of apps encompasses the increasing adoption, and development of, precision technology in agriculture and horticulture.
“This type of technology that’s coming to the fore – to help identify as early as possible things like crop nutrition, pests and diseases – can really help the guys who are doing the job in the field to make decisions in real-time,” Barfoot says. “They can then report this information ‘upstream’ or ‘downstream’. It’s about having that quick decision-making and technology-driven support for farmers.”
Barfoot is also quick to point out that this kind of technology is already being rolled out globally. Trials in India, for example, have seen a mobile phone app successfully used on remote farms to record crop data that is used to help producers get timely crop insurance claims.
Changing the game
The use of smartphone technology on farms obviously has many benefits – but there are those who remain understandably sceptical.
Norfolk-based grower Andrew Wortley, whose firm OW Wortley & Sons supplies the market with Maris Peer salad potatoes, is one such example. “I do appreciate that we have to move forward but I’m still not a fan,” he says. “That’s what I pay my agronomist for – that’s his job. Farmers need to farm. I see so many farmers spending time on their laptops and not doing their jobs. We do need technology but it has to be technology that saves time because some of it wastes time – something often breaks or doesn’t work and you don’t know what to do.”
Barfoot admits that precision technology is augmenting the role of the grower – a fact that is likely to ruffle a few feathers. “Supported by this technology, we can make decisions with more authority and clarity,” he explains. “But this means that the average level of skill and savviness required has gone up massively – it does call for a high calibre of individuals in that environment. But if our farming gets better then we can increase our productivity and reduce our impact on the environment.
“Our retailers want us to become more efficient businesses that increase capacity and produce more food with fewer resources. They want us to be better at what we do, and so we have to have a conversation about how we can do this.”
Like it or not, smartphone technology is changing the way we grow food but perhaps it would be wise to remember, as Wortley suggests, “it’s about getting the balance right between the old and the new”.