Business

Talking apps down on the iFarm

  • 29 November 2011
  • From the section Business

As global population continues to soar, the United Nations estimates that by 2050, farmers will need to increase food production levels by around 70%.

Simultaneously, pressures from other industries will see of larger and larger portions of agricultural land swept away by urbanisation.

It leaves the world's farmers with a momentous challenge on their hands: produce more food, for more people, from less.

They're going to need a lot of help - and it is likely to come from technology.

In our ancient history, farming has been the catalyst for some of humankind's greatest technological advances.

But while the modern day farm is the realm of huge, expensive, sophisticated machinery - it seems simpler, day-to-day tasks are left untouched by an industry that seems more intent on producing technology to run make-believe farms rather than real ones.

"I think the farming sector is one that high-tech organisations probably haven't spent as much time on as they could," admitted Martin Stiven, vice-president for business at UK mobile network T-Mobile.

"The technology is there, it's about applying it. And it's about thinking about the particular issues that farmers have and building those specific applications that will help them."

Hew Leith from M&C Saatchi writes up ideas.
Ideas from the brainstorming session will be taken to developers

Tech boost

And so recently, in the shadow of the somewhat unlikely backdrop of Canary Wharf, farmers and other industry figures gathered at Mudchute city farm to discuss how agriculture could be given a much needed tech boost.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the discussion centred around smartphones.

"I've got an iPhone, iPads, we're using mobile technology to speak to each other," said Peter Eynon, a farm manager in Berkshire.

He has used his mobile to eliminate the need to carry around masses of paper all over his farm in order to record important information about his livestock.

"If we were able to do it just in one space and then upload it to all our programs that would save me a vast amount of time. And a lot of money."

Strict rules regarding record taking on farms mean much of a farmers day-to-day activity is spent in the office and not, as they would prefer, out in the field.

A Macbook and Blackberry on a bale of hay bale
Much of modern technology is not geared towards agricultural use, despite the demand

Mr Eynon estimated he could save in the region of £10,000 a year if the time he spent managing records was cut by just half.

Fatal flaw

Farmers described how lacklustre, highly costly systems were so cumbersome that they were losing up to half of their working week tackling administration problems.

Adam Quinney, a livestock farmer at Reins Farm near Redditch, has invested over £15,000 in buying in systems I an attempt to make things easier. Everything from medicine to livestock movement is tracked - but with one fatal flaw.

"It's really frustrating that more and more people are moving into using software systems to do their recording of medicines and everything else - and yet the system can't talk to each other as everybody has a bespoke system."

In other words, it's like spending thousands of pounds on a computer, only to find that your colleagues are unable to read your emails without the help of an external company to decipher the data.

UK farmers are not alone. Bruce Erickson, Agronomic Education Manager for the American Society of Agronomy told the BBC that coping with the sheer weight of record keeping is just as critical a problem across the Atlantic.

"Farmers did not become farmers so they could spend their life in an office moving paper around.

"They became farmers because they like the outdoors - so it's not their natural inclination to fiddle around with stuff on the computer half the day."

Like many, he sees the mobile phone as the key to solve all these problems. At Indiana's Purdue University, where Mr Erickson is a professor, they are lending support to agriculture-led software development on smart phones - something which he says is long overdue.

"Neglect is the negative way to describe it. Let's say there's a lot of opportunity for growth.

"There are few people who are chipping away at that."

Dramatic change

Among them is Neil Mylet, an Indiana-based farmer turned technologist. His company, LoadOut, specialises in software and mobile applications for agriculture.

"The reliability of mobile hardware has been the most significant innovation that's resulting in the increased adoption by farmers," he told the BBC.

"Agriculture is one of the largest industries on Earth that touches each one of our lives on a daily basis.

A cow eats some hay.
Much of the discussions centred around the difficulty of dealing with large amounts of livestock

"Farmers in general are extremely innovative, but for quite a long period of time technology adoption in the agriculture sector has been expensive, faced a steep learning curve, and was cumbersome.

"Innovation from the people that work in the industry is going to lead this progression specific to the agricultural sector - not large tech companies or large agriculture companies which is a dramatic change from what the industry is accustomed to or might expect."

His company hopes to release no less than 15 apps geared towards farmers next early next year.

Back in the UK, and the conclusions from the brainstorm at Mudchute farm will, the organisers say, be taken away and worked on by a variety of technology companies.

"There are a few ideas specifically that are going to be quite important to the industry," reflected Dusan Hamlin, joint chief executive of M&C Saatchi Mobile, organisers of the event.

"Far from being technophobes, [farmers are] right on the other end of the spectrum.

"They're using technology day-in-day-out and they embrace it in a way most consumers and most business people don't."

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