'Modern farming is crazy': Meet the Shropshire man bringing a fleet of small robots to farms
There are warnings from some scientists that our land may not be able to produce food within the next half-century – so what can we do to help?
Of all the great concerns hanging over the planet, surely the last thing we need to worry about is our soil?
Well, perhaps we should be concerned – some specialists are warning that there may be as few as 30 to 40 harvests left in the life of our earth.
On World Soil Day this is the stark warning from a farmer looking to revolutionise the farming industry to make sure there is a future for our soil and farms.
Imagine driving along through rural fields and instead of lumbering tractors and combines, there are small armies of robots are working the fields
It sounds a bit futuristic – well, it is a bit futuristic – but this is the new reality.
At least, that is the view of Sam Watson-Jones from Newport, founder of agri-tech start-up the Small Robot Company.
His three small robots – called Tom, Dick and Harry and powered by artificial intelligence software called Wilma – could just be the future of arable farming. They will, he insists, render redundant big agricultural machines like tractors.
It goes against all our thinking about agriculture – surely farmers are meant to use tractors – but when fourth generation farmer Sam explains, it starts to make sense.
“I was thinking about what my contribution was going to be to the family business,” he says. “The idea of adding an extra 300 acres – which is essentially what my grandfather and father did – is just completely out of reach financially, and arguably it wouldn’t be that valuable either. So it was always going to have to be something different for me.
“I thought, what’s the big opportunity for technology in farming and what’s the big technology that’s really going to make a difference in farming?”
After holding meetings with engineer Professor Simon Blackmore, the brains behind the Hands Free Hectare at Harper Adams University which focusses on automating farming machinery like tractors, the seed of the Small Robot Company was planted in Sam’s mind.
“We spoke about how crazy modern farming is and how we have got trapped in a pattern of thinking about scale,” he says.
“If two farmers are talking to each other in a pub the first question they ask is how much land are you farming?’ and the second is about the size of their tractors. Those are the two measurements we use as an industry and it’s nonsense really. The difference between farms’ sizes is not that significant in terms of economic power or your ability to make a good margin, but that’s how we think, we always think bigger and bigger.”
But big machinery doesn’t necessarily make the farm more profitable, and, Sam says, is worse for the soil.
“There is research that shows 90 per cent of the energy we spend in cultivating and turning the soil is correcting damage that we put there,” he says.
“So you take a big machine on the field, it compacts the soil and that necessitates a load of energy being spent correcting that damage. So if you didn’t take the big machine on there in the first place we wouldn’t have to spend the money cultivating – but we’re trapped in the cycle.
“Cultivation is bad thing for the soil, which soil scientists agree on."
Dangers to farming
When Sam moved back to the farm he went through decades of his father’s meticulous records of farm revenue, yields and crop performances, digitising them.
“The first book I pulled off the top of the stack was for 1990 and our revenues per hectare and our yields per hectare for our combinable crops were exactly the same as in 2016,” says Sam. “That set alarm bells ringing because the costs we incur as a business to generate those revenues and generate those yields have gone up massively in those 26 years – wages, fuel, chemicals, fertiliser and most significantly machinery for which costs have at least doubled.
“If you plot it out on a graph and if our revenue lines are static but our cost line is increasing year on year, there comes a point where those two things intersect and at that point you haven’t got a viable business.”
The essence of what Small Robots Company aims to do is to provide farms with the robots and AI which will plant, treat and monitor crops and plants on an individual basis.
The prototypes of this system will be hitting farms in the new year.
“A lot of the younger farmers I spoke to completely accepted that this was the way that farming was going to go," said Sam
“I predict that we’ll like a world where there is a lot of stuff done by robotics and AI, it’s just different.
“It doesn’t mean there will be any less joy in being a farmer or that it becomes any less relevant, in fact my hope is that this enables a good deal more power and freedom to the farmer."