An everyday story of country folk and their drones

18th February 2018 – The Sunday Times

An everyday story of country folk and their drones

Agricultural start-ups are helping transform farming with high technology

Jamie McInnes married into a farming family four years ago, but he could not believe how much time it took his father-in-law to find a fair price for his grain. “He would spend a day on the phone to get three prices,” said McInnes, 33. “It was ludicrous.”

Like every newlywed, he was eager to impress the in-laws, so he created Graindex, an online marketplace that allows farmers to sell grain direct to their customers. The venture is part of Hectare, which McInnes co-founded to develop digital tools to help farmers become more efficient. Based in Hampshire, on the edge of the South Downs, the business has raised £2.5m, mostly through the crowdfunding site Seedrs, and is now used by 30,000 farmers across Britain.

Hectare is one of a herd of start-ups bringing new technology to a sector that has sometimes struggled to modernise. From using big data to understand what nutrients crops need to drones patrolling fields to produce crystal clear 3D images, farming is becoming a hi-tech industry.

The government has made agriculture central to its industrial strategy, pledging to put Britain at the forefront of high- efficiency farming — which must happen if farmers are to thrive after Brexit.

About £2.8bn in annual subsidies comes from the EU, while about 80,000 seasonal workers are employed on British farms, many of them from the Continent. The uncertainty over Brexit negotiations has filtered through to farmers, some of whom fear the rush to agree new trade deals could lead to increased competition from agricultural powerhouses such as America and New Zealand.

Last month, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, allayed some fears by guaranteeing farmers the same level of subsidy they receive from the EU for five years after Brexit. Yet the industry’s long-term health depends on embracing new ideas, and that can be a challenge.

“This is a very conservative sector,” said McInnes, who ran a digital marketing agency before setting up Hectare. The company has also developed SellMyLivestock, an online marketplace, and FarmPay, a secure payments method. It has not always been easy to sign up new customers, though. “There is a challenge around getting people to use the technology, because their entire ancestry has gone to market in the same way, sometimes going back hundreds of years.”

However, it is wrong to believe most farmers are irredeemably stuck in their ways. Many who embrace new methods have seen their businesses flourish.

Nick May used to run a cattle farm in Holsworthy, Devon. Four years ago, a friend recommended he invest in renewable energy, and he now operates a solar farm and two giant wind turbines. He has also converted a number of old barns into accommodation for autistic adults.

May struggled to secure bank lending, so borrowed £1m from peer-to-peer lender Folk2Folk, which specialises in lending to rural businesses. The revenue from the turbines and solar panels will allow him to repay the loan in three years. “I saw the opportunity and went for it,” said May, 48. “Some people are very stuck in their ways. They’re blinkered. Sometimes you have to change what you do.”

Change is likely be driven by an array of start-ups developing new technology to help farmers improve productivity. One, London-based Hummingbird Technologies, uses sensors mounted on drones to detect crop diseases and produce accurate yield forecasts. Another, Entomics, is using the larvae of the black soldier fly to break down food waste and turn it into fertiliser and animal feed.

Plans are being made to house these and other exciting young businesses in a £500m “agritech” park south of Cambridge. The proposal, yet to receive planning permission, has been put forward by developer SmithsonHill. It would provide agritech businesses with 1m sq ft of commercial space and accommodate up to 4,000 staff.

“There are a lot of resources being put into the sector,” said Emma Fletcher, SmithsonHill’s managing director. “It feels a bit like life sciences in the 1980s.”

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