Do we need a digital strategy for agriculture and how could government support it?

Sarah Bell Emerging Leader

2018 Emerging Leader Sarah Bell shares her thoughts on the future within the agricultural sector. 

Sarah runs her own consultancy business, S E Bell Agri Food Ltd, driving and delivering positive change in food supply chains. Working on collaborative projects which break new ground, she uses her combined understanding of supply chains and practical agriculture in her work with a leading technology provider to develop new products. Formerly Head of Supply Chain at Openfield, she now divides her time between farming with her husband and parents, and the consultancy. With a passion for educating children about food production, Sarah is a trustee of The William Scott Abbot Trust, an educational charity which also runs a farm visitor centre near Peterborough.

Not a question I would have seen myself asking Michael Gove this time last year, but one I was privileged to have the opportunity to pose at Oxford Farming Conference this year. I was asked to apply for the Oxford emerging leaders programme kindly sponsored by BASF, so on a wet afternoon in October I sent off a short application and gave it little more thought. I was delighted when I got an email to say I had been offered a place. That was the starting point for meeting some exceptional farmers, and really starting to give agricultural policy more thought.

As we approach Brexit as a group of 30-something farmers, we have a valid perspective to offer – still being classed as young (in that we are younger than the average age of the UK farmer at 58), but with experience gained from farming and previous careers. My particular interest lies in how as an industry we use the digital world to our advantage.

I want to farm better, tread lightly and be more profitable. Digital has to form a strand of this. On the farm we have a wealth of data, held in different ways: paper, spreadsheet, farm management systems, and plain old things that we just know. This information we truly own but it’s hard to bring it together and get the full value from it. Alongside this there is the data we create in a collaborative way, kill sheets, grain sample results, crop protection recommendations, often held in multiple systems, and with no “home” in our own farm management system.

Then there is transactional data, which is generally created by the buyer of our produce, grain contracts, invoices etc. In general livestock and crop measurement systems are high cost of entry and high cost of exit, which means it is a high value and high-risk investment for farmers. No matter how much time you spend researching you only really come to understand a systems pros and cons when you come to use it (ask the RPA).

All of this information has a value to me, but as a mixed farmer combining it isn’t easy. Beyond that, finding the quick wins in terms of improvements in techniques, environmental impact, risk mitigation and profitability requires a lot of management time. So, are there any answers?

I believe so, the first of these is Trust. If you trust the people you trade with, work with them to access your data. If they are building analysis capabilities in to the access point, tell them what you want or need to know. If I want to learn from other people’s data, I will need to share mine, possibly anonymously, possibly openly - again it comes back to trust.

Secondly, Data Lockers: this is the single biggest way in which government could help in the data space. If levies were to be used to allow every farmer a place where they could choose what data they share and with whom, which was simple to use it would bring a step change to the industry. Farmers would feel in control of their data, and also use it with those businesses which will add value – either by helping with the analysis or by ensuring the product you get is the product you need.

Finally, Value Exchange: analysing data is time consuming, developing systems which help with it is expensive. The reason social media is free is because the companies harvest data and make money from selling advertising, that is their business model. At the moment agriculture doesn’t really have a digital business model, but one thing is for sure as farmers we will either have to invest our own cash in getting the answers we want or accept that it comes as part of a wider business transaction. If we want it rolled up “in the deal” we need to engage with those we trade with, be open, understand what data is being used, how we benefit from it, and communicate with our trading partners.

The great thing about digital is that like Brexit, it’s coming, no one knows the shape of it, but we have the opportunity to shape the outcome. I would love to see greater engagement on this in terms of a digital strategy from DEFRA, AHDB and the various groups representing farmers, but the real shape will come from farmers asking questions and building trust within supply chains to extract value for themselves, their customers and consumers.

BASF Crop Protection sponsored the 2018 OFC Emerging Leaders' Programme

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