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Spreading the smart message on the farm

‘We have to train young farmers to be solutions finders and look towards ICT for solutions to problems’

A newly created EU network is aimed at encouraging the more widespread adoption of smart farming technologies with the potential to generate sustainable increases in output while also addressing the environmental impact of agriculture. Smart-Akis – agricultural knowledge and innovation system – has been created to bridge the gap between research and reality and give farmers access to technological solutions which will meet their needs.

While Ireland is not a direct participant in the network, Teagasc director of knowledge transfer Tom Kelly is an external expert who sits on the Smart-Akis advisory board. In this role, he attended the recent transregional innovation workshop in Pamplona which multi-actor innovation processes and the barriers to and incentives for the adoption of smart-farming solutions by EU farmers.

“The EU has taken a very serious approach to driving technology and innovation in the agriculture and food sector,” says Kelly. “This has been supported for a number of years through research investment under the Horizon 2020 programme and the seventh framework programme before that. Smart-Akis is a network that includes a whole range of actors including researchers, universities, companies, supply chain, advisers, and farmers.”

A key aim is to address the gap between research and practice. “There is a very strong focus on how these technologies are used by farmers to their financial benefit,” he points out. “A lot of it is very elaborate and expensive and it needs to give value to the farmer.”


Some of the technologies are more useful than others, Kelly notes. “We have farmers telling us that some of them are more of a nuisance than anything else. They switch off certain devices as soon as they get into the tractor cab. It needs to have a purpose. Like any technology, if the farmer sees value in it they will use it.”

One way in which Smart-Akis is addressing this gap is through the creation of an online platform where farmers and other users can find information about new smart farming solutions. “The platform is a catalogue or shop window for new digital tools. They have done this in a slightly clever way. They have targeted the four main user groups – farmers, innovation brokers, researchers, and providers of smart farming solutions. Each of them is catered for on the platform.”

The platform also provides a repository of published articles and abstracts of papers on new technologies. “Somebody with technology underpinning a new product can put that up on the platform,” Kelly explains. “It might be a new way of measuring soil pH or crop growth rates or the nutrient value of manures. A user can drill a bit deeper into the technology behind those applications and see if could be applied to a problem they are experiencing.”

This is useful but has its shortcomings. “What we are seeing is solutions looking for problems. We are seeing solutions coming from the space or automotive or aircraft industries and with organisations looking for a problem in agriculture to apply them to. An example of that is Airbnb technology being used by farmers to buy and sell hay or silage from each other. Another example is combining hard science with ICT to assess the readiness of grapes on a vine for harvest by measuring the sugar levels in the grapes.”

But these are solutions looking for a problem, he reiterates. "The most effective way is when people with problems come looking for solutions. This is where smart farming solutions providers come in and includes everyone from John Deere developing a new piece of machinery to a farmer in his back kitchen creating a new smart farming app.

“A lot of people are coming forward with technology solutions but I’m not so sure that as many people are coming forward with problems. The lesson for us is that education programmes for young farmers need to have this as part of the curriculum. It is the future and things are changing so fast that this needs to be integrated into education programmes. We have to train young farmers to be solutions finders and look towards ICT for solutions to problems. It’s not all about robotic milking or robots weeding on organic farms.”

There can be issues around data and farmers have natural concerns in relation to the data they share and the uses it might be put to. “There is a leap of faith to be made and this has to be part of the discussion”, Kelly agrees. “We have to start looking at the technologies for the benefits they provide rather than just worrying about the data which is shared. We have got a great example here in Ireland on the use of big data for huge public good. The EBI (economic breeding index) was developed by ICBF and other organisations using data from every dairy and cattle farm in the country. This has added value for farmers in terms of increased yields and financial returns and climate mitigation measures.”

And Smart-Akis is already helping to share useful technologies with farmers across Europe. "One case study showed how tomato growers in the south of Spain have cornered 80 per cent of the British market thanks to their sophisticated traceability systems which are based on big data technology. Thousands of individual growers in co-ops have gained this competitive advantage as a result of sharing data and technology. This is now being shared throughout the EU thanks to Akis."


Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times