COMMUNICATIONS PROJECT FOR
Electronic wizardry is sure
to take a high profile at
the first Smithfield Show
of the new millennium.
How it can help farmers
make more money is what
everyone wants to know.
A major new project aims
to provide some answers.
Charles Abel reports
IMAGINE the day when you can get up-to-date disease warnings, transmit digital photos of crop problems to your consultant, receive his recommendations by return, order chemicals and sell your crops forward, all in a matter of minutes while standing in the field.
Providers of the latest mobile communications technology say that day is almost upon us. And a research consortium led by Sally Runham of ADAS aims to help farmers make the most of it.
With £400,000 of funding, half from the Department of Trade and Industry mobile multi-media demonstrator programme and half from ADAS, Multimedia Design Studio of St Ives, Cambs, and independent consultancy Peter Rickard Services, the Teletractor project aims to evaluate and advise on the latest mobile communication and information systems over the next two years.
"There is a lot of information and equipment already available and the potential is enormous, but it needs to be evaluated to see what will be most useful to farmers," says consortium member Rosie Bryson, formerly of ADAS Boxworth and now with the Home-Grown Cereals Authority.
She has little doubt that the changes in information provision and communications offer farmers the next major advance in business efficiency. "Rather surprisingly a recent survey found that farmers thought the greatest technological benefit of the twentieth century not the combine harvester or modern agrochemicals, but the mobile phone. The technology that is now coming on stream is likely to have an even greater impact."
Not only could farmers receive faxes, text messages and e-mails while in the field, they could also access the internet to check on the latest news and information, including market prices, crop intelligence and local weather, says Dr Bryson.
Furthermore, electronic tools such as crop input calculators, decision support models to guide spray choices and on-line ordering could soon be a reality.
Sending images of crops from a digital camera over the internet rather than a sample in a plastic bag through the post could also speed the diagnosis of some crop problems.
With the convergence in technology, mobile phones are becoming more like computers and vice-versa – whether such services are delivered by one of the new generation WAP phones, small personal organisers or a laptop computer equipped with a communications card still remains to be seen.
To test the technology the Teletractor project is using three pilot groups of farmers to evaluate equipment, software and internet-based services. One group is arable-based in Essex, another is focused mainly on livestock and organic arable farmers in Wales and the south-west, while a third will focus on predominantly horticultural packhouses.
As information becomes available from the project a web-site will be launched in the spring to relay the advice and guidance on mobile technologies to interested farmers. It will be a service growers should watch out for, says ADAS consultant Neil Watson, who is closely involved with the Essex group.
"The technology is developing rapidly and is now relatively inexpensive. For those that do not get involved there is a real danger that we could end up with a two-tier industry – those that are exploiting this technology and those that are not."
He believes the technology will put all the resources of the farm office at the fingertips of the farmer wherever he is – even in the middle of a field. "You will be able to find information faster on your lap-top computer than in any office filing cabinet," he says.
Major communications players such as Orange and Nokia are very interested in the project. "They are very supportive and committed to the farming market," says Dr Bryson.
She has little doubt that the services will benefit farmers. "By Smithfield 2002 the provision of information will be working well, consultants will benefit from better communications and it will also help get research and development messages across to farmers far more effectively," she concludes. *
Simon Parrish says the new technology will mean less time spent in the office.
• Evaluating latest information and communication systems.
• £400,000 over two years.
• Three pilot groups.
• Technology not limiting.
• Huge advances expected.
• Farmers need to keep up.
Simon Parrish (left), Neil Watson and Rosie Bryson with the tools of a new technologival revolution.
Breaking down the technology barriers is the main objective of the new Online Farm Office at this years Smithfield Show. Whether it is arable or livestock, legal or financial, hardware or support the feature will demonstrate and explain how technology is being implemented in the agricultural sector. Come along and see first hand the latest developments in scanner technology, mobile phones and PCs and pick up details of a complete, supported IT solution.
Visit stand 412 to find out more.
GROWER PARTICIPANT ALREADY INVOLVED
One grower who is already making good use of modern electronic information and communication systems is Simon Parrish, farm manager for Padfield-Hayleys Farming at Thornwood, Epping, Essex. He looks after 800ha (2000 acres) of arable cropping on the home farm and is a participant in the East Anglian Teletractor group. He also manages recently-formed Syndicate Farm Services, which provides machinery and labour services across 1800ha (4500 acres).
"I can see that this technology is going to mean farmers can spend a lot less time in the office in future. I reckon I will soon be carrying a digital camera and a lap-top computer set up for mobile communications in the Land Rover, to help diagnose crop problems and keep in touch while Im out."
Mr Parrish already carries a lap-top computer in the Land-Rover most days. It carries yield and soil maps, crop input records and a host of other information to help him make decisions in the field.
Software to run seed rate calculations means rates can be adjusted according to field conditions at the time of drilling and variable rate fertiliser application maps can be updated according to tiller and plant counts on the day of spreading.
"It means I can get on with things without having to wait until Im back in the office. It will really help in todays culture of immediate action."
In future he hopes to use on-line ordering to get the best input prices and speedy delivery. The digital camera could even help with spare parts ordering, allowing an image of the part required to be transmitted rather than relying on faxed diagrams.