Opinion: Sharing precision farming frustrations

Forrest Gump sitting on a bench

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We hosted a collection of farmers from Canada, France, Australia, New Zealand and the UK not long ago.

They had been in London too long and were getting crotchety. Not enough green space makes farmers agitated. They needed to get out of town and kick some tyres. 

Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a Leaf demonstration unit. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday

Hosting a group of farmers is a bit like opening a box of chocolates. In the words of Forrest Gump: “You never know what you gonna get.”

Topics ebb and flow, and a handful of subjects always get an airing. Farm support, regulation, and technological advance are firm favourites.

Discussions about farm support – a most clandestine subject – makes even the boldest farmers bashful. No one wants to own up to having more “help” than their foreign counterparts. 

Visitors relish the opportunity of talking to a British farmer about regulation.

Are the rumours true? Does our government really measure our hedges and give sheep their own passports?

This particular group saw the opportunity like gazing into a crystal ball.

They regard the UK as a global leader in farm regulation – not a title to aspire to. What happens here may well happen in their country in the future.

“Hosting a group of farmers is a bit like opening a box of chocolates. In the words of Forrest Gump: ‘You never know what you gonna get'” – Ian Pigott

I love the openness of these meetings. Farmers don’t see one another as competitors.

The sharing of knowledge is honest and candid. The discussions about practical husbandry, technology and machinery are fascinating.

Everyone has an opinion and it demonstrates the diversity of agriculture across the planet.

One size certainly doesn’t fit all and the biggest and shiniest isn’t always best.

On this particular visit we stumbled upon the subject of faulty electronics in farm machinery.

The group was united in its frustration. It was rather cathartic to know that I wasn’t alone.

We have embraced precision farming, the benefits of which I fully endorse. But when it goes wrong I get very peeved.

The cost of calling out an agricultural engineer to plug in a laptop, upgrade the software of the machine in question, reboot it and depart, leaves me with a rather empty and dissatisfied feeling. 

Is my attitude to agricultural engineering stuck in the 1990s?

I love technology and yet I hanker to see my friendly engineer, JT, getting covered in hydraulic oil, curse when he skins his knuckles on a seized pulley and then methodically set about repairing the problem that has defeated us.

Once sorted, the debrief has an atmosphere of job well done and the metaphorical baton – a coffee mug now covered in a concoction of Swarfega and oil – is handed back.

All present agreed it was a struggle to impart the same value to the repair of an electronic breakdown.

There was a feeling that the manufacturer had you in a corner.

It’s 2015 and while our tractors can steer themselves and locate a pin prick in a 1,000ha field, for an engineer to find an electronic fault is still by an archaic process of elimination.

Quite wrongly, we all confessed to being less inclined to make a cup of tea for an engineer performing an electronic repair. Except for the Aussie.

“Why don’t you mend it yourself?” he said.

“It’s not that straightforward,” we countered.

“Our dealership is 10 hours away so we had to learn,” came the blunt retort from Down Under.

“If it bothers you that much, learn ag electronics code. If not, embrace the technology, pay up for the expertise and enjoy the benefits.”

Abrupt but fair. It is easy to value advice from a kindred spirit.

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