September 30, 2022

The age of autonomous growing has begun

In this article, we examine the cause of labour shortages, as well as what it means for businesses and the general public. We will delve deeper into a new wave of automation within the agricultural sector as a remedy for these problems

Written by
Callum Farquhar
Listen to this episode below or on your favourite platform.

The agriculture industry encountered a number of challenges in 2021 as it transitioned to the conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit.  

One of the biggest struggles that are being felt throughout the whole agriculture industry is labour shortages. How can we handle these severe labour shortages to ensure that the UK's largest manufacturing sector continues to contribute to our economy, and ensure food security as our population expands and climate change worsens?

In this article, we examine the cause of labour shortages, as well as what it means for businesses and the general public. We will delve deeper into a new wave of automation within the agricultural sector as a remedy for these problems, discussing the advantages of automation in farming as well as the new "hybrid-model" of vertical farming and greenhouse production.

Issues surrounding farming

COVID-19, Brexit, climate change, a growing population and a cost of living crisis are just some of the many challenges that UK farmers have faced in the last couple of years.  

However, one of the biggest challenges that have affected agriculture, which is a direct result of both the pandemic and Brexit, has been labour shortages. One of the best solutions to this issue is to bring food production back into the UK. With all the issues facing the industry right now, how is this going to happen? The answer might be automation.  

But first, we need to examine the effects labour shortages are having on the industry.

An Evangate Financial Services article highlighted how 70,000 migrant farm workers come to the UK every year to help farmers harvest and process their crops. However, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, that all quickly changed. According to ONS data, the number of EU citizens employed in the UK decreased by 5% between the end of 2019 and the end of June 2021.

The same goes for Brexit, an Institute for Government article pointed out that recruiting from the EU has become more difficult for UK businesses since we left the European Union. A lot of these workers are now opting to work in different EU countries for the same wage, without the hassle. It is not just labour shortages on the field, there is also a crisis within the logistics sector leaving the UK’s supply chain seeing “employment challenges on a scale not seen for decades”.

This means pay increases, price increases, and decreased competitiveness will start to occur if labour shortages are not quickly addressed. As Director at the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Andrew Opie noted, it also means more imports into the UK and food production being exported to other countries.  

Brexit has also meant that the agriculture industry will face harsher border checks, custom declarations, and additional paperwork, leading to delays and a price increase in some products. The quality of food for the UK will suffer as a result, which further weakens the food supply chain.  

So, how can automation help?  

Automation as a solution

So, how do we find ways to reduce horticulture's reliance on seasonal migrant labour post-pandemic and post-Brexit? How is the food and farming sector going to ensure the strength of their supply chain and guarantee food security?  

One possible piece of the solution puzzle is automation.

Before you hit the "x" at the top of the page and think, "Oh great, not another article on the automation hype," know that at IGS, we don't believe automation is the only answer. However, it is undoubtedly a significant piece of the puzzle that will move the industry forward.  

We strongly agree with Tom Bradshaw of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) who stated that "exciting" new technology will "complement labour rather than replace labour".

So, what do we mean when we say ‘automation’?

Automation is the process of making human tasks and jobs easier and faster. As a system that represents a new approach to producing food in a sustainable way that will boost productivity and efficiency, our vertical farming technology can be a wonderful illustration of automation.

Automation and your current systems of growth can complement each other, which can be achieved by developing new agricultural jobs and enhancing the skills of your current workforce.

Benefits of automation

To protect your farm against a potential labour deficit, investing in technological development is crucial. As a result of automation, users' daily operations become more flexible and they gain a deeper understanding of what is happening, which improves their ability to make decisions.

Reduces the need for imports

In reference to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report on labour shortages in the food and farming sector, it is recommended that a long-term labour strategy be developed that combines the development and deployment of new technology with appealing educational and vocational training programmes to attract British-based workers and lessen the sector's reliance on foreign labour.

Through automation, we will also reduce our reliance on food brought into the UK from abroad, allowing for higher quality and higher yield right here in our own country.

Enables year-round production

Vertical farming creates its own micro-climate, which means produce can be grown at any time during the year. The level of production possible with vertical farming facilities can enable access to food year-round, as well as lessen dependence on imported goods during off-seasons.

Flexibility in growth cycles

Vertical farming automation creates its own 24-hour daylight cycle using narrow-spectrum LEDs to deliver lights to the plants when they need them. Because of this, growth cycles can be run at night for those with a cheaper electricity tariff, which will reduce operational costs.

Significantly reduce the risk of contamination

Across the world, recent outbreaks of E.coli and other infections have been linked back to contaminated lettuces. Vertical farming reduces this risk as, using the powers of automation, the produce is largely isolated from the outside environment, offering a high level of protection for the growing crops.  

Take our demonstration farm in Invergowrie, Scotland for example. Trays of food are controlled remotely from seeding to packaging. The only time humans must go inside the towers is for maintenance. It can be totally powered by robots. Follow this link to take a virtual tour of a growth tower.

Hybrid model

Vertical farming is a solution that works in parallel to existing technologies such as greenhouses, optimising the use of each solution to its best strengths.

Our ethos here at IGS is all about meeting people where they currently are. As our CEO David Farquhar says: “Younger people with environmental consciousness and who are willing to embrace technology are vital to the future of farming - so we need to bridge this gap to ensure that more of these groups are filling these roles.”

He continues “Vertical farming offers a part of the solution to this; working in partnership with traditional agriculture to deliver a more sustainable future for food production. Not only does it allow farmers to take complete control over every element of a plant’s growth, but it also eliminates pesticides and reduces water usage by up to 97%. For a world that’s running out of water, land, and time, we believe this technology is vital.”

We don’t want to replace growers, we want to empower and complement them as they are.  

This is where the ‘hybrid-model’ comes in.  

By switching to a hybrid vertical farming and greenhouse farming model, at least automation would be possible without fully committing to a new technology system just yet. This helps with labour issues and supply chain issues, which in turn helps to ensure that:

1. your farm stays afloat;

2. the world doesn't go hungry.

In greenhouses, automated systems have a wide range of applications. They assist with regulating the temperature, humidity, and CO2 levels, which can be challenging to manually monitor.  

Automated systems also make it simpler for farmers to monitor how much water they need to irrigate their crops by automatically assessing soil moisture levels, which is crucial given the droughts we are currently seeing around the UK.

Let’s go over what we just covered

Labour shortages are a huge issue affecting the agriculture industry, most notably the food and farming sector.  

These staff shortages have been brought on by the covid-19 pandemic, as well as the fallout from Brexit.  

We are suggesting that automation, with a hybrid model of vertical farming, greenhouse farming, and traditional farming, is a key part of the solution that will ensure secure, simple supply chains and food security, as well as less stress and pressure on current growers, giving them the opportunity to be trained and upskilled in new areas within the industry.

For example, imagine you could support your traditional farm with a steady income stream from a plant like basil, which can be fully grown in a vertical farming structure, ensuring a regular crop supply, multiple times a year, for your buyers.  

We recognise that it may be difficult for current growers to drop their traditional ways of working and switch to a whole new way of using technology, but we suggest that using a hybrid approach is the perfect way to ease into the process, whilst being educated and trained in the skills needed to operate.  

Empowerment over replacement is key.  

So, if you’re a farmer, a grower, or a business owner that has witnessed first-hand the effects of labour shortages, or you’re just curious about how this transition to automation could happen, why not book a tour of our facility or a demo? We’d be happy to introduce you to this and show you how this tech will help in the long term.

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