BY MICK CROSSLEY
For townsfolk like those in Boston in Lincolnshire, the EU Referendum gave them an opportunity to protest about the mass immigration which had so altered their lives. In counties like Lincolnshire, large numbers of farm worker immigrants had begun to change the face of local rural communities as well. Many so-called Native Britons there were getting fed up with the new influx of foreigners but recognised that locals were just not willing to pick fruit or work as farm labourers, so acknowledged that, even after Brexit, there would still be large numbers of foreign workers required to assist in the work of the British countryside.
The £3bn horticulture industry is more dependent than any other in the UK on Eastern European labour, which provides well over 90 per cent of its seasonal workers. Last year, 80,000 workers picked British fruit and vegetables — the vast majority from East Europe. By 2019, 95,000 will be required. This is a growing problem, not one that will go away with Article 50 being triggered tomorrow.
Solutions to this problem are few and far between. The only logical solution to curbing the influx of these low-skilled workers from abroad is to employ robots. Ah, but that seems many decades away and is the kind of rubbish a Jeremy Corbyn supporter or researcher for UNESCO might come out with. Back in the real world we are still some way away from a world where cyborgs are running farms while the farmer puts his feet up and watches the cricket. Right?
Well, think again.
The thing is that back in the real world we are now a year away from driver-less tractors. In some parts of the world, in South Africa and the US, fruit picking is already automated. Farmers are spending much of their time operating their farms via laptop rather than in a traditional, hands-on way. Productivity levels are soaring while wage bills are vanishing.
Take driver-less tractors.
Users are able to control autonomous equipment via their desktop computer, laptop or portable tablet. They can see a path-plotting screen that shows the tractor’s progress, as well as a live camera feed with two front and two rear real-time views. Users can monitor and modify a number of vehicle parameters, including engine speed, implement settings, seeding rate, coulter downforce and more.
Driver-less tractors could revolutionise British farms before 2020, enabling 24-hour farming during time-critical parts of the season, including planting and harvest. Human delays can be programmed out as autonomous machinery learns from detailed experience of individual farms, avoids low spots and obstacles, and calibrates to weather patterns to maximise use of their farm’s resources.
Tractors do not need to worry about road signs or other road users. They simply need to get used to their farms. While autonomous cars, taxis and trucks have multiple obstacles to overcome, tractor technology can benefit as a spin off from the huge investments in other driver-less vehicles which have far more difficult issues to overcome. Autosteer technology already has farmers way ahead of the game.
Fruit picking technology is simultaneously already way down the line. Take a look at this apple picking robotic arm, which uses vacuum technology so as not to harm picked fruit:
A lot of the new autonomous technology designed for agriculture is British. Now that’s handy with Brexit on the way. Let’s hope that DEFRA is keeping a close eye and that the British Government is setting aside funding to assist farmers in buying and developing this vital equipment.
At the forefront of these innovations is a UK firm which featured on The Engineer:
Developed by engineers at UK design and development firm Cambridge Consultants, a robot that can pick and sort random fruit and vegetables without prior knowledge of their size or location could lead to a new generation of smart industrial machines. The robot is equipped with specially developed algorithms that enable its machine vision system to deal with changes in position and shape in much the same way as a human. In a demonstration, the robot was able identify and pick individual items of fruit from a pile of fruit stacked randomly in a bowl. The custom-made hand then adapts to the shape of the fruit and securely grips it without damaging it. Once picked, the fruit can also be sorted by colour so that, for example, red apples can be separated from green apples.
It’s that kind of technology that could remove humans from orchards and fields altogether.
Let’s face it, the world will get to autonomous technology in farms eventually. We might as well be the first there and make some coins out of it. Those complaining of mass immigration will have less of a headache. More importantly, so will Britain’s stressed-out, overworked farmers, whose dependence on low-tech, unreliable human capital has been a bane in their lives for centuries after all.
Mick Crossley is a farmer based in West Sussex.