Insights / The future of farming as depicted by AI

The future of farming as depicted by artificial intelligence

Over the next few decades, the way we produce food will need to change dramatically if we’re to meet the needs of a growing population and reduce our impact on the planet.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has set the agricultural industry the ambitious goal of transitioning to net zero by 2040 – a whole 10 years before the UK government’s 2050 own Net Zero target for the country. This means that, if successful, farming could be seen as the trailblazers for other sectors on their path to decarbonisation.

How this looks for small farms will be very different to how it looks for large enterprises. Yet, every farm, no matter the size, will need to use new innovations to maximise operational efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

In a series of striking new images made using artificial intelligence, we explore the emerging trends and technologies to show what the future could hold for UK farmers.

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Vertical farming

There’s a lot of talk right now in the agricultural sector about the use of vertical farming - where produce is grown in stacked layers in an indoor environment using LED lighting and closed-loop water recycling.

Considered by some scientists to be a greener alternative to traditional farming, vertical farms can drastically reduce water usage – up to 95% by some estimates – as well as the number of miles our food must travel to reach us.

It can also save on a great deal of space. One acre of vertical farm has the potential to grow the equivalent of up to 20 soil-based acres (depending on the crop being grown).

While this might sound futuristic, vertical farming is already being trialled here in the UK, and there are even plans to open the ‘world’s largest vertical farm’ in Gloucester. There are a number of underground farms being developed, which are similar in concept except that there’s a limit to how high the tubes can be stacked. We expect to see plenty more cropping up in the next few decades, particularly in cities where space is limited.

The big challenge will be how farmers minimise and optimise their energy usage, particularly when you consider the amount of electricity required for air pumps and dehumidifiers.

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The farm as the local power station

In addition to feeding the local community, farmers could also help to power their homes.

As the owners and managers of 70% of the UK’s land stock, farmers are well positioned to support the roll-out of renewable energy projects. Many farmers already generate renewable electricity onsite to help power their own operations. Any excess is then sold back to the Grid through a Power Purchase Agreement with a renewable energy supplier.

In the future, rather than being sold back to the Grid, locally generated power will be transmitted to people living in nearby towns and villages, providing them with a secure and fully renewable source of energy.

Not only will this reduce transmission losses and pressure on the Grid, but it will also support the local economy through the creation of new jobs as all the infrastructure will require maintenance.

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Farms as battery storage facilities

Farmers will also be able to diversify their income streams by renting out their land to developers for large battery storage facilities.

Battery storage is a key part of the roll-out of renewables across the UK, particularly as we move to expand domestic energy supply.

For farmers, it provides a lucrative business model that’s resilient to the fluctuating costs of fertiliser and fuel.

We’re already seeing a surge in enquiries from farmers and landowners looking to capitalise on this and expect it to continue well into the future as battery technology evolves and planning permission becomes even more straight forward.

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Fuel: Less red, more green

Over the next few decades, we’ll see the complete removal of rebated (red) diesel from farms. Instead, machinery will run on alternative fuels such as renewable electricity, biofuel or even hydrogen.

Biofuel is already being used within the agriculture sector to power machinery. New Holland recently introduced the first methane-powered production tractor (the T6), which is widely expected to be the catalyst for the development of similar-type vehicles.

Perennial energy crops also represent a huge opportunity for farmers. Not only can they be used to create biofuel onsite using an anaerobic digestor, but they also give farmers further means of diversifying their income streams by selling their crop to energy companies. Drax is working with the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) to identify opportunities to scale up perennial energy crop production and help the UK meet its climate goals.

Then there’s the question of electricity and hydrogen. Various manufacturers have electric tractors in development, and some farmers already use electric loaders. We can expect to see a lot more of this going forward.

Hydrogen on the other hand presents much more of a logistical challenge given how difficult it is to safely store. However, its potential as a renewable fuel makes it appealing, so we’re seeing a lot of companies invest large amounts of money into R&D projects. Rolls-Royce and easyJet, for example, recently made the headlines after successfully testing what is thought to be the world’s first aircraft engine powered with hydrogen fuel.

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The Smart Farm

In the future, we’ll witness the emergence of the ‘smart farm’ where all aspects of a farm function as a single digital ecosystem.

Agri-technologies like soil and livestock monitoring will be used in conjunction with robotics and drones to create maximum efficiencies and reduce wastage. All of this will be fully visible and controllable from a single mobile app.

Farmers will also work with renewable energy partners to optimise their electric assets to save energy and money.

This is something that we’re already doing for many of our clients in the agriculture sector: recently, we helped Sundown Products, an agricultural manufacturing business based in Cambridgeshire, to save £35,000 in a year by creating an energy saving plan built around their seasonal peaks.

The future starts today

While farms of the future may seem a long way off, the NFU’s decision to commit the sector to a net zero by 2040 target demonstrates the sector’s desire to change.

We’re here to support farmers on this journey by providing clarity and hands-on support. As a UK-based supplier of renewable source power and related energy services to over 3,000 agricultural businesses, we have the experience and expertise to help save farmers time and money. We do this by helping them to make energy efficiencies, minimise costs and create new revenue streams – all while reducing carbon emissions.

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