Farming's data revolution

More evidence-based decision making is needed on farms, Farmers Weekly editor Karl Schneider tells the Farmers Club 

K Schneider 

DATA gathering and processing is set to transform British agriculture, delivering far greater benefits than any other upcoming technical innovations, members of the Farmers Club Committee heard from one of the industry’s leading magazine and website editors on Monday 25th January.

"You could almost have a recipe for farming success - what is your specialism and your strategy for delivering it, what are the metrics to help you do that, measure them, commit to look at them, and innovate accordingly," said Karl Schneider, editorial director of Farmers Weekly Group, which includes the website, farm business management software firm Farmplan and print publications Farmers Weekly, Crops and Poultry World.  

"If I had one wish to give to British agriculture, to make it more secure and sustainable, more than a short term rise in prices, it would be to change the way it looks at its businesses, so it measures and uses data to inform its decision making," explained Mr Schneider, a former editor of New Scientist, Computer Weekly and Electronics Weekly. 

"That is actually the best thing science could give to agriculture, the scientific approach of basing decisions on what the data tells you."

Decision support tools to handle the terabytes of data accumulating on farm computers would play a pivotal role. But the attitude of mind that accepted data as the driver of decisions was the most important step, he suggested.

For example, a smart-phone app could be used to photograph sheep and determine their value, based on their conformation, farm records and local market prices, all in real-time. How a farmer then reacted to that information was key.

The most successful, productive, profitable and growing farm businesses, with a clear future, were those that used a scientific, evidence-based approach to decision-making, he asserted. "It is very noticeable that the evidence-based practices that are common in other industry sectors are not as common in agriculture."

More exciting innovations in data manipulation were not yet obvious, he continued. "New technology tends to be used to solve existing problems first, and only then moves on to its true potential. Look at modern telephony. Alexander Graham Bell originally saw it as a great opportunity for those wanting to listen to opera without having to travel. That bears little relation to what it has gone on to become."

Farmers Weekly's parent company, Reed Business Information, part of global critical-point decision support experts Reed Elsevier, now employs 700 IT staff alongside its 450 journalists to deliver business-enabling information in the most accessible format. 30 years ago there were just four IT experts for a similar number of journalists.

Mr Schneider expected rural broadband issues to be substantially resolved by the end of 2017. "That will largely eliminate one of the key barriers that is holding people back from this technology."

He also noted that global venture capital investment in agri-tech was soaring, up from $500m in 2012 to over $800m in 2015. That was a bold vote of confidence in the sector, contrasting with the sometimes negative perception some had of agriculture, suggesting that "a farmer seeing a light at the end of the tunnel would simply order more tunnel!"

Investment was not only targeted at precision farming, somewhat predictably, but also at water technology, which could bring new parts of the world into production, bringing further competition to commodity markets. Internationally food e-commerce was also attracting considerable investment, which could provide a welcome challenge to multiple retailers.

The talk was delivered at an excellent Robert Burns themed dinner created by Club chef Paul Hogben and his staff, and hosted by 2016 Club Chairman Richard Butler.

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