May 30, 2017
Data, Drones and Dirt: Q&A with a Modern Farmer

Recently we met with farmer Will, who is based near Catterick, North Yorkshire in the UK. He runs a mixed farming enterprise alongside his brother Robert and father Martin. Will focuses on the arable side of the business and is constantly striving for ways to improve yields on their 500 hectares of predominantly heavy clay land.

In addition to farming, Will has also been selected as a Nuffield Scholar, which grants him sponsorship to travel and learn lessons from farmers and researchers around the world; for example, site-specific weed management.

Day in the life of a farmer

Day in the life of a farmer

What motivates you to keep on farming?

Ultimately farming is like any other business and is profit-driven. It’s putting all the measures in place to protect the environment and having your business thrive, both should work hand in hand. A farmer’s goal is to leave the next generation in a better place.

What has been your biggest challenge in this career?

The weather continues to be the most unpredictable, costly; it’s the best and worst thing about the industry. We’re reliant on it and when you want it to rain or stop raining, blow a gale or let the sun shine it does the opposite! But we’re all learning and there’s no doubt that there are things we can do to eliminate some of the effects weather has on our business. We’re learning much more about the soils now and this is the area where the biggest gains are to be had.

What is your opinion on new farming technologies? Do you or would you use drones, satellite technology or big data tools?

I’m a huge advocate of precision farming. When you look at the inefficiencies of agriculture today, they are huge. For example, the practice of recognising an area of weeds in a field and going out and spraying the field in its entirety is hugely inefficient. But, if for example we had the ability to recognise the specific plant or weed through its spectral or spatial signature, then we could potentially hit weeds or problems on a centimetre-by-centimetre basis. We’re stepping back in time and wanting to move away from the reliance on ‘agrochemicals’ and looking to more cultural means of controlling pests;

If you run a generation-to-generation farm, what did your parent’s (or grandparents) average day look like?

No idea! I can only think back to what’s changed both in mindset and mechanically. Everything used to be about ploughing and fine seed beds, so I would say [today] is a lot more intensive per hectare, but probably less risky and more profitable. If you asked me would I have preferred to be farming 30 years ago I would probably still say no. There used to be a lot more stock and consequently staff: so a bigger headache all round.

What does your typical day look like now?

It depends on the time of year! If I’m not walking fields, flying the drone, sat on a tractor or on the phone, I would say I’m in the workshop concocting my next masterpiece!

Farmers Challenge

In your opinion, what would you like to see change in the future?

I do genuinely believe that the day will come (hopefully soon) where the image of a farmer on a tractor will become an image of a farmer in a business suit, not working the fields but out negotiating with the closest link to the consumer itself.

The gap between growers and consumers has never been bigger and we’re all starting to learn the biggest proportion of the profits are being swallowed up by the retailers, which I believe should change going forward. I recently spent time in Brazil with the Nuffield trust where over 80 scholars from around the world met and it was incredible to see how in other nations it could would work in principle.

It would also be great to see a bit more resilience in the marketplace! Agriculture has become an industry reliant on support in one format or another.



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