29/06/2021

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Farmers: The future of agriculture

Who’d become a farmer?

For years, farmers have become farmers because it’s ‘been in the family’. Farming is a resource-intensive business, requiring land, labour, capital, skills and knowledge – which means entrance into farming with no previous experience has been unusual.

The law of diminishing returns also comes into play: farming’s long hours and decreasing returns have created less enthusiasm amongst the next generation for succession. In the US, the average age of a farmer is 571; in the UK, 602; in Kenya it’s 603; and in Japan4 – a country known for its ageing population – the average age is 67.

Yet there’s an increasing number of so-called ‘first generation’ farmers – and what’s really changing things, according to the James Hutton Institute in Scotland5, is that around one-third of these new entrants are women. Indeed, figures from the UK’s Office of National Statistics6 reveal that in 2018 about 17 percent of farmers were women, up from seven percent in 2007-2008. The trend is reflected in university agricultural courses too, where women students now outnumber men almost two to one – and indeed the UK’s National Farmers Union elected its first woman president, Minette Batters, in 2018.

Farm Couple
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Farm Couple

That’s a farm?

Farm Tech
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Farm Tech

By 2050, the whole idea of what constitutes a farm may take a very different form. While fields of crops are unlikely to disappear completely, there’s growing interest in ‘vertical farming’, or controlled environment agriculture (CEA). More than just greenhouse growing, CEA is heavily dependent on technology. New developments in LED lighting allow growers to develop ‘light recipes’ tailored to the needs of each crop; improved photosynthesis leads to increased yields. Meanwhile, sensors monitor temperature, moisture, humidity and even the colour of developing fruits, providing outputs for artificial intelligence to make decisions on watering, ventilation and harvesting – perhaps by robot.

The effect is to maintain the best possible growing conditions throughout the life of the crop, optimising the use of precious resources such as water, energy, light, space and labour, and allowing farmers to extend the seasons of crops to facilitate year-round cultivation.

Agricultural researchers and entrepreneurs alike argue that CEA offers a tremendous opportunity to reduce some of the environmental impacts associated with modern farming, with its reliance on land, resources and inputs.

It’s also a radical departure from ‘normal’ farming, one that’s attracting the attention of young entrepreneurs, new to farming. According to the 2020 Global CEA Census Report7, 49 percent of respondents were new to farming, 79 percent were under 40 and 88 percent were under 50.