Robot tractors and bio-control: organic farming today

Robot tractors and bio-control: organic farming today

by Tom Shingler 5 July 2016

Whether it’s unleashing a swarm of wasps to do battle with a plague of aphids or developing self-driving vehicles that know the difference between a weed and a beetroot, today’s organic farmers have moved far beyond their traditional roots. Tom Shingler talks to Simon Gardner to learn more about this new way of growing produce.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

Organic farming has always had a bit of a ‘hippy’ image. It’s easy to imagine wizened farmers in tune with the earth, toiling away with nothing more than a trowel and a passion for the best quality, natural produce they can grow. But with annual sales of nearly £2 billion in the UK alone, organic food is now big business. While the farmers’ passion still remains, their hypothetical trowels have been upgraded to some of the most cutting-edge kit in agriculture.

Simon Gardner is an organic farm manager for G’s Fresh Produce, in Cambridgeshire, and is at the forefront of this shift towards technology out in the field. He manages a 300-hectare farm growing lettuce, celery, romaine, onions and beetroot, and relishes the challenges growing organically brings.

‘The main way organic farming differs to non-organic is that we can’t rely on any chemistry to help us out, so the challenge of managing weeds, disease and pests has to be solved in a completely different way,’ he explains. ‘You have to do a lot of long-term planning and strategizing wherever possible. That’s why I like it so much – you take crops that are hard enough to grow normally, and then add the almost impossible task of farming them organically.’

Simon Gardner
Simon Gardner manages a 300-hectare organic vegetable farm
Insect banks
Setting up insect banks alongside crops helps to promote bio-diversity and attract wildlife

Technical warfare

The two issues Simon has on the farm are pests and diseases – both factors that could wipe out crops and disrupt his supply, leaving him with unhappy customers who want consistent produce. While non-organic farmers can simply spray various pesticides and other chemicals over their fields to protect crops, Simon has to think outside the box. ‘For example, our celery was always under attack from capsids, a little green bug that eats right into the heart of the plant, distorts it and leaves brown spots all over,’ he says. ‘We had to cover the celery with a fine mesh that is as big as the field, but it’s hard to find the best kind to use – the finer you go, the less pests get in, but that also increases humidity underneath and in turn the chance of disease. I eventually had to introduce drip irrigation, planting the crops in biodegradable plastic made from starches rather than oils, which lets me water the roots directly, to counteract the humidity.’

Humidity is a real problem, as it creates the perfect environment for diseases to flourish. For this reason, Simon sows around seventy percent less plants than a non-organic farmer would, to increase airflow. But when it comes to pests, sometimes a net isn’t enough – only the very latest tech will do.

‘I’ve bought what looks like a non-organic crop sprayer with an airbag on it, which lets me use bio-pesticides – it’s a really cutting-edge idea,’ explains Simon. ‘We load it up with a special type of fungus that attacks certain aphids and spray it all over a field. It gets rids of the aphids without affecting our crops in a completely natural, organic way. It will only attack very specific types of aphid – for example, it will go for potato aphids but not cabbage aphids – so it’s almost like introducing a cull.’

While this form of organic bio-warfare is perfect for targeted pest control, sometimes it’s best to let others do the work for you – with a little helping hand. Organic farmers work in harmony with surrounding hedgerows, developing land around their fields to increase biodiversity. ‘Wildlife is actually the answer to a lot of my problems,’ says Simon. ‘For example, I released a tiny species of parasitic wasp onto the farm that eat aphids and they really made a big difference.’

GPS tractor
Simon's tractors are navigated with GPS technology, making the vehicle semi-automated. He hopes to be working with fully self-driving tractors in the near future
Weeding team
Technology helps with the weeding, but Simon still needs a team of forty people to help weed and sort the crops

The art of weeding

Even when the pests and diseases are under control, Simon’s work isn’t done. ‘I farm in organic Fenland soils with lots of organic matter which has a high nitrogen content,’ he says. ‘This is great for the crops but also good for weeds, which are a constant battle. I have a gang of forty people who constantly go around the farm managing the weeds by hand.’

Again, it’s modern technology that’s starting to offer solutions to time-consuming tasks. ‘We have camera-guided tractors that can go around individual plants, and GPS means they can sow with an accuracy of two centimetres, which means we get very straight rows of plants,’ says Simon. ‘But we’re currently working with the University of Sydney in Australia to develop completely autonomous solar-powered machines that will be able to go up and down a field and know the difference between a weed and our crops, pulling out what we don’t want. We’re still three or four years away from that, but if we can make it work it will make a huge difference.’

By simply relying on chemicals for all their problems, it seems as though non-organic farmers have been left behind, as more and more organic growers start to use drones, apps and other smart tech to keep up with demand and improve consistency. The fact that organic crops are rotated regularly and soils are managed naturally also means it is a much more environmentally-friendly process than what you’d find on a non-organic farm. It seems that the traditional image of the organic farmer is being eroded away to make room for a new, forward-thinking, tech-led producer – and non-organic growers are now taking their lead from the organic sector.