Nuffield Scholar - 2017 - Michael Ratcliffe

Michael Ratcliffe

I’m a 27 year old control systems engineer living in Lancashire with an interest in applying the latest engineering developments to increase global food production. From an early age I’ve been involved with a modestly sized family farm at a hands on level. It was during this time that I’ve realised how much of an impact automation could have in the lives of small farmers by reducing labour demands and increasing resource utilization efficiency.  

I work as commercial manager and systems engineer at the Aquaponics Lab.  I find my role very rewarding as it allows following my passion for farming and engineering by developing technologies for the production of healthy, sustainable and locally sourced food. I am also considerably involved with teaching, previously teaching at Lancaster University, local prisons and mentoring in Beijing China.

My interests include Open Source Projects, Farming and Camping.

I would like to record my thanks to everyone at the Aquaponics Lab for their support, my past sponsors [Farnell, Lancaster University, Sir John Fisher foundation] and mentors. I am also very grateful to the Nuffield Farming Trust staff and my sponsor the Richard Laws Foundation for supporting my work and personal development over the coming year

Technology adoption by small and medium sized agricultural businesses in the UK

Study Overview

In the course of the next twenty years technology will change the way we manage and work our farms/land more than it has changed over the past two hundred. The study topic is centered around technology development and how to ensure small to medium farming operations are not left behind as technology develops.

The study explored what new technology was being employed in agriculture overseas, and how much of this technology, delivery strategies and development policies could be put to good use in the UK. Holland was visited because it is renowned for leading the way in the delivery of agricultural technology: the Czech Republic because their academic institutes have considerable impact on their progressive agricultural industry: and Kenya and Cambodia, each in their development stage in regard to technology, to see how they were taking advantage of technology and to identify examples of leapfrogging.

The technology development and adoption cycle has many key players, but I concentrated on:

  • Government policies on Ag-tech
  • Technology development: who is involved in developing technology, what technology is likely to be available soon
  • Technology adoption: if we have access to a useful technology how do we promote adoption and ensure that the right technology is reaching the right people

The study established that the UK can implement small changes to make large strides in ensuring technologies are a part of leading positive changes for farms of all sizes. For this to happen it is important that farmers, policy makers, academics, consumers and ag tech companies work closely together to ensure this technology is developed to solve farmers’ needs and that it reaches them in timely and affordable fashion.

Main findings were:

Ability: Just as the advent of the tractor changed the way physical strength was viewed/used on farm, developments in computational vision, artificial intelligence and access to large amounts of data are allowing the creation of powerful tools aimed at removing the mental/cognitive demands of farm-related tasks. The ability of a human to out-think/perform this technology will be akin to trying to outlift a tractor.

Motivation: These technological advancements are promising because they not only reduce the cost of production but also increase quality whilst reducing environmental impact.

Development: Many of the technologies that will have big impacts on agriculture are already within our academic institutes. However, traditional academic Key Performance Indicators (peer review papers), and a view of industry partnerships all seen as a tick box exercise, are reducing these institutes’ ability to deliver agricultural industry impact when compared to countries with more industry-orientated universities. If the UK wants to have world-leading technology it should start by promoting practitioner/academic partnerships, whilst ensuring our academic institutes have funding allocated to make measurable industrial impact.

Adoption: The biggest indicator of a farm’s ability to adopt technology that meets its need is networking and awareness of technology being used by others in their sector. Promoting peer-to-peer farm networking would reduce the number of farmers left behind - or adopting technology that is soon to be leapfrogged.

Scholar Video