Woman in agtech with her back to the camera holds the controls of a drone as it flies over a field of crops.
Image: © ManuPadilla/Stock.adobe.com

How tech can help Irish farmers face the future of work

12 May 2022

The latest report by agribusiness specialists Ifac found that Irish farmers are under pressure from several quarters. Can tech make their lives easier?

For farmers, investing in tech seems like a no-brainer. It can make their working lives on the farm easier and more efficient, which in turn boosts yields and gives them more freedom.

According to the Irish Farm Report 2022 – by Irish farming, food and agribusiness specialist professional services firm, Ifac – almost one-third (32pc) of those surveyed said they used technology to increase their farm’s efficiency.

21pc said they used tech to reduce the burden on employees. The most significant barrier to farmers using technology as part of their farming work was cost, with 52pc saying that expense was the biggest barrier preventing them from embracing new technologies.

Irish farmers are under stress

As it is, Irish farmers are already under financial stress. Ifac’s report also found that 60pc of respondents said the biggest concern for their business in 2022 was increased input costs. The costs are currently affecting all primary farm inputs including fertiliser, feed and energy. Just over half (51pc) of farmers have already seen their costs increase due to Brexit.

As well as the cost barriers to adopting new forms of technology on the farm, the report found that farmers were also concerned about lack of time for financial planning, the climate crisis, and retaining and finding staff.

All of these problems are linked in that if one was solved, farmers could better help themselves and perhaps adopt some new technologies that would aid their working lives as a result.

Technology and machines can help mitigate agriculture’s impact on the climate, for example. They can also alleviate the physical burden of farm work and fill productivity gaps for short-staffed farmers.

Ironically, farmers indicated that they don’t have time for financial planning due to staffing shortages. But, if they did have some assistance, would they be better able to take the time to think about how technology could work for them?

John Donoghue, chief executive of Ifac said that the findings from the survey provided “invaluable insights into Irish farmers’ lives in 2022”.

“As Covid-19 begins to dissipate any anticipated relief has been overshadowed as other significant challenges have emerged,” he said.

“Rising costs are now the biggest challenge facing farmers, heightened by escalating prices and supply shortages because of the tragic and needless events in Ukraine. In parallel, finding and retaining employees has become a big concern for many, particularly in the dairy sector, and succession planning remains a recurring theme year after year that still requires urgent focus.”

Despite this, 58pc of Irish farmers said they had a positive outlook on farming for the year ahead. Donoghue added that with “the right support and a financially viable framework, Irish farmers can take a lead role in driving positive climate action in global agriculture”.

Commenting on the report by Ifac, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue, TD, paid tribute to the “resilience” of Ireland’s agricultural sector. He said it was the goal of his department to “make sure that farming remains sustainable and will continue to generate fair incomes for farm families and future generations”.

Earlier this month, Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune told EuroParlRadio that AI could be a great benefit to all sectors, including farming.

Drones for farmers

For an insight into how Irish farmers can use tech to overcome some of the difficulties identified by Ifac’s report, SiliconRepublic.com spoke to the founder of ZenaTech.

The company is also known by ZenaDrone, its flagship product. ZenaDrone is a two-metre drone with a high-definition camera, computer vision and automated sensor technologies.

ZenaTech was founded in 2018 by Canadian entrepreneur Dr Shaun Passley, and expanded into Ireland late last year.

Currently, ZenaTech has five staff in Ireland. It is hoping to have 30 on the team here in the next 12 months.

“I think it’s a generational question,” said Passley of farmers’ willingness to adopt tech. “Younger farmers seem to be very open and seeking technology, while older farmers are less willing to move forward with it.”

Passley is well aware that farmers don’t have the money or the time to play around with technology, so he focuses on what the drones can do (rather than the machines themselves) when he’s talking to Irish farmers.

He describes the company’s business model as drones-as-a-service.

ZenaDrone is just starting out in Ireland with pilots operating in farms around the country. Passley’s goal is to eventually have drones all over the country on demand.

‘Younger farmers seem to be very open and seeking technology, while older farmers are less willing to move forward with it’

Farmers will download an app via the company’s website which provides them with information about drones in their area. Plans vary depending on the size of the farm, but small farmers with 50 acres can expect to pay about €500 per month.

Passley wants to have around 10 to 20 drones in Ireland by the end of this year. The company began beta-testing last year and is working with clients such as a sheep farmer in Donegal and potato farmers, to identify crop diseases.

Passley said the data that the drones can provide on farms is so accurate that it makes up costs otherwise lost on things like over-spraying. Rather than spray all crops at set intervals, the drone can spot spray as required.

The drones can also count sheep, monitor crop and grass growth and provide data on animal health, which helps farmers mitigate environmental damage caused by methane emissions from cows.

Like Passley, Irishman Conor McGann knows all about technology and how it can help farmers. From Dublin, he works in the San Francisco Bay Area with indoor vertical farming company Plenty as its senior director of software and data systems.

Vertical farming involves growing crops in vertically stacked layers. McGann will be delivering a talk on how the practice can be improved using AI and robotics at this year’s AtlanTec Festival next Thursday (19 May).

As for ZenaDrone, Passley said the company will be exhibiting its drones at the Ploughing Championships this September so farmers can see for themselves how they operate. He said the company is committed to Ireland and its farmers as they continue to take on new tech in their working lives.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea worked as a Careers reporter until 2024, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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