Ireland is fertile soil for the global future of smart agriculture

19 Sep 2016

View of the Irish countryside seen from the base of Great Sugarloaf mountain. Image: Semmick Photo/Shutterstock

The gold of the future will be food, the oil will be data. Ireland holds the right cards to help the world navigate spiralling populations and food shortages in a smart way, writes John Kennedy.

Last year, during a whistle-stop visit to Cork, the CEO of the Tyndall Institute, Dr Kieran Drain, presented me with a mesmerising vision; the research tapestry of Ireland coming together with the country’s strong tradition of agriculture.

He described how high-level institutes like Tyndall, the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) in Waterford, groups like the Irish Marine Energy Research Cluster (IMERC), and others, could transform the way we view our landscape; which is abundant and ripe for food production and making the best use of the country’s natural resources.

Future Human

He painted a vision of a farmer’s field overlaid with sensor networks and aerial drones collecting data, describing how real-time farmers’ decision-making could be data-driven.

“When you start joining the dots, that’s when you create something powerful and something exportable. Agriculture is the biggest piece of Ireland’s natural economy and something that we can export worldwide,” the seasoned tech industry executive explained at the time.

Drain’s words echo in my mind this week, as an estimated 300,000 people prepare to head to Ireland’s National Ploughing Championships. That’s six times greater than the amount of people who go to Electric Picnic and, increasingly, the championships have come to represent a broader slice of Irish society, as well as advancements in technology.

To chime in with this momentous event, we are focusing on agritech this week at, where we will endeavour to showcase the important shifts in agriculture and technology.

Back to the land

Most Irish people have ties with the land. Many don’t realise it, but if you go back through the family tree far enough, you will find a farming tradition in their genes.

While most of us gleefully complain about the weather – it is the nation’s number one conversation starter – the truth is that the island of Ireland owes its lush greenness to the abundance of rain.

‘Ireland is in a unique position because we are one of the leaders in ICT and we have all the big players here like IBM, Google, Amazon and Cisco. But, on the other side, our main indigenous industry is agriculture, so if you combine the two you really get a unique environment’

And so, this has meant not only a fertile soil but fertile imagination and ingenuity.

In fact, Irish farmers are the most prodigious users of technology and the internet. Going back to the 1990s, they used their phones and SMS to compare milk prices and grain yields. They are combining infrared camera technology with high-speed broadband to ensure cows and calves survive the calving season. And, as crime from the cities spreads into the countryside, they are at the forefront of using smart new security technologies and the power of smartphones to keep their communities on alert.

Just today, we wrote about how Dr John Garvey, a part-time farmer from Clare and a lecturer at the nearby University of Limerick, developed FarmHedge, a unique weather app to help farmers plan their work better around the unpredictable Irish weather.

Two years ago, we wrote about how Offaly farmer and inventor, Niall Austin, created what was a world’s first at the time: a device called Moocall that warns the farmer when the cow is one hour from birthing, to ensure cow and calf are cared for in the event of a difficult birth.

One of our favourite Start-up of the Week columns featured Herdwatch, a cloud-based ‘mobile CRM for cows’, that can literally save farmers hours of paperwork every week by allowing them to record farm and animal events directly on a smartphone, tablet or PC – any time, anywhere.

Dairymaster employs 300 people in Causeway, Co Kerry, in the areas of R&D and high-end manufacturing. They produce hi-tech gadgets and equipment for farmers in 40 countries around the world.

The internet of farms

Researchers from TSSG, Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), and organisations like Teagasc are working on new technologies that will utilise the best of ICT, analytics and sensors to increase quality and quantity of dairy and beef production.

Last year, a €446,000 collaboration between major Irish dairy producers Glanbia and Dairygold, and Irish researchers, was announced. It will employ data analytics and big data to help boost milk production.

In an interview with last year, Prof Willie Donnelly from TSSG and president at WIT, summed up the potential opportunity for Ireland: “Globally, agriculture and food security are the biggest challenges for society. One of the problems we have is that the amount of land available for food production is decreasing because of overpopulation.

“So, the real opportunity is for countries like Ireland who can produce safe food. Ireland is in a unique position because we are one of the leaders in ICT and we have all the big players here like IBM, Google, Amazon and Cisco. But, on the other side, our main indigenous industry is agriculture so, if you combine the two, you really get a unique environment.”

While research groups like Tyndall, TSSG and others spearhead the potential, the reality on the ground needs to be in close proximity to technological breakthroughs. For that to happen, we need farmers to think like start-ups, as shown by the examples of Garvey and Austin.

The reality is that the days of farmers existing solely from their land and stock are long gone, and many subsidise their livings by holding down full-time or part-time jobs, or through the latest trend of diversification: coming up with new food products or supporting tourism activities.

But, if you add a technological dimension to help farmers devise a strong independent future for themselves, a lot could change. It would also place Ireland in pole position to be a global food producer at a time when food shortages threaten the world.

Global warming and the pollution of the world’s oceans have destroyed agricultural communities across the world. Ireland could lead the fight back.

Last year, Enterprise Ireland created a €500,000 Competitive Start Fund for start-ups, developing new technologies for agriculture sectors. This is a critical move and, if anything, needs to be increased if we are to seize the day.

Greater linkages between farmers and large food producers like Glanbia and Kerry Group, many of whom have established large state-of-the-art R&D centres here, need to be formed and encouraged.

A good example of the possibilities can be seen in the SmartAgriFood accelerator, a €4m scheme from South East BIC aimed at farmers and food producers, which was established two years ago. As part of the accelerator, grants of up to €100,000 were approved by SmartAgriFood to Irish and European SMEs and web developers. The funds will be distributed over a three-stage development process with an additional €2m in funding to be provided by the Europe-wide ICT-AGRI network to pay for expert advice and support services for the successful SMEs.

As well as more funding and coherent strategies to unite agri start-ups and food producers, the broader tech world can play a role. Earlier this year, we reported how Chinese drone manufacturer DJI had selected Donegal as a testing ground for its rescue drones.

Could players like DJI or Tyndall figure out ways of using drones for collecting soil samples, dusting crops or watching the health of cattle in Irish fields? It is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Drone surveillance and data collection [are] of huge benefit to the large agriculture sector in Ireland,” explained Oisin Green, CEO of Green Aviation, in an interview last year.

“Farmers can use drones to take aerial imagery of their crops to assess their health. This info can then inform farmers which exact areas need attention, as opposed to operating in the absence of such specific information.”

Applying tech to agriculture is key to world’s future

In Salinas, California, the breadbasket of America’s south-west, John Hartnett, founder of the Irish Technology Leadership Group, has joined the forces of his venture capital company SVG and Forbes magazine. He aims to establish the Thrive Accelerator to figure out how farming and smart technologies can ward off the world’s anticipated food problems.

Hartnett tells us that by the year 2050, the world’s population is projected to increase to 9bn people. The middle class is expected to increase from 1.5bn to 4.5bn people.

To meet future food demands, global production will have to increase by 70pc. Hartnett adds that applying technology will be the key.

If policymakers are smart, they will move fast to emulate Hartnett’s example. They would create more accelerators that would fine-tune the entrepreneurial instincts of Irish farmers who need to diversify.

At Inspirefest 2016, Jamila Abass from Kenya, introduced her creation: an online platform called M-Farm. It is a forum where farmers can connect with buyers to obtain information about how to plan, manage and sell their crops.

There are opportunities for Ireland’s established food producers, but also Irish farmers themselves, to reach out and share their expertise with innovators in other countries.

This is, after all, one world, and we are all in this boat together. But, as Donnelly pointed out, Ireland has a unique environment to effect change. As the saying goes: make hay while the sun shines.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years