More than 140 guests, including MPs, engineering and farming experts, and research staff, attended the launch of the National Centre for Precision Farming (NCPF) at the House of Commons on February 29.
The launch took place during a reception in the Terrace Pavilion, overlooking the Thames, hosted by Julian Sturdy MP, an alumnus of Harper Adams University College. Harper Adams is home to the NCPF, and will facilitate the knowledge exchange required to bring "smart" agricultural machinery into wider and more productive use in UK, and global, farming.
Principal Dr David Llewellyn explained: "The agricultural engineering sector is moving quickly in areas of advanced manufacturing, mechatronics, hydraulics, data management, and in exploring novel techniques, but these efforts need co-ordination, routes to expertise in research and development and, dare I say it, a greater understanding amongst those who have to use increasingly smart machinery that might challenge accepted production methods.
"That is where the National Centre for Precision Farming hopes to make a difference. By bringing together representatives of the agricultural engineering sector, the farming community and academics from a variety of disciplines and institutions, including our own crop and livestock scientists, the centre will aim to stimulate debate, innovation and understanding as we all make the transition to smarter farming, building on existing knowledge and ensure that we have a means to collaborate on strategic issues.
Dr Llewellyn added: "As Peter Kendall said at last week’s NFU Conference, ’we want to get innovative solutions out to the field from the lab.’. We don’t want it to be a talking shop, but rather a place where agricultural engineers and famers can be brought together to actively develop expertise in the use of advanced technologies."
Mr Sturdy, MP for York Outer, opened his speech by saying that there are three big issues facing the UK, and rest of the world, over the next few decades: food security, water
security and energy security, and that they were interlinked.
"If we are going to tackle these issues we really have to innovate. Innovation is the key that’s why I am delighted about today’s event, which is all about innovation, and I am glad to be a part of that. The UK is built on the back of innovation and we have to become the world leaders in this. I think that what Harper Adams is starting here today gives us that great opportunity."
Professor Simon Blackmore, Harper Adams University College’s Professor of Agricultural Engineering, who will head the new Centre, described precision farming as "a management technique, not necessarily a technology, which recognises variability as an integral part of the production process and aims to do the right things, at the right time, in the right way".
He said: "Precision farming meets many different goals. It moves us toward more sustainable farming, with smaller inputs, less waste and more income. It is good for the environment, good for economics and good for society. Within the National Centre for Precision Farming, we have precision agriculture and precision livestock farming. Whatever happens in the future we need to find new systems that lead to better efficiency. Efficiency never goes out of fashion. We may well have different drivers, economic environments, or political agendas, but efficiency remains key.
"It is good to see so many people here today and to meet old friends, who have been working together in precision farming for 20 years. I don’t have all the answers, but I think, collectively, we do. And by coming together we can share these experiences and come up with the answers we need.
"So, by establishing the National Centre for Precision Farming at Harper Adams University College, we have the opportunity to come together, and to promote new, appropriate technologies and techniques to help farmers meet today’s goals."
Professor Blackmore outlined some of the forthcoming NCPF activities. As a new professor, he will give his inaugural lecture in April, on the subject of Agricultural Robotics. There will be a stakeholder meeting in May, and a technical day for auto steer and auto guide technologies in July. Longer term, Harper Adams is developing a Masters course in precision farming.
Closing the proceedings, Baroness Byford said: "This is a very special occasion. I think that you, together, are giving us a win-win situation and I am delighted that Harper Adams is the lead and home for this venture because you have such a strong engineering base. For me, it is absolutely critical that that department not only survives but continues to grow, because that’s where we need to go in the future, as David said, towards smarter production of food."