Insights / Foodtech
”The beacons give us millimetre accuracy for each row of planting and working”
On introducing new technologies to feed a growing population
25 Sep 2023

Who are you?

— I’m the Managing Director of Dyson Farming, which farms a range of produce at scale including wheat and barley, potatoes, onions, and peas. It also rears sheep and cattle.

What can you say about the concept?

— It was established in 2012 and is one of the largest farming businesses in the UK, extending to 36,000 acres across Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, and Somerset, Cross explains. It is a family-owned enterprise unlike any other, focused on long-term investment in British farming and the countryside. Sustainable food production, food security, and the environment are vital to the UK’s health and economy and James Dyson (the founder, Ed’s note) believes there is a real opportunity for technology to drive a revolution in agriculture. Dyson Farming is developing new approaches to efficient, high-technology agriculture and food production, in harmony with the natural environment, to create a positive farming model for the future.

— Excluding land purchases, Dyson Farming has invested £130m in new technology, equipment, infrastructure, anaerobic digestion plants, and other improvements including £5m on land drainage schemes and £1m a year on soil enrichment over a five-year period. The business grows British strawberries out of season in its state-of-the-art 15-acre glasshouse which is heated by the adjacent anaerobic digester which, along with one other, produces enough sustainable energy to power the equivalent of 10,000 homes.

You’ve also worked with incorporating innovation and new technologies into your daily operations. How?

— Farming is similar to engineering and manufacturing: you make things, take pride in what you produce, and then you supply consumers. We have been investing heavily in getting the basics right — soil quality, infrastructure, new technology, and environmental stewardship. Technologies incorporated include data analytics, new crop rotations, new cover cropping techniques, advanced drones and vision systems, targeted crop spraying, and green energy production.

— Our combine harvesters and other field-based equipment use technology to work the land with incredible accuracy. We use a combination of GPS and a beacon system, and it is the beacons that give us millimetre accuracy for each row of planting and working. Drones survey the fields from above and, with this data, combined harvesters are programmed to avoid ground nests of rare ground-nesting birds such as the Marsh Harrier. The populations at Nocton and Carrington are growing as a result of this technology.

— The increasingly symbiotic relationship between our technology business and our farming business will yield new approaches to drive sustainability and performance in our products. It’ll also be opening up new opportunities for the further use of technology on our farms. We operate a ’circular farm system’. This means we look to maximise our assets to benefit the farm as a whole and look after the environment while also producing food. We grow energy crops and also feed crop waste into our anaerobic digesters. These plants generate energy which powers the farm and is fed into the National Grid. Heat from the process is piped into the adjacent glasshouse to encourage fruit growth and in the future, the biogas will be captured to convert into biofuel on which fleet of vehicles will run. Waste digestate is spread back on our farmland as a natural fertiliser to enhance the quality of our soils.

How can innovation and technology feed a growing population? What are the keys?

— Improve soil health and reduce synthetic fertilisers, deploy precision technology to limit inputs and maximise outputs, and develop technology to successfully extend domestic seasons. But also using non-carbon fuel sources for equipment and assisted autonomy to support skilled workers to achieve more output. For example, driverless tractors, so one operator can oversee multiple vehicles in a field, or virtual reality agronomy allowing a skilled agronomist to view crops in multiple locations alongside each other or see fields hundreds of miles apart within seconds. 

Daniel Cross inside the greenhouse, using new technology to extend the British growing season.

What have been your main challenges since the start?

— Much of the land Dyson Farming works today has a history of underinvestment due to unsustainable food prices, Cross explains. Deploying a long-term plan, such as improving drainage, roadways, soil fertility, and water management, has helped us significantly improve output and costs in some areas in a rapid timeframe. Also, the variables of plants, the combination of species, varieties, climate, water quality, and soil type or growing medium are vast. AI, machine learning, and digital technology will, and already is, moving our industry forward, however computing all variables is complex and will take many years to make a significant difference in scalable agriculture.

What’s next for you?

—We can’t talk too much about our plans but can say that we are increasing the output of our strawberry production through expansion of the glasshouse. And we are continuing to produce more nutritious, flavourful food through combining growing and processing technology to create consumer food products.