Projects, priorities and smart thinking

Hayley Campbell-Gibbons, AHDB Horticulture Board Chair on SmartHort

"Necessity is the mother of all invention. The reducing size and rising cost of horticulture’s workforce mean one thing. We are producing more produce and plants with fewer people – not in the future, right now."

SmartHort, created by AHDB for growers, aims to reduce labour requirements in horticulture through new technology and automation, as well as improving labour efficiencies and increasing staff retention through smarter management practices.

It is a pioneering programme of events, training and an online hub that brings the latest science, information and intelligence on agri-automation and technology, as well management techniques such as Lean and Champion, from around the world into one place. And, crucially, in a format that growers can easily access and understand.

If we want to problem solve our labour issues in horticulture we need to look beyond the farm and appeal to innovators and tech-savvy experts worldwide that have the answers.

Whether it’s crop protection, production and harvesting systems, or the product we grow, SmartHort’s international community of growers, tech firms, innovators and researchers will fuel an exchange of ideas and knowledge to drive a transformation in food and plant production.

Of course, it’s not as simple as the technology being available one day and growers adopting it the next. There are many reasons why people haven’t been replaced with machines – feasibility is one, cost is another, but a lack of supply-chain confidence is key.

A major potato packer said to me recently that they could replace half their workforce with existing automation, but their biggest customer retenders the business every 12-18 months, offering no long term incentive or commitment to back up their investment risk. That’s why our customers have to be part of the process. In it for the long term, sharing risks, driving change in the marketplace – let’s tell consumers what they want!

Another consideration for growers is accessibility. You don’t know what you don’t know. Some of the bigger players are investing in commercially sensitive projects at huge private investment, but what we arguably need are some game-changing projects that take the technology to an industrial scale.

Then there’s the on-going support. Many of the tech manufacturers at the forefront of agri-automation are global, and don’t have the support networks necessary for doing big business in the UK. If you’re waiting for a technician to arrive from New Zealand to service your new bit of kit, well, you’d better put the kettle on.

The SmartHort community that AHDB is building will connect growers with the people and companies that can make things happen. We want to facilitate partnerships that growers never thought possible to help advance the uptake of technology in UK horticulture. From quick-wins that can transform the way you do things in an instant, to the game-changing investments that will revolutionise a business.

SmartHort will also offer live updates and insights on the research projects growers are currently investing in through their AHDB levy – from PhDs on grower reprogrammable robots, to 3D mapping of broccoli crops for robotic harvesting, and vision systems for fruit picking.

AHDB’s SmartHort conference on 6-7 March is now oversubscribed, but will be live-streamed so that every grower can witness the turning point in UK Horticulture’s technological revolution.

Workshops and webinars will also be held throughout the year to help improve skills and help you to get the most from your workforce.

If you want to find out more about SmartHort and how you can get involved, please get in touch with gracie.emeny@ahdb.org.uk.