Darragh McCullough: 'Technology will transform farming efficiency - but I fear the big boys will benefit most'

Drone ranger: Technology is playing an increasingly important role in agriculture
Drone ranger: Technology is playing an increasingly important role in agriculture
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

My main farm enterprise is cut flowers, so instead of ringing my local Teagasc advisor when I've got a question, I get on a plane to Holland.

The Dutch have forgotten more about flower farming than I'll ever learn, and I really enjoy travelling for work when I'm not just a passive tourist.

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It's one thing coping with driving on the left-hand side in Europe, but the speed of the traffic and the complexity of the road network in Holland make it nigh impossible to navigate without Google maps. The Dutch have an added layer of complexity with dedicated lanes and right-of-ways for bicycles.

But as I drove around, I couldn't help feeling that this must be what a country feels like when it's fully developed: the density of development, of traffic, the mix of nationalities, and the ease with which it all works.

Dutch farms are no different. While Irish dairy farmers might disapprove of the huge borrowings and high-cost systems that their Dutch counterparts have saddled themselves with, there is no question in my mind that the Dutch are years ahead of anyone else on the planet when it comes to horticulture.

This was reinforced for me by one farmer's disappointment after a recent visit to the US. Apparently, despite their scale and access to the best of everything, my Dutch friend found that US farmers were "about 10 years behind in terms of technology".

The impetus for progress in Dutch agriculture is simple: land price. Most of the Netherlands is suitable for cropping, and cropping land is making anywhere from €9-14/sq metre. Converted into Irish, that's about €36,000-56,000 per acre.

The very fact that they are measuring values in square metres tells you something about how efficiently they farm. Also bear in mind that the minimum wage in the Netherlands when all levies and holidays are included is about €17.50 per hour. The equivalent in Ireland is about €12.

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Despite this drive for efficiency, I was still taken aback when the first farmer I visited informed me that he had invested in not one but two fully autonomous, solar-powered robotic weeders. At €75,000 each they will need to earn their keep on his 190ac holding.

That evening I phoned one of my farming connections back home to tell him all about how great Dutch farm technology was.

"Yeah, sure there's probably about 10 veg farmers in Ireland now using camera guided weeders and sprayers," was the instantly unimpressed reply.

While I was picking my chin off the floor he proceeded to outline to me how the 60pc reduction in fungicide usage alone was going to pay off the €55,000 price-tag in the first year of a new weeder on his own farm.

I had mistakenly assumed that the glossy John Deere mags that land in my post every so often painting pictures of machines talking to each other to allow farmers to pin-point further savings on fuel, fertiliser, sprays and labour was just a theoretical scenario that we would see in a YouTube clip over the coming years.

The reality is that you don't have to go as far as Holland to meet the agricultural digital revolution that is accelerating even as you read this.

Savings

Even though it might cost €12,000 to set up a tractor to steer itself using satellites in space, and another €8,000 for the machine behind it to be able to talk to the tractor, the savings more than justify the outlay for top farmers in terms of crop quality, input use and time savings.

It's almost a new language with terms like telemetry and LEAN systems, but it's where the 5-10pc margins that define success are being picked up.

Whether it's robots milking cows, feeding stock or weeding our fields, there's no stopping the march of technology into our farmyards and fields. Blink and you'll miss the switch.

But while it has the potential to solve a raft of burning issues at farm level such as labour and reducing pesticide use, it will inevitably spawn another set of problems as the biggest operators invest heavily to put more distance between themselves and the rest of the pack.

As our European colleagues might say, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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