Innovation is the next and most important shift in commercial horticulture: new technologies that communicate with one another will guide growers’ decisions by analysing and contextualising information. This is already changing growing across all crops, helping sustainability, efficiency and profitability.
But there are barriers on the road to digitising a grower’s organisation. Old habits and routines, access to technology and digital competence are a few factors that slow the uptake – and subsequent return on investment (ROI) – from horticultural tech.
How we as an industry overcome these barriers will define the coming years. Here are three ways, mostly based on my experience in crop protection technologies, your business can take advantage.
1 Talk the right language – to the right people
In our industry, levels of digital competence vary greatly. A general pattern we see is that those who have grown up in a technology-driven era are more digitally competent than those who did not (although there are plenty of exceptions!).
This creates a digital divide. It means those more familiar with technology will want to invest but face barriers from those less comfortable. And those less comfortable are often the senior decision makers.
In my experience, this issue is rarely insurmountable: education and involvement break these barriers. It is important to understand how to approach these conversations without sounding condescending or missing the mark. Talking about the strengths of a technologies open API and the power of a cloud-based platform to centralise key datasets will fall on deaf ears.
But discussing hotspots for botrytis in a cyclamen crop – and the potential to use remote sensing alongside climate-control systems to measure and manage differences across the glasshouse, and reduce losses and inputs… goes down a lot better.
You’re illustrating the problems technology solves.
It’s vital that everyone across an organisation supports the adoption of new technologies. The older generation of growers has the experience and knowledge of their crops. Harnessing this knowledge to improve and adapt technologies is key to unlocking technology’s success.
2 Find specific and usable insight
Currently there is a great deal of R&D taking place at both grower and academic levels. This work must ensure technology brings value to growers – as well as specific insights about individual crops.
The insight must be actionable. This is where both growers and agronomists need to play a role in the development of new technologies.
A company may have developed a system that pre-symptomatically detects powdery mildew in orchards and advises the grower to spray. This is an impressive and useful system but to make it truly powerful it would also find a suitable spray window using weather data, and from the grower’s chemical store inventory database suggest to the spray team what to use and at what rate.
This type of system offering actionable insights is only possible through collaboration between technology providers and growers/agronomists.
We need every part of the jigsaw to develop a whole, working picture.
3 Show me the money
Another barrier for growers is the cost of new technologies. Horticulture operates on tight, increasingly squeezed margins. Free capital to invest in larger projects is not usually readily available.
But growers today have more options for financing capital investments, such as Fargro finance, or non-horticultural finance companies.
The potential asymmetry of capital investment and ROI with new technologies is always a concern. This asymmetry occurs due to the lag time between the adoption of the technology and the point at which the growing team has a confident understanding and introduces changes to processes. Training and education significantly shortens this period.
Also ROI improves through multipurpose systems. A picking robot using a hyperspectral camera to detect fruit size/development could also, by using that same camera system, pre-symptomatically detect pest and disease leading to an improved application of crop protection products.
This reduces labour in both picking and crop walking, and improves efficacy as part of an integrated pest-management programme. Win, win, win.
Technology is key to unlocking sustainable growth across the entire horticultural sector. It’s not as costly as you might first imagine, it’s not as complicated to implement - and it stands to make your business more efficient and more productive.