It seems crazy to think a farmer could actually grow and harvest a crop without even stepping foot in the field, but a United Kingdom man is proving it can be done.
On Tuesday at the Farming Smarter Leadership Conference in Lethbridge, keynote speaker Jonathan Gill showed southern Albertans his cutting edge research on automated farming.
“We were the world’s first to grow an entire crop without actually going into the field,” Gill said. “We worked an entire area of land, a hectare completely without having anybody in the driving seats or any agronomist on the ground.”
They call it the “Hands Free Hectare Project.” Gill and his team in the United Kingdom automated small farm machinery and drone systems to grow and harvest a crop of spring barley – never once actually stepping foot on the field.
The whole idea of unmanned vehicles making their way through a field gave one farmer flashbacks to a classic machine-versus-man movie.
“It’s kind of scary, you get thinking of the terminator,” Craig Walsh said with a laugh. “Not necessarily that, but now all of a sudden it (the machine) is running itself.”
Walsh has been farming in southern Alberta for 25 years and after getting over his initial shock, concedes the new technology would be a significant financial boost.
“We’re a high capital financial industry and labour is a big cost,” Walsh said. “It’s a big additional cost. So if you can cut labour, it will be huge.”
Gill sees this technology freeing up farmers to be more productive.
“Farming is incredibly difficult and it’s a really skilled task to actually do,” Gill said. “But by taking away sitting on the vehicle while it’s driving up and down, that’s one small step to allowing us to have more time to run our business.”
He also hopes to eventually expand his methodology to a 100-hectare project.
“The idea in the future is to set the vehicles off from your main farm building and watch them go to their field,” Gill said. “They could work together in larger fleets and swarms… It’s not about becoming a lazy farmer, it’s about allowing you to get to those other jobs that you just didn’t have time to do.”