Going Dutch with shared knowledge

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

A group of UK growers recently visited Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands to check out the new and exciting technological developments being used in the areas or automation and robotics. We caught up with a few of them to discover what they learned and will implement in their own businesses back in the UK

Alistair Frew, 3rd from left, Andy Burton, 4th from left – back row. James Bean, far right.

Meet the growers on tour:

Alistair Frew
Operations Manager, Cheviot Trees Ltd.

James Bean
Managing Director, Crystal Heart Salad Company

Andy Burton
Operations Manager, Double H Nurseries

What was your inspiration for attending the tour?

Andy: “The subject of automation and robotics is always of interest to us as we continue to look for opportunities to deliver our products efficiently and grow the business, so I wanted to join the tour to see what is currently in the pipeline in terms of research and development.”

James: “I’d had previous good experience with Wageningen and thought it was also a great chance to interact with other growers.”

What has the tour changed about your thoughts on the future of robotics and automation in horticulture?

Andy: “It has given me some useful insight into developments that will undoubtedly become commercially viable in the not too distant future. It also, however, confirmed my thoughts around the importance of human input and experience even with increased automation. For example, artificial intelligence is still a long way from being able to replace the experience and expertise that our growers use every day to make decisions on environmental conditions or crop interventions. I think that technology can help humans make better decisions that will help us continue to reduce waste and increase our efficiency.”

Alistair: “It confirmed to me that, in time, the two will become more closely integrated. There is evidently a lot of research and development being carried out on equipment with specific requirements to cater for growers needs of certain crops.”

Is there any particular piece of technology that stood out to you as interesting?

James: “Although I think it is still some way short of commercial application, the concept of Deep Learning was very interesting and is likely to be most far reaching.”

Andy: “One area that is going to become increasingly important is data analytics, with more automation and robotics as well as environmental sensors the amount of data we collect every hour growing fast. Being able to turn that data into insightful information to support decision making is a big opportunity for improvement.”

Is there anything you saw or experienced on the tour that you’ll take back with you to make changes in your business?

Alistair: “While I don’t believe there is an ‘off the shelf’ solution readily available for our specific business needs, I think we have however been provided with knowledge of what is out there, an understanding of what can be achieved and also who we could talk to in order to achieve it.”

Would you go on a study tour again and recommend other growers to do so?

Andy: “Yes, it’s important to look outside your own business and see what is going on in the wider industry and the study tours are a good way of doing that.”

Alistair: “Of course – if it is of relevance to your business or sector then it should be considered. There was a range of people in attendance with experience and knowledge in various sectors, ranging from growers and traders to government bodies and researchers. It was a valuable networking opportunity and good to hear a range of opinion from different perspectives.”