Improved agricultural innovation with farmer co-development

By Dr Thomas McNamara, Postdoctoral Research Engineer, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, University of Manchester

By recognising farmers’ knowledge and including them in the innovation process, rather than simply treating them as end testers, a more effective and efficient innovation route can be created.

The IKnowFood project

Funded by the Global Food Security Programme, the IKnowFood project aims to develop an improved and unified understanding of food system resilience through four research themes. Within this, theme one aims to identify new methods that could build the innovation knowledge and skills of farmers, in addition to creating technologies that are more fit for purpose within a farm context.

On-farm innovation is broadly seen as a one-sided process. Individuals and organisations separate to the farm create new and more effective technologies or procedures. These innovations are then checked and validated before being passed onto the farmers, who then use or action them in their day-to-day operations. What the innovation should do, what its success criteria are, and the majority of its features, are determined out of the context of the farm. This is beneficial from an innovation standpoint, as new innovations are not constrained by current practices or set-ups. Additionally, experts can deploy specialist knowledge to the farm through the innovation itself.

The problem with this model, however, is that the domain knowledge of farmers, both in terms of their agricultural and day-to-day operations, is not recognised or used. There is little opportunity for the farmers’ knowledge to contribute towards the innovation. This reduces both the likelihood of innovation adoption, due to the innovation not fitting into the farming context and results in innovations being identified as flawed at a later stage, which in turn is an inefficient use of resources. No two innovations are the same, but to not incorporate farmers into the innovation process until the point at which the innovation is largely complete, misses out on a potentially more direct and effective path.

The co-creation method

In order to involve farmers from the inception of an idea through to the testing of an on-farm innovation, we met with two groups of farmers over three years. These groups were based in North Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders. Each group had meetings with us independent of the other until the final year when they came together for a joint meeting to share and demonstrate what they had developed.

The meetings were conducted in three phases:

1. Mutual understanding and trust-building
2. Ideation
3. Testing and validation

All meetings had a facilitator and a research engineer present to represent the research team, with external specialists occasionally being invited to answer specific points previously raised by the farmers.

The first phase of mutual understanding saw us meet three times with each group of farmers to better understand them, their farms and how they operated. The farmers equally developed their understanding of how research is conducted and how new technologies and procedures are created. In addition to the cohesive benefits this stage brought, it was necessary to create a different, more balanced power dynamic, compared to what the farmers were used to. Later on in the process, one of the farmers reflected and said “I think it’s really nice and sort of strange that somebody’s made something for us as opposed to accepting whatever we usually have to purchase or get. It’s a totally different way around of thinking”.

With a shared understanding and recognition of domain knowledge, the ideation stage saw both groups create, list and prioritise issues that were pain points during farming. Some of these issues couldn’t be addressed, but after iterating over four meetings, we had a shortlist of innovations that could be created within the time available, would work from a technical perspective and would operate within the context of the farm. Rather than reaching from academia to the farm, we had met in the middle, identifying innovations that had been sense checked from both sides.

The innovations

In total six innovations were identified and progressed, with two independent issues, (one from each group of farmers) having the same root cause and so being addressed by the same innovation. The overlapping issues related to recording large amounts of livestock data, but being unable to surface the basic, useful information outdoors, such as recurring lameness, animal weights and treatments. This resulted in farmers collecting detailed livestock information, recording it in software, before re-recording ‘in-field’ livestock data on paper notes. These paper notes then became their main reference when outdoors. Apart from double data entry, these paper notes were also prone to being damaged, lost or out of date, leading to a significant amount of time being lost.

To address the problem, we created a simple application that ran on the farmer’s phones. This application records written notes and associates them with a keyword, such as an animal’s ear tag number. Simply typing in the animal’s tag number then recalls all the notes made by anyone on the farm about that animal. This provides a way to create backed-up, synchronised and easily accessible ad-hoc notes across the farm. These notes can also be easily copied from the application to the desired database, saving time transcribing paper notes.

The second application based innovation was centred around lone worker safety. During discussions, it became evident that lone working was a known and significant risk, and that it remained largely unmitigated in some scenarios. Solutions had been trialled, but none were found to be appropriate for their needs. They either didn’t work effectively due to human error or had been designed for other sectors.

One of these scenarios was lone working with livestock, late at night, in the sheds and outbuildings. The farmers had trialled solutions designed for the energy sector, but these typically required a GPS signal that could not be acquired inside a building. Others required the user to manually check-in and out, but due to the hours and workload, users often forgot and either worked unprotected or triggered false alarms.

The innovation developed to address this was the Lone Worker Safety (LWS) application. This application detects when a farmer is in an area of potential harm and automatically monitors them to make sure they are okay. Should they become stationary for too long and not respond to the audible alarms and notifications, the application sends out emergency messages to predetermined contacts that are in a position to assist.

The alarm can be manually triggered and there are numerous settings to accommodate many on-farm activities allowing farmers to customise it for their situation. It has been designed to be simple to use and only requires an Android phone and a Wi-Fi hub, with the Wi-Fi hub not needing an internet connection of its own. The Wi-Fi hub is first set-up in the lone working area, when the user’s phone then connects to the hub, the phone determines it is in the lone working area triggering it to automatically start monitoring the user. When the user then leaves the area, the opposite occurs, triggering the phone to stop its safety monitoring. We are in the final stages of making the LWS application available on the Google Play Store so that farmers far beyond the groups involved with the IKnowFood project can benefit.

Our aim is to demonstrate that when farmers are involved in on-farm innovations, as co-developers rather than end testers, very real issues can be overcome with components as available as phones and old Wi-Fi hubs. If farmers were involved in co-development much more widely, we believe that they could make a significant contribution to agricultural innovation.

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