What happens when farmers lead their own research on their farm

When farmers lead the research into what they need, it turns out that they come up with practical answers to problems that researchers wouldn’t think of. And when engineers are involved, those answers often involve new apps.

Like the question of what happens if a person is injured or has a health emergency when they are by themselves in a shed on the farm and can’t call for help.

Photo by Ilse Orsel on Unsplash

The resulting ‘on farm safety app’, which people can download from Google Play, alerts colleagues if someone doesn’t move for longer than an agreed length of time. The app can be used anywhere on a farm but its main focus was staff working with livestock in sheds and barns, where the GPS technology that is relied on outdoors usually doesn’t work.

“Our app uses the presence of a WIFI signal to identify that the user is working in a shed or an area of increased risk,” explains Dr. Tom McNamara. “When the app detects this signal, it automatically starts to monitor the user’s motion. If the user is stationary for too long and fails to respond to a prompt by the phone, the alert is sent out. This notification includes the user’s rough location based upon the WIFI the phone connected to. When the user goes out of range of the shed or area, the app automatically stops monitoring, stopping false alarms being raised by the phone being on charge or the user resting back in their home. This allows staff to be automatically safeguarded when working alone in sheds. Once setup, little if any user input is required.”

The idea came out of one of the first large-scale academic research projects in the UK to use a farmer-led approach as part of its methodology, rather than just treating farmers as the consumers of academic research. I read about it on the website of Innovative Farmers, which is a source of much fascinating on-farm exploration by farmers in the UK.

The question they examined was: Could engineers and farmers work together to design technology ‘that’s fit for purpose, easy to implement and practical for on-farm use?

And the answer appears to be a resounding ‘yes’.

Two groups of mixed livestock and arable farmers from the Scottish borders and Yorkshire worked with engineers from the University of Manchester to co-design a range of tools to make their farming systems easier, while the University of York looked at  how a co-design process can support the emergence of farmer-led innovations, Innovative Farmers explained. The co-design model will ultimately be shared with other institutions to inform best practice in research and development. 

Each of the two groups met ten times. At the first workshops, they shared their experiences of agricultural innovation and discussed why they should innovate in the first place. In subsequent workshops, they made a list of issues farmers experienced and scored each issue to rank their relevance, importance and solvability. After drawing maps and timelines to better understand the issues, they decided which ideas to take forward. Each technology design was supported by engineers and went through iterations of development and testing. 

As well as the on-farm safety app, the designs coming out of the ‘IKnowFood’-sponsored research included:

  • An on-farm blood sampling tool (still in development) to rapidly diagnose infectious diseases which is especially useful for new livestock arriving on farms. 
  • A livestock database phone app to help farm staff record and share notes on livestock, serving as a middle ground between paper notes and a database app. The discussions showed that many farmers were making notes on paper but those often were lost or destroyed, and that if they made notes on phones, they couldn’t be imported to computers at home and had to be entered all over again. The app lets people quickly make a note that is associated with an item – for example, an animal’s ear tag number – and immediately see all the previous notes about it. The app, once developed, was distributed within the Innovative Farmers network for testing.
  • A leaf mimic tool that is placed within crops and notifies farmers of the presence of disease, such as rust, before symptoms appear in the crop, so farmers can start treatment early. This tool was still in the early stages of development as of 2020.

Since 2012, Innovative Farmers has launched 110 field labs and awarded over £400,000 in grants to groups of farmers to support them in researching issues that matter to them.