Humans not needed on farms in a generation?

On Thursday 5th January, this years Oxford Farming Conference Oxford Union debate considered the motion: This house believes that humans will not be needed on farms in a generation.

First up (and pictured)  for the motion was Professor Simon Pearson from the Lincoln Institute of Agricultural Technology (LIAT).   The propositions contention was that this prophesy is already happening. With official figures showing that within 100 years (one lengthy lifetime), in 1921 just under 1m people were working on English farms, by 2021 this was 301,000 of which only 67000 were regular workers and 41000 were casuals.

In 2019 according to the ONS 63,000 EU citizens worked seasonally on UK farms, now, with Covid, Brexit, Ukraine and the age/urbanisation demographics that number is much reduced, and in 2021 farms could not and did not secure the labour they needed.

The UK labour crisis is well documented, so the driver of technology in farming is not to replace labour in farming systems, its to find machines and technology to fill this labour gap.

Going back to the premise of the debates motion, its not just a question that workers ‘are not needed’ on farms, they are simply not available.

David Rose from Farmeco in Nottinghamshire rose to his feet in opposition to the motion.  He contended that “there should be more people involved in farming.” He felt strongly that tech has not solved all the problems it has set out to do.

“Technology is removing our ability to think creatively, and we need to think look at partnerships on the land.” He stated that partnerships used technology to reduce chemicals and fertiliser use.

Farming will need more highly skilled people to do the job better and harness the technology.

David urged the audience to vote against the motion and herald in a new agricultural era of people and the countryside.

The few feeding the many

Kit Franklin, lead investigator of the Hands Free Farm project at Harper Adams University was straight back up in defence of the motion as second.

“If the technology is ready and raring, what is this need for automation?” Kit opened. “Let us remember what agriculture is?  The ability of the few to feed the many through the adoption of ever emerging science and technology, in current times that means a mere 1% of the UK population producing the food for the 99%, down from 5% one hundred years ago and if you stretch back to the roman era 70-80% were working the land.”

NASA’s chief engineer for the Saturn V rocket programme said “one good test is worth a thousand expert opinions” Kit asked the delegates to would they stand with naysaying opinions on the opposite bench or with Professor Simon and himself, the testers, with hard earnt first-hand knowledge of farm robotics and automation, in voting for this motion saving future generations the drudgery and danger of farm work whilst making Net Zero sustainable businesses a reality.

Silent fields

OFC director Ben Taylor Davies closed the opposition with 60 seconds of silence to remind the audience of what farming sounds like without people, and made the correlation between science and technology adaption on farm and the reduction of people on the land.

Ben said that the argument in favour of the motion was “trivial in comparison to the suicide statistics in farming”.

When we look at agricultural engineering there have been many successes, “but a farm which runs around people is a farm which cares” Ben closed by saying.

The motion was convincingly defeated by 234 for the noes and 76 for the ayes.