Crop inspection drones are a state-of-the-art technology that can be made available in the region. Photo: Shutterstock
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Hundreds of physical hubs are being set up throughout Europe to help farmers use technology better. But how do you make sure the hubs can stand on their own two feet? Wageningen University & Research’s project coordinator George Beers assesses the results to date, ranging from initial disappointment to promising successes.
It was around 2017 that the European Commission decided to make funds available to help European agriculture exploit the many benefits of digitalisation. Wageningen University & Research (WUR) wanted to use the money to launch the SmartAgriHubs programme, creating physical locations that could help scale up and promote digital innovation on farms. Farmers would meet up at the hubs and discuss how to use data and technology on and around their farms. The intention was also that the hubs would start their own projects to develop new digital tools for local clients. About 400 such digital innovation hubs would be set up across Europe.
A real gem
The inspiration for the agricultural hubs came from the pilot for the implementation of the Internet of Things in the agri-food sector, an EU project that ran from 2017 to 2020. It involved over thirty case studies throughout Europe, with major projects carried out by innovative companies, aiming to see how data from agricultural machinery, satellites and sensors, for example, could be used and combined to improve processes and farming operations. Because all those projects had high technology readiness levels, they often led to actual implementation by businesses.
Health is monitored using sensors in the animals’ collars and bracelets. Photos: Jeroen Bouman
“The programme was a real gem and involved the top people in Europe”, says George Beers, project coordinator at Wageningen Economic Research and closely involved in this pilot. “Then came the question of what to do with that team, and especially all the knowledge and experience, when the programme came to an end after two years. Would that entire infrastructure just collapse?” Fortunately, the European call came for innovation hubs for agriculture. Beers saw a chance here to further publicise the experiences and lessons learned.
“Our idea was to make state-of-the-art technology available in regions so that all European farmers can benefit”, says Beers, explaining the Wageningen plan. He is referring to such technology as the use of drones to inspect crops, satellite images for analysing crop moisture content and sensors in collars to monitor the health of animals. “There is already a lot of experience in Europe with these techniques, with both success stories and missed opportunities. We want to share that experience with everyone.” No sooner said than done: the European Commission approved the proposal and on 1 November 2018 Beers and his team started work full of optimism.
The idea is to give all farmers in Europe access to the state-of-the-art technology
To help the hubs get off to a flying start, it was decided to make use of existing organisations that already enjoy the trust of farmers – such as a cooperative, consultancy or local research institute – rather than setting something up from scratch. The kind of organisation varies from country to country. The hubs in the Netherlands include farmers’ organisation ZLTO and innovation campus Brightlands. “In Germany, the chamber of commerce got a hub, in Denmark the national information service and in Spain the local authorities. In fact, one aspect of the project is to see what works best.”
Beers and his team started with 140 hubs that covered all 28 member states. The objective was to have 400 hubs, half with good business models. “Once you reach the target of 400 sites, they can initiate large numbers of experiments and promote digitalisation in the local farming sector.” If there is a hub on Crete, for example, in an area where a lot of wine is made, farmers with vineyards can learn from fellow farmers in Portugal how to use technical solutions to grow the same amount of grapes using less water. “The hub staff make the information available, organise events for the farmers to get them interested and arrange funding from local and national authorities and private investors.”
How can the digitisation of the agri-food sector help meet the dual challenges of resilience and sustainability? This video explains how SmartAgriHubs is helping to create the smart tools that will enable the agri-food sector to not only become more environmentally friendly, but also more efficient when faced with an exogenous shock such as the current pandemic.
But 400 hubs in four years turned out to be too ambitious. “The hubs need much more time to mature.” By that he means that a hub needs to be able to stand on its own two feet in terms of its organisation and finances, and it needs to be capable of developing experiments in innovation and programmes to help farmers introduce new technology. One weak spot turned out to be the quest for funding for these ‘innovation experiments’, as they are termed. “Many of the hubs were part of our own network and had been accustomed to relatively easy access to funding. In a previous project, they received subsidies of up to 70 per cent whereas now we only offer a sliver of funding – 10 per cent at most. The hubs therefore now need to develop the ability to arrange their own financing. A number of the hubs that applied originally dropped out later because they had been under the misconception there would be funding.”
Ten to fifteen. According to Beers, that is the number of hubs that are currently mature enough to be self-reliant and keep going even after the SmartAgriHubs project ends. This group includes hubs in Slovenia and Lithuania, notes Beers, countries where the government plays a more limited role and the market has more experience with projects of this nature. “Those hubs are based in organisations that have been doing this kind of thing for a while. They already have a network of private investors.” One innovation experiment there involved developed technology that lets farmers grow premium-quality wheat. The farmers use sensors that track the wheat’s growth. A platform was also developed that gives buyers more information about the wheat, such as the chemicals used and sowing and harvesting data. The farmers also measure the state of the soil so that they can take action if it needs improving.
There have already been countless projects on using sensors to measure the moisture content of the soil
The hubs throughout Europe can share their knowledge on digitalisation in the local farming sector with each other. Photo: Steffen Seeman / Shutterstock
But it turns out that past success is no guarantee for the future. “On reflection, we may have promised a bit too much in our proposal. We should have given priority to helping the hubs reach maturity.” The current programme, which runs until November 2022, is now undergoing a change in direction to achieve this.
Learning is intrinsic to innovation
So has SmartAgriHubs turned out to be a big disappointment? “No”, says Beers cheerfully. “That’s intrinsic to innovation. The important thing is to learn from this and adjust what you do next accordingly.” Anyway, progress has been made, he stresses. An infrastructure has been established through which knowledge and experience can be recorded and in which hubs can develop. Furthermore, there are thirty cases of successful implementations (in functional and financial terms) of new digital technology on farms, which farmers served by other hubs can also learn from. Another important insight from SmartAgriHubs is that there may be more to gain from sharing existing technologies and data rather than developing brand-new (but as yet unproven) innovations. “We need to appreciate the replication of existing projects more, as in the example of Crete copying from Portugal. There is hardly any funding for this because it doesn’t seem so impressive. But our project is making the European Commission more aware of this issue. The World Bank is also very interested in how to provide access to existing know-how, for example in the digitalisation of agriculture in Africa and Central Europe.”
Beers says there is actually no need to focus on developing new techniques. “There have already been countless projects on using sensors to measure the moisture content of the soil and adjust irrigation accordingly. Everything has already been discovered. What is needed is a new setup that gives pride of place to sharing that knowledge. We don’t need more apps: we need better systems.”
European research context
SmartAgriHubs addresses the following European policy challenge: The digital transformation of the agri-food sector by sharing knowledge and experience and by developing new digital tools Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Economic Research, Wageningen Plant Research, Wageningen Livestock Research Countries involved in Europe: Each EU member state has at least one hub. Research institutions from all over Europe are also represented in the support teams Duration: 2019 – 2022
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