Engineers and farmers codesigning on-farm solutions

How can engineers design technology which is relevant to the needs of farmers, easy to implement and practical for on-farm application? That is one of the questions that the IKnowFood project is trying to answer.

The project’s aim is for farmers, scientists and engineers to work together to create technologies that support on-farm learning. Because they’re designed to respond to farmers’ needs and with their input from the outset, these technologies should then be more likely work on the farm. Through the Innovative Farmers programme, IKnowFood has established two field labs, one in Yorkshire and the other in the Scottish Borders where they are co-designing technology with farmers. These trials are being led by the University of York in partnership with the Universities of Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, with non-academic partners that include Innovative Farmers.

Square pegs, square holes

The co-design process starts with asking the farmers what problems they want to work on and then working with them to develop an innovation that is practical, fits into their different farms, contributes to profitability, makes them feel proud, gives them a sense of progression and enhances their ability to make better decisions. When discussing the process one of the farmers 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. It's a totally different way around of thinking”. This form of engineering is refreshing to farmers who have seen their fair share of square pegs in round holes.

They speak about the problems when engineers don’t consider farmers in the design process. One farmer tells us an example “GPS systems tend to be cab mounted on tractor systems. But when moving your front wheels have already gone through the mark and you have to wait for the GPS signal to catch up. I find that really annoying. Because anyone with a sense of practical application would realise that you want the system on the front of your vehicle and only a farmer would know that.”

Farmers with ideas

The field labs bring together a group of mainly mixed livestock and arable farmers with Dr Tom McNamara an engineer who works for the University of Manchester. He explains the process “If, as an engineer, you don’t work together with people who have first-hand knowledge of the problem you can’t design a suitable solution. A solution needs to be context specific, relevant and useful.”

With Tom the farmers whittled down a few of their favourite ideas. They then discussed how much of Tom’s time had to go into which project. The groups continued to meet to discuss Tom’s progress and help Tom further hone the technologies to the farmer’s needs.

He tells us “We have noticed how generous the farmers are in both groups - with open and honest conversations and a good dose of laughter. The farmers have clearly stated what they liked and disliked about different versions of the solutions. This is important although at times also difficult to hear.”

farmers inspect DIY livestock blood tests

The innovations they’re codesigning

On the instruction of the farmers Tom is working on a series of innovative ideas. These include:

  • A kit to more easily sample blood on farm, which will help monitor the health of livestock through detecting the presence of certain diseases or parasites. The idea is to develop an on farm blood test without farmers needing to call out the vet. This will then help them to more quickly identify certain diseases in animals and allow them to make better decision about what to do next.
  • Lone worker safety technology which gives a reliable alert system for cattle men working in a shed, for example during calving time. It can raise an alarm in the event their movement stops. This can be very important especially for farmers working at unsociable hours and in sheds where GPS based technology doesn’t work as well. In future this technology can be adapted for shepherds who work in remote areas which have unreliable mobile reception.
  • A leaf mimic tool that could sit in arable crops and notify farmers of the presence of diseases like rust before the symptoms appear on the leaves. This gives the farmers a valuable head start with treatment and could help stem the spread of the disease before it’s too late.
  • A livestock database app looking at effective ways farmers can make notes on livestock when out in the field. The app is described by Tom as ‘paper 2.0’ – essentially designed as a simple tool which enables farmers to log observations in the field that links directly with desktops in the office so they can add the notes to their established databases at their convenience. For farmers who normally scribble notes on pieces of paper, which sometimes get lost, this adds a failsafe of record keeping to add to their toolbox.

Farmer perspectives

One of the farming couples involved in the project are Sylvia and Will Terry who run a mixed farm near Scarborough with beef cattle, breeding ewes and 120 acres of arable crops. They told us about their experience of the project so far. “It’s been totally different to work with an engineer. It has turned the normal way of doing things on its head. Rather than external people designing things to sell to us, we had to decide what we wanted engineered as a group.”

“With the livestock app, at the moment you have to write everything down, so because it’s outside you often have your diaries and they get wet, covered in snow, or worse dropped in a bucket! So it will be so much easier having something to hand by being able to punch it into your phone.

“We’re hoping the blood test could save us a lot of time and money, being able to diagnose something that we’re suspicious about without having to go through your vet, which costs a fortune, or being able to give the animal a prophylactic rather than waiting for something to happen.“

The future of co-design

But the field lab doesn’t just end with the development of new tools. Annemarieke de Bruin from the University of York is present at all meetings to facilitate the innovation process, ensuring it remains farmer-led and to support the engineer and the farmers to learn from each other.. She then studies the process so that academics and engineers can learn from and improve the co-design process for the future. The hope is that working in this way becomes the new norm, where farmers are recognised as equals in research and development and industry and academia actively reach out to collaborate with farmers when developing agricultural technologies.

Sylvia and Will are enthusiastic about the process so far, they tell us that “Field labs are a golden opportunity to get together and talk about innovations with other farmers, something we wouldn’t usually do in social situations. The level of learning between our group has made us think a lot harder about what we do on our farm. We hope at the end of the process we have something that actually works, is practical and adds to our farming practices.”

Get involved in your own farmer-led research

To keep informed of how this field lab and others are progressing sign up and become a member of the Innovative Farmers network. Got your own idea for a field lab? Then contact the team to find out how to get involved.

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