Our young and techy IT team are excited about us starting to farm with drones and robots. The possibilities are exciting, but the intricate electrical stuff inside needs a pristine environment that’s free of damp and dust, so our galedriven, mud-encrusted leek pickers are safe for a while. Logistics and delivery are another matter; drones, driverless vehicles and predictive algorithms that know what you are going to order before you do are pushing the boundaries of possibility at an incredible rate. My guess is that there will be unforeseen problems and progress will not be as fast as the spods predict, but even a clod-hopping, cardoon-wielding dinosaur like me cannot deny that it is coming.
With online sales in western Europe alone growing at 15% a year, investors are in a spin, pouring money into tech enabled start-ups, especially food home delivery. The huge majority lose money at an eye-watering rate, often spending several times their sales on marketing and IT in a dash for growth. Most will fail, but the allure for investors is the possibility of finding the next Google, Facebook or Amazon. The underlying assumption is that the demand for choice and convenience is insatiable, and that the clicking customer is always right, however whimsical and fleeting their desires or planet-draining it is to fulfil them. As an online food retailer we have found ourselves at the centre of a hurricane; it can be hard to keep your feet on the ground and one might easily forget about the potatoes. All that technology, choice and eager investment cash working itself into a furious maelstrom in search of growth makes me want to retreat into a cave with a bone. After 30 years, I remain doggedly resistant to the mantra that the customer is always right; there are just too many things for them to be right about, and no-one can hold that much information.
I love our tech team’s tigerish enthusiasm – without them we would be getting hungry in a cave – but I particularly like that they walk. I find them all over the farm, talking earnestly about I have no idea what. I can’t help thinking their proximity to the potatoes gives us a better chance of using technology than being used by it. If they do end up building a robot to pull up leeks, they will just have to retrain our harvesters.