For anyone fortunate enough to score a ticket to Wimbledon, having a bowl of strawberries and cream is almost as obligatory as the all-white outfits sported by the players or British hopes of victory being dashed early. A classic dessert served at the tennis tournament since it began in 1877, only the finest, juiciest, reddest strawberries will suffice.
Hugh Lowe Farms has been responsible for ensuring the quality of Wimbledon strawberries for almost 30 years now. The farm supplies the South-West London championship with about 1.5 million strawberries every year, equating to 30 tons of fruit.
This year, the business has invested in new IoT technology from Vodafone to ensure only the highest quality soft fruit is served to the tennis-loving crowds. Marion Regan, the owner of Hugh Lowe Farms, says:
Wimbledon is the absolute pinnacle. It happens to coincide with a time when everybody is thinking about high summer and strawberries, so it's a terrific and slightly scary event to be supplying. We try and do our best and make sure that they have the very best for the championships.
Business as usual
Outside of the two-week tennis tournament, the farm has a long season of production. It grows strawberries, raspberries and blackberries from April to November, supplying supermarkets, a local farm shop and London markets like Covent Garden.
Hugh Lowe Farms grows about 200 hectares of fruit, and has been collecting data from sensors for many years. The MYFARMWEB platform from Vodafone collects and integrates data from the various sensors placed around the farm, with between five and 10 sensors per hectare.
These include standard weather or climate sensors, which record what the plant is experiencing by measuring humidity, temperature and light levels. That data triggers the farm’s irrigation programs, and feeds into the venting of polytunnels to change the temperature and humidity as needed throughout the day. Those sensors are in boxes at appropriate locations throughout the whole field, placed at the main leaf canopy level of the plant. There are also soil moisture sensors, which are probes placed throughout the fields.
Rather than growing its plants in soil, the farm grows soft fruits on tabletops in a coir substrate, a sustainable coconut fiber. A moisture sensor is placed in the substrate itself, measuring the wetness around the plants' roots, and other sensors measure the electrical conductivity of the applied irrigation water, which is also used to deliver fertilizer. The farm is keen to avoid wasting any fertilizer not only because it's expensive, but due to the pollution risk.
The farm also uses smart insect traps, which can identify flying insects and quantify the amount of certain pest species. Regan explains:
We do good old-fashioned crop walking as well, where an agronomist will be walking and taking random samples, and recording the incidents of pests and diseases at random points through the field directly into their mobile phones.
You are building up a picture from a whole lot of sensors that are placed in different parts, both in the air, among the roots and in agronomist hands.
While the sensor tech has got more sophisticated over the years, the MYFARMWEB system pulls it all together into one platform, making it easier for the farm to make more intelligent decisions and pinpoint where action is needed. This is crucial for growing soft fruit, which is increasingly about precision but has lacked the sophisticated technology available to other crops, says Regan:
We can take our combine harvester and combine a field of wheat and get absolutely precise data on yield and quality as we harvest, plus we can do really neat soil sampling to get these beautiful heat maps showing where we should be applying fertilizer and where we've got hotspots of particular pest or diseases. We can do all of that for a crop that's worth probably less than a tenth of the high-value strawberry crop growing next door. Yet we didn't have that sort of precision in the strawberry crop that we can have in a standard cereal crop.
Regan attributes this to the huge amount of wheat grown around the world, leading to a wider array of advanced technology in that type of agriculture.
When it comes to growing high-value crops like soft fruit, the investment per hectare is huge and farms want every plant to have the optimum conditions and growing environment. Hugh Lowe Farms is increasingly able to control the environment because the fruit is grown under tunnels, which are becoming more sophisticated and can be opened and closed automatically in some cases, and enables changes to humidity and temperature. Says Regan:
We really do need to do that with the best possible data about the environment that the plant is experiencing and take data from the plants themselves. We're interested in things like how they are photosynthesizing, what's happening to their interception of light, what they're actually doing in their root zone.
Another piece of crucial data is the location of pests and disease outbreaks, as they don't happen all in one place or across the whole cropping area. Using the Vodafone technology, the farm can digitally record and geolocate the occurrence of pests and diseases, and then apply measures to tackle them in a very precise way. Regan explains:
In our case, those controls are biological. We're introducing beneficial insects to eat the bad insects. They're quite expensive so we want to introduce them in a targeted way, plus they don't build up their numbers unless they've got something to eat so there's not much point in applying them somewhere where you don't have a pest problem. All of this precision is enabled by the Internet of Things.
Vodafone is also providing technology that enables the farm to track fruit from the pack house to Wimbledon, which has highlighted at least one load that arrived too warm, according to Regan:
That enabled us to track back what had happened to the refrigeration on its journey, and we were able to alert the guys at Wimbledon that those pallets might have a slightly more compromised shelf life and would need to be used first.
The farm is also tracking fruit at an earlier stage in its journey, from the field to the pack house. This is helping meet the target of getting fruit into a chiller as quickly as possible, while a vibration sensor ensures the berries aren’t being bumped about too much.
The main benefit of the MYFARMWEB platform is the integration of sensor data meaning faster and better insights into what actions are needed. Regan argues:
You can end up drowning in data or you’re not really using it properly or you can also make decisions in a silo. Your irrigation manager will be making a decision based on what data he's collected from the soil moisture sensors, whereas your agronomists will be making decisions based on what insects or pests he's found. Using the integrated platform means we are making actual management decisions, and it pulls the team together and keeps everybody aligned.
Farm workers have embraced the new IoT system, partly due to its intuitive user interface, but also as technology is now so embedded into the farming world. Regan observes:
People tend to think that people in agriculture and horticulture are horny-handed sons of the soil, whereas it's a highly technical and advanced sector. Graduates of agricultural colleges and those studying plant sciences and crop science now need to be digital natives. They're very adept at adopting technology because they completely see the point. It helps us do our work better.