One of the last areas the average person might expect an incursion of IT would be agriculture. Lush farmland, peaceful grazing herds of dairy cattle or sheep, and crops gently swaying in the sunshine are more the sort of thing that spring to mind.
However, in recent years more agricultural businesses, including in some of the more traditional corners of farming, have discovered the potential benefits of IT, whether that be through hardware, software or services.
We're not just talking about that home PC that might do the farm accounts.
A farm is just a special type of business after all, with HMRC to keep happy and a raft of regulations with which to comply. So, as with any modern business, we're also talking about big data and analytics projects, about IP networking and mobile technology, and about the Internet of Things.
With these more high-end projects, the average agricultural business may well need a helping hand, and who better than a reseller to fulfil that need?
Channel companies surveying a shrinking market could do worse than to look further afield, if you'll pardon the pun.
One thing rural businesses have in common with other industry areas is the need for security. Modern surveillance technologies can help deter theft in remoter locations and facilities, especially where staff cannot be on hand all day to monitor access.
According to Keith Walker, director of GPS kit maker Bluetrack, UK farmers saw theft increase 5.2 per cent in 2013, year on year. Targets include vehicles such as tractors or motorcycles; fertiliser; and even livestock.
"By fitting the trackers to livestock and vehicles, and hiding in bags of fertiliser, farmers will have the upper hand if any of their assets get stolen," he says.
The advance of the Internet of Things makes more of these sorts of application possible in a rural environment. In South Africa, one farmer has gone so far as to enable his sheep to phone him if they go on the run, as it were.
The sheep wear a prepaid SIM-enabled tracking device around their necks, which is triggered and the farmer's mobile phone alerted if an unusually high level of activity is registered.
There are big-data projects down on the farms as well. John Deere, the US-based agtech and machinery manufacturer, became one of SAP's star HANA case studies back in 2013.
Predictive analytics allows Deere and Company to deliver innovation, solve problems with which it had previously struggled, simplify its IT stack and reduce TCO as well as harness data and mobile to make better business decisions in real time for its expanding global operation.
Derek Dyer, director for global SAP services at Deere, says: "We can take huge amounts of data from our global equipment sensors, get info on how customers are using that equipment in real time and have a solution back to that customer in real time."
Improve the harvest
Cloud-storage-as-a-service provider Zadara Storage has helped build up US-based Farm Intelligence2's crop analytics service on Amazon Web Services (AWS). This service helps farmers improve their harvests by using data collected from the air and hosted on AWS public cloud using Zadara's virtual private storage platform. Some 10TB of data is collected per week for processing with Farm Intelligence's new analytics architecture.
Steve Kickert, chief technology officer at Farm Intelligence2, says its WingScan software monitors thousands of acres of crops a year, collecting information that helps farmers decide whether to add certain nutrients to the soil, or increase irrigation, for example. Storage-as-a-service means that just one full-time employee is needed to manage and deploy the data storage, instead of three.
"Our core competency is in deep analytics and science about farming, and our value-add is in delivering to the farmer highly visual, near real-time information they can use to make sound, scientifically based decisions quickly," Kickert says.
Meanwhile, feed merchants and livestock suppliers aplenty have gone online. For them, the economies of scale and the convenience of e-tailing over the web have not gone unnoticed. Bicester-based Efeeds.co.uk, for example, offers a wide range of feeds for horses, cattle, poultry and dogs, all available online in small or large quantities for pickup or delivery.
Advertised as "the UK's first completely online feed merchant", it resells goods from 11 major feed vendors.
And when you're talking about specialist software and business applications targeting specific rural niches, there are plenty to choose from – from Equinity racehorse training systems to Longfarm record-keeping software, Farmware cloud storage for farmers, Orchid Farm dairy farming applications, and FlowFinity agricultural services management software.
A 2003 paper by David Potten published by Elsevier notes that in the UK there are already hundreds of IT vendors looking to tempt farmers in particular with their wares.
"The most common are for dairy and pig herd management, financial management, arable crops management and other livestock applications," he wrote. "There is no hard data on the number of farmers who use computers, but the proportion is greater than in most other countries."
These burgeoning options for rural businesses of all stripes and sizes mean a veritable furrow to plough for those with the IT know-how to advise and select on behalf of a customer whose core competency may not be tech-related.
As in other niches, uptake of technology in the rural business space has often, so far, barely scratched the surface. There's that perennial problem of restricted rural connectivity, for starters – a factor whose effect is only exaggerated in a more mobile, internet-connected world even as the government moves to boost rural broadband access.
Federation of Small Business (FSB) research this week has confirmed that UK plc still has a fast urban and a "slow" rural lane when it comes to digital.
Forty-nine per cent of rural small businesses that responded to its survey indicated they are dissatisfied with the quality of their broadband provision. In urban areas, only 28 per cent were unhappy. Criteria cited were reliability and speeds, both up and downstream.
Mike Cherry, national policy chairman at the FSB, says five per cent of businesses – mainly rural businesses – receive only 2Mbps downstream.
That is expected to worsen as connectivity goes on becoming more important to businesses, threatening the expansion of a £400bn rural economy.
"A reliable connection is now viewed as a key business requirement by 94 per cent of small UK businesses, yet continued poor connectivity in rural areas represents a huge missed opportunity for economic growth in many parts of the country," Cherry notes.
"These gaps and weaknesses need to be addressed as a matter of priority with the minimum of 10Mbps to all business premises by 2018-19, and a pledge to deliver minimum speeds of 100Mbs to all by 2030."
And not all technological innovations have always been well received by British farmers.
James Hutton Institute research in 2014 into the unpopularity of a cattle e-identification (EID) scheme suggested that farmers in Aberdeenshire and Orkney may perceive such schemes as unnecessarily bureaucratic, simply increasing their compliance burden rather than providing genuine business benefits.
Familiar ring for the channel
Also, they feared that early adoption could prove a wasted investment – especially since all IT becomes obsolete over time – despite generally being keen to adopt new technology. The complaints have a familiar ring for any business IT provider.
"Livestock farmers are involved in an increasing series of information flows, having to supply data of different kinds to a range of external agencies, both to comply with statutory requirements and as a result of market pressures. Managing information flows is a substantial administrative burden," writes Dominic Duckett, James Hutton social researcher into risk, in the related policy briefing.
"Messages promoting direct farmer benefits from cattle EID adoption, in terms of profit through healthier stock or through labour saving in relation to record management, are not always prominent in Scottish government information."
A Department of Business, Information and Skills (BIS) agritech report in 2013 found that global challenges around sustainable land use and food production are intensifying, and IT may provide part of the answers needed to boost rural economic growth and trade both within and between countries.
"It will need multiple approaches. Adapting existing farming techniques, developing entirely new production systems, innovative engineering and novel approaches to crop and livestock genetic improvement will all be required. Underpinning all these will be better analysis of data," it says.
Once again, reseller partners seem best placed to help customers understand the benefits of tech as well as cope with modern administrative and compliance burdens.
Might it be that the channel has the skills to help agricultural as well as more urban communities thrive in the modern age, using IT to boost productivity and ease their lives as well?
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