Smart Small Farms

Co-designing small-scale technologies to address the agricultural digital divide

Project Team

Leanne Townsend 
Senior Social Scientist, Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences, James Hutton Institute Contact: leanne.townsend@hutton.ac.uk

Co-investigators

Rowan Ellis, James Hutton Institute
Simon Robinson, Swansea University
Jen Pearson, Swansea University

Project timeframe

Start: September 2019
End: April 2020

Supporting Partner(s)  

Scottish Crofting Federation, Smallholding Scotland

Addressing the marginalisation of small farms

Digital technologies are revolutionising agriculture. However, there is an unequal distribution of Smart Farming Technologies (SFTs), which are often more accessible to large-scale farms because of high investment costs and because many SFTs are not well adapted to small scale farming practices.

Small farms are already potentially vulnerable due to limited land and capital assets, geographical and economic marginalisation; this can also impact on the wider rural communities that they support, which are often already at a disadvantage as a result of uneven access to technologies – the urban-rural digital divide.

Small farms can be important for rural food security, particularly in the event of supply chain disruptions, extreme weather events, or other food-related shocks. In rural places where economic opportunities are limited, small farms are also vital sources of employment.

Smart farming technologies (SFTs) such as variable rate precision farming, smart sensors and drone technologies are revolutionising agriculture, leading to better productivity, yields and cost savings as well as supporting more environmentally sustainable farming practices. Arguably then, small farms and the rural places they support have much to gain by embracing the digital age and engaging with tools for more efficient and profitable food production.

However, SFTs are most likely to be adopted by larger farms and smaller farms are being left behind, suffering competitive disadvantages and increased marginalisation. Advancing digitisation of agriculture therefore potentially threatens further marginalisation both for small farms, and their wider rural communities.

This project aims to …

… empower and more fairly distribute the opportunities of the digital economy. It will do this by creating a more inclusive approach for the development of SFTs, working with small farms to design prototype technologies. The project will therefore empower small-scale farmers who wish to embrace the opportunities offered by SFTs.

Specifically it will …

… conduct a participatory workshop with small-scale farmers to gain insights on the barriers and potential of Smart Farming Technologies for small-scale farming, and to co-produce ideas for prototype SFTs for use on their farms. This will include demonstrations of SFTs to encourage farmers to think about potential applications.

The project will then undertake rapid prototyping of SFTs based on insights from this first workshop. These small-scale technologies will be trialled on farms to evaluate their effectiveness in these contexts before farmers are asked to give feedback.

This project’s social impact is …

… to address the growing ‘agricultural digital divide’ currently disadvantaging small producers, many of whom have limited land and capital assets.

Small farms benefit when technologies support increased outputs/yields, decreased inputs, and/or access to new markets. Small farms can also benefit from increased awareness of the challenges and threats they face. This exposure has the potential to catalyse policies supporting farm extension services and technologies that meet small farm needs. Small farms are part of rural communities, and their ability to survive has broader implications for the future of these rural places, through maintaining employment opportunities, supporting localised food systems, and resisting rural land pressures.

The key outputs from this work are a short film documenting the project; a toolkit of SFTs, which will be disseminated to relevant actors through our networks of key stakeholders; and a report outlining the key findings from the participatory workshop. The report will outline the barriers to, and the potential benefits and applications of technologies on small farms.

It is innovative because …

  1. Although there is much research on the importance of small farms, likewise on the adoption (and barriers to adoption) of SFTs, there is not yet any participatory research seeking to overcome barriers to SFT adoption amongst small-scale farmers.
  2. The project represents a novel collaboration between social scientists and computing scientists pursuing more responsible innovation in small farm contexts.
  3. The research applies the co-produced rapid prototyping approach to a new context – small farms.
  4. The research will result in novel prototypes or apply existing technologies in new contexts as determined by the unique needs and characteristics of our participants.

What’s next?

Outcomes of the project will form a foundation for a larger project, allowing us to build on the Not Equal funding and continue to develop our work in this area