ERDF grant accelerates pioneering agri-tech sector

From forest to field and from moor to shore – that’s the far-reaching scope of an initiative accelerating agri-tech research, development and innovation across the South West.

The £11.8m Agri-tech Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Project (ACP) is a unique programme which runs to June 2021, designed to fasttrack the creation of new products, processes and services in the agri-tech sector.

Harnessing such varied disciplines as science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, it’s working across areas as diverse as robotics, software, big data, genetic screening, nutrition and disease control.

Specific activities range from building robots to help with harvesting vegetables and creating an app offering farmers advice on making the most of their manure to developing ‘Future Farm’, a research platform for a healthy, green ‘hoof print’ approach to dairying

Supported by Cornwall College, Cornwall Development Council, the universities of Exeter and Plymouth and Rothamsted Research – and with match-funding from Cornwall Council and the Council of the Isles of Scilly – ACP is already partnering with over 50 businesses and developing proposals with over 20 more.

The themes cluster around such important topics as dairy cattle health and welfare; maximising soil, water and nutrient use efficiency; speciality crop production; and using technology to drive productivity.

Backed by a £8.9m ERDF grant, it offers free participation in larger research, development and innovation projects; innovation grants from £2,500 to £25,000 for smaller initiatives (including feasibility studies, consultancy costs and equipment purchases); plus salary subsidies for some graduate placements.

“It’s a hugely broad spectrum driving efficiency, profitability and resilience in the agricultural sector, plus helping it enhance and protect the natural environment,” says ACP director Robin Jackson of Duchy College’s Rural Business School.

“We’re already backing a range of exciting work that could change the way we farm in the South West and potentially have national or even global benefits – helping farmers use phosphorus fertiliser in a more profitable and environmentally friendly way, harvesting sea and coastal plants, and ‘making’ soil, to name just three,” says Robin.

“ACP is utilising the pioneering thinking of the region’s scientists, academics, business community and rural entrepreneurs, kickstarting new ventures and supply chains, the legacy of which will bring economic and social benefits long into the future,” he says.

“The initiative is set to bring a real boost to the individuals and families who live and work in the South West by boosting productivity, growth and employment, while helping the region – and the UK more generally – become a global leader in agricultural technology and sustainability.

“In addition to playing its part in feeding the world’s growing population in a sustainable way, the initiative will help cement the reputation of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as places where cutting-edge technology is put to use in a host of real-world applications in the agricultural, horticultural and food sectors.”

The project is still on the lookout for more proposals to support, with ambitious small and medium-sized businesses in the land-based sector, along with the ancillary industries, food firms, educational establishments and research centres all potentially eligible for research and financial support and help recruiting new research talent into their businesses.

“We aim to solve tangible problems and fulfil specific needs, whether that involves using a product or service, a chemical or material, or hardware or software,” says Robin.

“The proposal does not have to be directly targeted at farmers – it can add value to farm suppliers or consultants, processors, distributors and even retailers and consumers, so long as the innovation helps in sustainable production and getting produce to market.

“The countryside is alive with ideas – so if you’ve had a ‘Eureka’ moment or have been working in isolation on a project, we might be able to help you make it a reality.

“Cornwall’s strong agricultural heritage and culture, combined with exceptional rural internet capabilities and R&D facilities, make it an ideal location for innovators and developers in tech-led agriculture.

“This fund is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for applicants – and we look forward to hearing from them.”

For more information about ACP’s work and how you might be able to benefit, see agritechcornwall.co.uk