Worth about €11bn annually, the Irish agri-food and drinks export industry has experienced a boom in recent years, thanks to a rise in global demand.
However, despite this boost for Irish produce, many of the 139,600 family farms in Ireland still face many challenges. The good news for farmers is that Irish start-ups in this sector are harnessing technology to create innovative apps to provide solutions with time management, animal welfare, overheads, and safety.
Dr John Garvey of FarmHedge believes his platform can make the “highly-localised” market more efficient and help farmers to stabilise their incomes.
The university lecturer, who is a part-time farmer, came up with the idea for FarmHedge while working on a project at the University of Limerick.
With 1,500 farmers signed up to the platform so far, Dr Garvey says the initial offering — a free weather app which creates alerts around activities based on forecasts and historical data for the farm’s location — is a “hook” to get farmers on board. The other side of the platform helps farmers get discounts on farm supplies such as fertiliser and animal feed.
Currently, farmers looking for a volume-based discount from suppliers can form a purchasing group to negotiate prices.
However, Dr Garvey says the groups can be difficult to manage; there can be administration costs, a narrow range of choice of products and farmers are reluctant to let other farmers know the details of their business.
With FarmHedge suppliers can identify a number of farmers located in a certain area and make an offer, rather than trying to sell to each individual farmer. FarmHedge earns a small fee, ranging from €1 to €5, which farmers pay to commit to an order onscreen.
The benefits over the purchasing group model are the low cost, convenience, and privacy.
There are benefits to the suppliers, too, in terms of reducing their administration costs. The concept is new, and Dr Garvey hopes to bring the FarmHedge model to the UK and the US over the next two years.
Another app helps dairy farmers manage their herds more efficiently. Dr Edmond Harty’s MooMonitor is a collar worn around a cow’s neck, which uses nanotechnology to monitor the animal’s behaviour and activity patterns. By measuring the muscle movements in its neck it can determine how much a cow feeds, rests and ruminates, a key indicator of health.
A huge benefit of the monitor is its ability to detect heat and measure fertility cycles.
Looking after the production of each individual cow is the most efficient way to farm, Dr Harty, who is CEO of Kerry-based farming equipment company Dairymaster, says. “There’s a gain of about €18,000 to be had on the average dairy farm in Ireland by optimising fertility”.
The device works on a cloud-based system, with a 1km range and information available in real-time through the app.
Dr Harty says the technology used in the MooMonitor is more advanced than that used in wearables for humans. With thousands of customers around the world, the latest version can be updated remotely, meaning the latest features are wirelessly added to the monitors while they are around the cows’ necks.
Farmer’s wife Alma Jordan came up with the idea for farm safety platform AgriKids in 2014 when she heard about the deaths of two children in farming accidents within days of each other.
“At the time I was a mother to a tractor-obsessed toddler. I didn’t know it then, but we were actually about to have our worst year ever for farm accidents in 2014; 30 people were killed that year, which was nearly double the year before. And when children are brought into the mix as well it did have a big impact on me.”
Having previously worked with Repak’s Green Schools programme, Ms Jordan saw how effective the strategy of children taking the recycling message home and encouraging their parents to recycle, was.
Starting with a series of children’s books on farm safety, Ms Jordan then started doing events and workshops, before developing the Safe Fun gaming app.
The free app has three games; one is Dodge the Dangers, which helps children and parents to spot what the dangers are in a typical farmyard.
By teaching farmers’ children about safety, Ms Jordan hopes to educate the adults. “Kids love to share their learning outcomes, and that’s what I’m trying to harness when it comes to addressing the culture.”
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