Technology the key to growing Ireland's export potential
Irish farmers are one of the world leaders when it comes to efficient production but we have an opportunity to grow further and explore new markets such as China, using technology.

A significant shift in mindset has occurred towards a more technology-driven industry with a system of reduced labour and in some cases partial autonomy.

We are producing more food from the same amount of land due to technological advances and we have the ability to improve that further.

The farmers who are working smarter rather than harder by utilising technology are reaping the benefits of an improved lifestyle and increased profits. However, farmers have to justify investment and ask themselves if this piece of technology can improve their lifestyle, their profit margin, or both in many cases.

As a result of our high production levels, we are an exporting nation and we need to look at what markets we supply and China is central to that.

In this focus, Thomas Hubert profiles retail business Hema Fresh and how they market their products to ensure full traceability.

Phelim O’Neill takes a look at the growing influence of the Chinese online retail system from the Irish Farmers Journal’s recent trade mission alongside government delegates.

Technology

We also take a look at a new and upcoming business, Apisprotect in Cork aiming to monitor beehives using sensor technology. This development will have huge implications for farming as we depend on bees for our crops to pollinate and also the opportunities this technology presents to increase production.

We are living in the smartphone era and over the last decade different apps have been developed to further progress agriculture. We take a look at the latest apps in this Focus, such as fertiliser spreader calibrators and breeding assistance.

Now more than ever we need to look at how technology can help farm safety. To do this we combined some of the handiest apps and devices that can achieve this from the online risk assessment tool to the farm safety app for kids.

Using sensors to create a buzz around technology
With one-third of our food production depends on bees for pollination, so one Cork company is working on a way to protect the bee population.

With an expected population of 9bn by 2020, the importance of bee colonies to food production cannot be underestimated.

Disease from the Varroa tick, environmental factors such as habitat modification and the use of chemicals are threatening bee populations across the world, chief scientist of ApisProtect Padraig Whelan told the Irish Farmers Journal.

From speaking to Fiona Edwards Murphy, CEO and co-founder of Cork-based ApisProtect, it is clear the potential for their product is massive.

The internet of things (Iot) that is used by ApisProtect is the concept of bringing sensors into the real world and allowing for the monitoring of beehives 24/7 in all conditions.

Sensors

The device is retrofitted into the beehive using two screws and a screwdriver. This device has five built-in sensors measuring humidity, temperature, carbon dioxide, sound and acceleration.

Mobile networks are used to collect the data from every individual hive using a technique called machine learning. Machine learning identifies patterns and gathers information from past experience of healthy and unhealthy hives.

The device is able to judge the condition of the hive and send smart texts or emails to the beekeeper with updates of disease status and suggests actions to improve the health and reduce losses.

The key selling point for the beekeeper is they do not need to check every hive each day, only the problem hives. For example, a beekeeper may have a couple of hundred hives but this device will tell the beekeeper which exact hive has a problem that needs to be fixed which cuts labour costs for checking each hive.

Challenges

Labour has been a problem for the company due to the high level of competition from other technology companies that can attract employees easier. Only last week they took on their first member of staff but they hope to employ up to a dozen at the end of this year and up to 30 in five years’ time. Trials will begin with up to 150 units going to the USA which has the largest diversity in biomes but it has taken a lot of work to get to this stage in the product’s development.

Influence on farming

There are just 3,000 beekeepers in Ireland but there is massive potential for our products including honey sales and the renting of beehives for crop production. Currently in Ireland we do not practice the use of renting beehives for crop pollination as it is done naturally.

However, pollination by large amounts of bees for one crop will shorten the ripening season as well as increase the production of the crop which is vital to increase the margin for profit.

What’s next for ApisProtect?

Their aim is to have their device in 300,000 beehives in five years’ time. Although this seems a small amount out of 91bn beehives globally, with more developments in technology and increased labour the company can expand in a short time period.

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Market in China built on technology

Farming from the palm of your hand

Market in China built on technology
A new opportunity has arisen for Irish beef in China, but it will be technology driven.

The Irish beef industry received a huge boost in April this year with the announcement that China would import beef from Ireland.

This means Irish beef can join Irish dairy and pigmeat in the largest and fastest-growing consumer market for protein in the world.

Online retailing

With the rise of Amazon in the US and Europe as an online retailer selling a vast array of products, a major threat has been identified to traditional retail models. The large supermarket organisations, with varying success, have attempted to develop an online business themselves in response to this.

In China, however, the era of online dominance in retail, particularly for the well-educated growing middle class, has arrived. Young successful Chinese consumers don’t use cash nor even cards – everything is done by smartphone.

What has this got to do with Irish farmers?

The success of selling Irish beef in China will require the industry to fit into a hi-tech and rapidly developing food service sector which differs greatly from the Irish or indeed UK model. This is built around convenience packaging and presentation on the supermarket shelves.

Online sales growth is far outpacing the traditional retail shop or supermarket model. It is so pronounced that the top online retailers are investing in traditional supermarkets to assist their distribution network as well as cater for the tastes of the more traditional shopper.

JD.com

JD.com is the second largest of the online retailers, with 24% of the market which is rising year on year. As well as serving its customers directly, JD also acts a platform for other produce sellers, has a traditional retailing offer and acts in a wholesaler-type role in accommodating business to business sales.

Inside its huge headquarters in Beijing where 1,500 people are employed, robots are used to pick the products. Drones are used to make deliveries in remote areas. Regarding delivery, 95% of orders are delivered within 24 hours, with 57% being delivered within six hours of receiving the order.

Unique selling point

Unlike the market leader, Alibaba, JD doesn’t outsource delivery and distribution. Because of this, it has 515 warehouses across China and has been investing in traditional retailers such as Walmart, ASDA and Yonghui, a Chinese supermarket chain.

One example shown to the Irish Farmers Journal was the 7FRESH store. In this store when a consumer picks up products a screen above displays the relevant information including a satisfaction rating taken from the company’s database, which extends to almost 302m users.

This store provides a delivery service within half an hour to customers within 3km and at no charge for customers spending over the equivalent of €13 per purchase.

The future

JD.com is operating in a sector which is expected to grow from being a $41bn equivalent business in 2015 to a predicted $178bn equivalent business in 2020. This is the business model that Irish exporters will increasingly have to serve.

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Watch: shopping at China's superconnected supermarkets