How Long Will It Be Before Robots Replace Migrant Workers on British Farms?

With minimum wages creeping up, industries like agriculture, which have long-used cheap, often migrant labour, might be tempted to invest in labour-replacing equipment.

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Oct 4 2016, 8:00am

A black-and-white cow walks up to a robot, which tells who she is from the electronic collar on her neck. The cow is due, the robot finds on a database, for one of her three daily milkings, so is allowed into the machine. The teats of her udder are cleaned, before lasers guide the suckers into place.

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While the cow is milked and fed a bespoke meal, the robot gathers data—such as her weight or the quality of milk—for farmer Charlie Hughes, to analyse later. He's busy elsewhere on his West Sussex farm, delivering bottles of milk, or looking after his three young kids.

Hughes installed robots for his herd of 110 cows in 2012. He used to spend eight hours a day tied to the parlour. Now he maintains the machine for half an hour in the morning and night.

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A robotic milking machine used on a dairy farm in West Sussex. All photos by the author.

"I didn't want to milk cows much more," he says. "It controls your life. When all your friends are having their weekends off and working nine-to-five, [milking] is not in-keeping with reality."

British dairymen and women are cautiously embracing the rise of robots. These machines have been commercially available for two decades but are now breaking through. About 600 robots, milking about 60 cows each, are now installed in the UK, according to consultant Tim Gibson.

For Hughes, robots change the nature of the job. Unshackled from the slog of milking, he and his workers focus more on the animals' health and fertility, or other enterprises, such as processing the 600,000 litres of milk they sell straight to the public every year. He has other robots too, which push feed around the shed or decide which cows are let out to the fields.

"[Robots] mean not having to do the mundane. It does make you a better farmer," he says.

Even as food-producing robots reach the mainstream, they still have the ability to wow.

Last month, at a machinery fair in Iowa, one firm unveiled a concept driverless tractor. In the promotional clip, a farmer, sat calmly on the back of his pick-up, swipes on a tablet to select a machine. A sleek black-and-red tractor rolls into shot, dodges a passing car, and rides off to the fields.

The futuristic video got both the agricultural and public press excited.

Ally Hunter-Blair grows barley, oilseed rape, and sugar beet on 500 acres in Herefordshire, which means plenty of driving big tractors. He already uses tech such as GPS steering, accurate to two centimetres, but the "I, Robot-ish" machines in the video caught his attention.

"They were absolutely brilliant," he says. "I'd be interested if they can make [them] small enough for us West Country farmers, not just big arable farmers in America."

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Hunter-Blair's enthusiasm might be linked to youth: he's 29 (and one of Channel 4's First Time Farmers, a kind of Made in Chelsea meets Countryfile, which lasted just two seasons). He's already got a drone, with which he takes stunning photos and hopes to soon map the fields for spreading fertiliser.

The farming colleges are starting to teach the next generation the new skills required, as programming a computer becomes as useful as lambing a ewe. Harper Adams University in Shropshire now houses a National Centre for Precision Farming to promote and develop the use of high-tech.

But most food producers were not reared in the internet age. In 2013, only 3 percent of the British farming workforce was under 35, while 34 percent was over 65.

"The older generation are a bit more wary," Hunter-Blair says. "They've also seen lots of technology come and go."

The arrival of robots might be the final stage in an agricultural revolution that started three centuries ago. In 1841, just over a fifth of British workers were employed in farming or fishing. Today, that figure has fallen to under 2 percent.

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West Sussex dairy farmer Charlie Hughes.

Jobs that involve plenty of routine, low-skilled activity are most likely to be automated in the future, according to a report published in July by the Resolution Foundation think tank. With minimum wages creeping up, industries like agriculture, which have long-used cheap, often migrant labour, might be tempted to invest in labour-replacing equipment.

This would be good for UK farming's productivity, which has lagged behind its international rivals since the 1960s. But some jobs will continue to disappear. A rich country like Britain might barely notice, but in other parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa where close to two-thirds of workers grow food, the ripples will be felt.

Robots are not quite ready to tackle the most labour-intensive food of all: fruit and vegetables. British farms sometimes employ hundreds of workers to pluck strawberries from bushes and apples from trees. As each plant and each fruit is different, programming a robot for the task has so far been out of reach.

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Hughes' herd of dairy cows.

Chris Roberts, head of industrial robotics at developer Cambridge Consultants, says robots can struggle with the "real world" nature of farming, where conditions are always changing. A muddy field is very different to a pristine, ordered factory floor.

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Last year his firm revealed a prototype robot, which used several sensors and an adaptable gripper to move fruit from one spot to another. They are now working on a similar project for a big food company.

The technology will arrive in the next few years, Roberts says, as robots become more intelligent. It just depends how keen farmers are to think long-term and invest.

"It feels like we are on the edge of something," he says.

Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.