This September, we kicked off Farmtopia, a 3-year Horizon Europe project that focuses on the democratisation of digital farming, with a particular focus on small-scale farmers. The project addresses the problem of limited adoption of Agricultural Digital Solutions (ADSs) through the co-creation of these solutions and cutting their costs, as well as designing and validating business models.
The project, comprising 22 partners from 11 countries, holds the potential to boost the economic and environmental performance of the agricultural sector, particularly for small farms. Keep reading to discover the problems small farmers face, the reasons for the current slow uptake of ADSs, the benefits of ADSs, and the project’s goals.
Why Do We Need Farmtopia?
Our current technological landscape is ripe with digital solutions. Their uptake is notable in the agricultural sector, as well. For years, large-scale players on the agrifood value chain have been adopting technologies labelled as “precision agriculture”, “smart farming”, and the aforementioned ADSs. Just some of the benefits that ADSs bring with them are:
- Increased food production leading to resilience
- Cost reduction of production and business operations
- Reduction of the environmental footprint of farming
- Better transparency across the value chain
- Improved working conditions
- More support for alternative business models
- Creation of additional revenue streams
Yet, the benefits of these technological advancements have not been widely felt among small-scale farmers. There is a notable lack of uptake and use of ADSs among EU farmers.
Small and Medium Farms Missing Out on Agricultural Progress
Several studies explored the low adoption of ADSs among small and medium farms. A recent systematic literature review on precision farming on a small scale (Tamás Mizik, 2023) concluded that approximately 84% of farms are smallholdings worldwide, especially in low- and lower-middle-income countries. According to the European Commission, the percentage of farms with less than 5ha in the EU was nearly 70%. Furthermore, a 2018 paper on the adoption of precision farming (Franco Denny, Singh Dharam Raj, Praveen K.V., 2018) found that, among the interviewed participants, land size has the highest positive impact on precision agriculture adoption.
Thus, even the European Parliament (EP) recognised this as a policy issue. In their 2017 Precision Agriculture in Europe study, the EP has stated that small-scale farmers “benefited the least from [the] boost in production”.
Here are the most notable reasons that keep small farms from realising their full digital potential:
- Currently, ADSs are mostly expensive, and economic benefits for smallholders are questionable, as they have small and fragmented land.
- Many ADS setups aren’t practical for smaller fields. The equipment is too big and/or inaccurate, while the data, like open satellite data, isn’t detailed enough.
- The existing ADSs business models mainly target large farmers. Smaller farmers are not seen as an enticing target group.
- Small-scale farmers lack the digital skills for operating ADSs. For them to be able to use them, substantial training is needed.
- There is a lack of trust in ADSs, as well. Small farmers are resistant to this change and they are aware that ADS providers often overpromise.
To cross the described digital divide, there is a need to tailor ADSs into cost-effective solutions for all members of the agrifood value chain, including small and medium farms.
Farmtopia’s Goals for Democratisation
Farmtopia strives for a future where ADSs are more tailored to the needs of small farms. That encompasses their development, validation, deployment, and affordability. More precisely, Farmtopia’s main goals are:
- Collaborative development of ADSs – ensuring that the ADS solutions target the real issues plaguing small farmers, paying attention different farms have different issues to deal with.
- Cost reduction for both farmers and ADS providers – by developing reusable software, sustainable business and governance models, and scalable infrastructure for ADSs, the project could lower the cost significantly for both farmers and ADS providers.
- Guidance and validation – through the Open Call and workshops, the project will ensure small EU farmers have readily available experts for guidance. In the meantime, it will be designing and validating the said supporting business and governance models.
For Farmtopia’s path to its goal, it’s crucial to rely on a multi-actor approach. Thus, the project engages EU farmers, ADS providers, farm advisors, scientists, policymakers, Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems (AKIS) actors, and other relevant actors of the agrifood value chain. These actors will be engaged through 18 Sustainable Innovation Pilots (SIPs) – 9 being pre-selected SIPs.
The farms involved in these SIPs are organic and conventional farms located in France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Slovenia, Romania, and Ukraine. The crops they are growing are, among others: organic avocado, industrial hemp, carrots, maize, wheat, grapes, arable crops, and others. The selected farms are also involved in mushroom production, dairy sheep, cows, and goats.
The other 9 SIPs will be selected through the Farmtopia Open Call that will commence after the first year of the project has passed – in the second part of 2024.
At the end of the 3-year project, over 64,000 small farms could be provided with validated ADSs, due to 60+ farms co-creating the digital solutions.
Bridging the Gap Between Key Actors
Farmtopia’s 22 partners are led by NEUROPUBLIC. The consortium is dedicated to identifying the gaps unfilled by current technologies offered to small farms and bridging them through a co-creation process of ready-to-use ADSs, leading to tangible results in providing precision agriculture to small-scale farmers. To stay up-to-date with the project’s steps in the following years, follow the Farmtopia Newsroom!