Fresh produce and ornamental production will look radically different in the future, but technological transformation will only happen if the whole industry comes together.

Over 230 growers at AHDB’s SmartHort 2019 conference, which took place on 6 and 7 March, heard the sector needs a clear vision to drive investment in large-scale projects to accelerate innovation.

Delegates at the two-day event in Stratford-upon-Avon heard updates from experts around the world on a range of exciting new technology, from robotic harvesters and automation systems to novel crop protection techniques.

Jane King, CEO, AHDB, speaking at SmartHort 2019, said: “It is often said that we are on the edge of an agricultural and horticultural revolution. We’re certainly on the cusp of significant change. And it’s going to require collaboration across industry. We need to be much more adaptable, imaginative and operate with more clarity and openness.”

To help bring new ideas to the industry, AHDB launched the SmartHort Automation Challenge at the conference. The project will match automation systems experts WMG, at the University of Warwick, with a UK business to develop an applied solution to a real problem in horticultural production.

Simon Pearson, professor of agri-food technology research, University of Lincoln, said: “We need big meaningful projects or ‘moonshot’ approaches. We need the industry to come together and tell us what the big challenges are. Then we need to aggregate and pool all our resources together, in a few targeted areas, where we can really move the dial to open up new technologies.”

Growers were urged to speak with engineering and robotics specialists to share their problems and communicate the challenges they face that could be addressed with technology. Seeking solutions should also not be left exclusively to the bigger players in the industry, particularly as the technology is becoming more accessible.

Alistair Frew, operations manager for Cheviot Trees, based in the Scottish borders, said: “The big take away for me is to be working with fellow growers to look at suitable technologies and the central need that we all have. We need to see if we can pull something together, it’s a big operation.”

Fumiya Iiada, reader in robotics at University of Cambridge, said: “Agri-food robotic revolution is happening right now. The rise of the robots is happening because they are getting cheaper, easier and faster. This is exactly what happened with computers 30 years ago. They were very expensive and only for big businesses but eventually reached smaller businesses and then consumers.”

Applications for the SmartHort Automation Challenge are open until 29 March. Apply at

All the talks from the SmartHort 2019 conference can be watched again on

AHDB’s SmartHort campaign is designed to help improve labour efficiencies in horticulture through robotics and automation, as well as labour management techniques.