In the latest series of Clarkson’s Farm, novice farmer Jeremy Clarkson has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous in his apparently vain pursuit of profitability. Instead of a Lamborghini (tractor), his latest tool of choice has been a £100 Henry vacuum cleaner, demonstrating how he could successfully harvest blackberries – without sucking unripe fruit – from his hedgerows.

So one wonders what a £50m investment in funding to accelerate farm automation over the next five years might achieve. In conjunction with a five-year seasonal worker scheme deal, Defra promised the funding – including “immediate” work to fully automate a pilot group of major packhouses – would help introduce prototype “robotic crop pickers on a par with human pickers”, in less than five years. This would ultimately reduce dependence on migrant workers and make the UK food supply chain “the most cutting edge in the world”, Defra claimed.

Promises, promises. The government has been pinning its hopes on automation for years to fend off the anti-immigration wing of the Tories. And a previous report from 2022 noted that automation was already widely used in areas such as packhouse automation, field rigs and mechanical systems.


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But it also noted limited progress in three areas: autonomous selective harvesting; augmented assistance; and autonomous crop protection, monitoring and forecasting. Lots of reasons are identified in the report for low adoption, including the fragmented nature of horticulture, limited business support, lack of technology integrators, uncertainty over contract duration and cost and difficulty in securing finance.

Above all, trying to replicate the expert eyes and gentle hands of a fruit & veg picker is incredibly complex, and many technology companies have struggled to create workable solutions. So it remains to be seen how far £50m will go in unlocking automation in horticulture, and how quickly progress can be made to taper seasonal worker support. Five years and £50m looks ambitious. Or like 500,000 vacuum cleaners if you’re Clarkson.