Two high-tech agricultural businesses in Greater Lincolnshire have been offered funding from a new national £7.5 million pot to support innovation and growth.

An automated blueberry harvesting project led by Eyre Trailers in Coningsby, in partnership with the University of Lincoln, and a daffodil harvesting scheme at C Wright and Son in Gedney have each been offered around £300,000 as a share of £1.84m awarded to 12 projects across the east of England.   

The money has come from the new Launchpads programme managed by Innovate UK which offers small and medium enterprises (SMEs) grants from £25,000 to £300,000 for R&D and innovation projects that focus on agrifood. The Eastern England Launchpad is being supported by by the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and Norfolk and Suffolk County Councils. 

Ten other successful projects across the area include novel biological defences against aphids, enhancing the fibre content of food and drink products, enhancements in crop breeding, and creating new types of plant-based food packaging. 

“We’re absolutely delighted that 12 projects have been successful across all four areas in the Eastern England region,” said Effie Warwick-John, UK Food Valley Programme Manager at the Greater Lincolnshire LEP. 

“The successful projects cover a wide range of innovative projects which align very well with the UK Food Valley’s three core aims of increasing efficiency and productivity through automation and digitalisation, supporting low-carbon food chains and promoting naturally healthy good-for-you foods. 

“We hope to encourage even more fantastic applications in the next round launching next week to showcase the Eastern England region’s brilliant agri-tech and food-tech innovation cluster.” 

The objective of the Eyre Trailers automated blueberry harvesting project, which stands to secure £299,693, is to develop and demonstrate a fully automatic machine for harvesting blueberries, one of the UK's most important soft fruit crops.  

The proposed machine will be fully automatic and will feature new berry removal and bush gripper systems. It will be designed to remove berries from the bush by the use of innovative shaking systems and should be available for widescale deployment by UK growers in 2025. 

Blueberries are now the second largest soft fruit sold in the UK (£337m per annum). The UK industry has been expanding to meet demand but still only has a 7% share of the market.  

“We're very privileged to have been offered the grant and to be working with the University of Lincoln, and we're looking forward to bringing the project to fruition,” said Bob Eyre from Eyre Trailers. “Without this grant it would be difficult to bring this product to market, so we're really grateful. 

“Blueberry harvesting is very labour-intensive as growers are completely reliant on hand-picking. Finding the workers to do it is difficult and expensive, so everybody is looking to reduce the labour costs and make the job more viable. Currently lots of fruit is left unpicked because the growers can't find the labour for the harvest.  

“By the end of the project we aim to be manufacturing a machine that's fit for purpose and that satisfies the blueberry growers. It will be quite a big growth area for us and it could really rejuvenate our business.” 

The daffodil harvesting project, which has been offered £299,985, is being led by Autopickr in Cambridge with Lincolnshire grower C Wright & Son as a partner. 

Horticulture has traditionally offered growers high incomes from small areas of land, but the total land area used for horticulture has declined by 15% since 2020. To combat shortages of labour and high labour costs the project will develop a multi-functional robotic platform capable of horticultural tasks that cannot be automated using simple machines like tractors or harvesters. 
An asparagus harvester has already been developed and will launch in the next three years, and growers have highlighted the fact that flower production, specifically daffodils, is another promising area in which to develop robotic capabilities.  

The daffodil picker will feature a sophisticated robotic arm, a platform weighing less than 45kg, and an artificial vision system to recognise picked flowers for the arm to collect and transport.  

Success in this project will lower labour costs for English growers and reduce barriers to the growth of daffodil production, which is a lucrative export market for growers. 

“We are very pleased to have received funding for this project,” said Adam Cunnington from C Wright & Son.  

“Labour is getting hard to come by and any method of automating our harvest has to be the way forward. We have every faith in the project delivering automation to a much needed harvest operation.” 

The Launchpads programme is funded by Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation. It is designed to build on innovation clusters around the UK that have significant growth potential and to deliver jobs, growth, and higher productivity, supporting the Government’s levelling up agenda. 

The next round of funding for the Launchpads programme opens on Tuesday 7th May. Businesses can apply for a share of up to £4.5 million across two categories – New Innovators and Collaborative Reasearch & Development