Only three percent of the Earth’s surface is arable land, and only 18 percent of that can be used for growing food crops. As the world’s population continues to increase, the amount of arable land per person decreases, which makes sustainable farming increasingly important each year that passes.
With such challenges facing the food chain, from the farm level forward, what solutions are available? One of the most promising is that of precision farming.
What is precision farming (and what do drones have to do with it)? Following are two descriptions: The European Agricultural Machinery Industry Association (CEMA) defines precision farming as “the adoption of staggering new technologies: satellites, high precision positioning systems, smart sensors and a range of IT applications combined with high-tech engineering” for the purpose of “managing variations in the field accurately to grow more food using fewer resources and reducing production costs.”
In a shorter version from Wikipedia, digital farming is “a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter- and intra-field variability in crops.”
According to Boston Consulting Group, 60 percent of the farmers in France, Germany, Poland, and the UK believe that precision farming will be widely adopted by 2030, and CEMA reported that more than 70 percent of the new farm equipment sold today has a precision agriculture component.
This digitization can help farmers increase their sustainability efforts, reducing pesticide and other resource use while enhancing yields. For example, one of the latest innovations is that developed by Bayer in collaboration with Bosch which applies drone technology to reduce resource use and increase yield.
- The drones generate field maps and deliver aerial infrared photos providing information such as the condition of the crops. Data also can be collected through sensor technology and measuring instruments.
- The collected data is fed to satellite and mobile radio hubs into an analysis platform.
- Commands are sent from the platform or the farmer to highly specialized, automated field machinery.
- The machinery can then use the data to irrigate or apply crop protection to specific parts of the field with millimeter precision.
- The collected data also can be used for other purposes, such as making growth and yield predictions.
The enhanced ability to “read” the field and plants and target resources through precision farming technologies not only reduces the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other such resources, it enables the analysis of their efficacy and recommendations for application dosage, timing, etc., all of which can lead to more environmentally sensitive, sustainable farming.
“Precision farming showed us the data of what was really happening,” said Leon Noordam, executive associate of Novifarm in the Netherlands. “It was a real eye opener; you can’t manage the farm without seeing the plant.”
But, cautioned Damon Knobloch, vice president of operations and partner of Riverview in Morris, Minn., who has tried a lot of technologies — and had a lot fail. “The wow factor gets us really excited as though it would take all the work out. You still have to do the hard work ... you have to go out and validate it.”
MBS Sandhu of Sylvan Harvests in India agreed that farmers have to take a hands-on (or, in this case, a feet-on) approach, stating, “A farmer’s feet are the best fertilizer.”
On the other hand, data is becoming increasingly important for the farmer, and it is the new technologies that can provide that.
“Any company that doesn’t have a data strategy will lose, but it has to provide value,” said Agrilyst CEO and Founder Allison Kopf of New York. “Farmers will invest when the technology is proven to be of value.”