Precision agriculture defined from a farmers perspective.
We will get higher yield with less input resources. Right?
That’s what the label says.
Let’s consider higher yield first. I understand that the world needs more food for a growing population, and there is no more land available, so naturally, farmers need to up their game. “Give us more kilos, please.”
What is higher yield, anyway?
Firstly, the yield comes in many shapes and forms, and optimizing for maximum kilos is not necessarily what’s best for the farmers. For example, for any type of fresh produce, there is a key compromise to be made: quality versus quantity – do you want a high volume of lower average quality or a lower volume of first class produce?
I grow strawberries. The highest-priced sales channel wants only first class products, and we are maybe able to deliver 70% of the field’s potential to this channel in a good year. The rest is lost in the process because sorting and picking two quality categories at the same time is too inefficient. We could have achieved 100% if we picked everything for jam. Still, 70% volume and top quality pay better than 100% jam, so we want to do that.
For the world, though, 30% of nutritional value is wasted.
Secondly, yield impacts the health of the plants. Let an apple tree carry too much crop one season, it will not have the energy to maintain its health, and you´ll see a massive drop in yield next year. In other words, the race for higher yield jeopardizes long-term health and productivity
Thirdly, for crops that require manual harvesting, there is a clear cut-off point where harvest is not profitable. In my experience, farmers already spend too much effort trying to harvest everything in the field and not leave anything behind. I think they would be better off economically by leaving more produce in the field, unharvested.
For fruit, berries, and vegetables, the harvest cost is an exponential curve that grows fast as you get closer to the full capacity of the field. Farming is already a marginal business, and labour-intensive harvesting can often represent ⅓ or more of the value of the harvest.
As the graph indicates, your harvesting becomes a loss-making venture at some point. If it’s been a bad year, with plant stress due to weather or other factors, the crossing point for these two lines will move quickly to the left. The graph clearly shows how good intentions to maximize yield might be very costly to the farmer.
So for me, as a farmer, optimising yield would be towards two primary targets:
- Safeguard the health of our plants.
- Maximize our revenue in money, not kilos.
Only in 3rd place would I consider the actual quantity of the produce.
Drinking pesticides like milk
The other part of what precision agriculture promises is a reduction in input resources. On this part, I get a little bit offended. It’s based on an image of agriculture where farmers are bombarding their fields with fertilizers and pesticides – this is not representative of modern farming practices. Certainly not among any of the farmers I know.
All of us have a practice where the use of fertilizers and pesticides are only applied when necessary based on observation of nutritional shortages, diseases, or pests. Farmers already do everything they can to minimize input resources without jeopardizing the soil, plants, and yield health.
Later in this blog series, we´ll get to cases where new technologies make it possible to reduce input resources further, and certainly, there is room for fine-tuning, but by and large, the farmers’ practices are already pretty good, in my humble opinion.
My top 3 expectations of precision agriculture
It’s safe to say that I am not dreaming at night about increased yields and reduced use of input resources. Instead, I have three things that bother me and that I want to fix with “precision agriculture.” In order of urgency:
- Phase out manual labour
- Automate documentation
- Introduce variable zoning
We will dive into the details of these three items in later blog posts, but first, we need to establish a few stepping stones that are prerequisites for achieving success in the above three items.
The most important step towards enabling precision agriculture to solve our problems is to organize all the data about our farming practices so that it’s all in one place and can be analyzed. And then, the first analysis we are going to do is to find a return on investment per field. Without this baseline, how can we determine if any new technology deployed will improve or worsen our business?
In the next article, we´ll tackle the problem of organizing farm data.
This is part two in a seven-part series on a farmer’s journey to precision agriculture.