Some of mankind’s earliest technologies were created to facilitate agriculture, and as affordable mechanisation like tractors and combines arrived, farmers – keen to further boost their yields - were eager adopters. On the face of things, subsequent progress appears to have been slow. However, dig a little deeper and we can see that modern farming and food production is actually right up to date: it’s data-driven, GPS-assisted, and IoT-ready. It’s Farming 4.0.
Farming today faces a tremendous challenge. Food production must increase by 70% by 2050, as the global population is predicted to rise to 9.6 billion people according to figures from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. This will require a significant increase in yields, which in turn will require precision management of land and animal welfare.
Historically, farmers have had to sense for themselves the state of the climate, the intentions of the weather, the condition of the soil, and the needs of their livestock. Going forward, they will need help to interpret all the extra information needed to keep driving productivity higher. The Cloud now brings the opportunity to collect large amounts of data from numerous locations – even down to the level of individual animals or rows of crops - to remove a lot of the guesswork. And a host of sensors are arriving in the market to help gather the year-round digital harvest.
Farming 4.0. Already in the Field
The era of animal wearables has already dawned. Farms have begun studying location data from ‘connected cows’ to identify anomalous behaviour indicative of injury or illness, and a more recent project has developed cow pedometers that can help identify when females are in heat to help improve insemination success rates.
As far as growers are concerned, tomorrow’s arable farms and greenhouses may contain untold numbers of sensors to aid precision regulation of conditions such as irrigation, soil temperature and exposure to light. Over-irrigation, for example, can be at least as bad for crop yields as under-irrigation. Moisture sensing is a science in itself, and depends on factors such as soil type and sensor technology to accurately report the conditions plant roots are experiencing. As agriculture.com explains, precision irrigation is not only important for boosting crop yields but also to save water, which will come under increasing pressure as the global population rises.
Soil temperature, on the other hand, is important for crops such as asparagus. A two-sided covering layer is often used, that provides a choice of reflective or absorptive qualities and so enables growers to raise or lower the temperature as needed. A prototype IoT system has shown how the challenges associated with managing the temperatures of multiple rows of crops in multiple fields can be greatly simplified.
Other developments include a digital tool for assessing tomato quality by optical measurement of sugar and acid levels, cross-referenced with a database of taste-test results.
Improving the growing processes is just one aspect of increasing yield. The precision farmed produce must also be handled carefully to minimise spoilage, which can occur during harvesting, packaging or in storage. Research has been ongoing for some time, as a report by researchers at Navarra University in Spain published in 2010 suggests. Experiments by Arazuri, Arana and Jaren, using ‘electronic tomatoes’, recorded the accelerations, impacts and speeds experienced by the crops and was able to identify the gentlest combine harvesters for the task.
The TuberLog electronic potato applies similar principles to protect the world’s most common vegetable crop. Although potatoes may appear quite robust, they are highly sensitive to temperature variation during storage.
For optimum yield, potatoes need to be harvested before temperatures drop too low and in dry soil conditions to avoid clods of soil sticking to them, preventing air being able to circulate while the potatoes are ‘curing’ after harvest. Ideally they should be stored in the dark for a couple of weeks at temperatures of 10-15⁰C at a humidity of around 90%.
This allows the skin to harden and extends the potatoes’ storage life. Thereafter they should be kept at steadily decreasing temperatures until they reach around 2-4⁰C for table potatoes and 10-13⁰C for processing potatoes – and at a slightly lower humidity.
They also need to be handled gently. Cuts in the skin will become breeding grounds for micro-organisms, which can spread resulting in heavy losses to the crop. It’s also important to avoid bruising, which can occur at any stage of harvesting or transportation. According to Lincolnshire-based Martin Lishman Ltd, who manufacture and distribute specialist agricultural equipment including the TuberLog, estimates suggest more than 60% of some crops are damaged, leading to high levels of wastage and associated financial losses for growers.
TuberLog can be added to potato batches at the start of their journey. Being in the heart of the action, it can pinpoint the most troublesome areas by measuring and logging typical acceleration forces. The device is coupled with a data logger, and the user can wear headphones to hear each impact in real time and can see the data on a smartphone screen. The ambient temperature at the point of the recording is also measured and stored alongside the impact data in the logger. It can be downloaded via USB or Bluetooth to a PC or laptop for later or more detailed analysis using the system’s software.
Smart agriculture is a fascinating and fast-moving field, with clear relevance to the way we live today - and arguably even greater importance for our future survival. It’s also growing quickly and tipped to exceed $18 billion by 2022. A great opportunity to develop new technology for the benefit of everyone.