New technologies are transforming the farming sector, but interpreting and using data in a meaningful way is still a major challenge.

Automated machinery, data collection and precision farming techniques are intended to maximise production and farmers’ return on investment, promising to cut workloads and reduce the expense and environmental impact of agricultural inputs. But while new tools and technologies are being developed all the time, farmers are in an awkward in-between phase, with high costs still a barrier to widespread uptake. In addition, a lack of harmonisation means it is often impossible to share data from the field between machines of different brands.

Bas van Hattum is Chief Editor of Future Farming, a publication focused on smart farming, emphasising technology and precision. He is confident that progressive farming techniques will become the norm within the next two or three decades. After all, while farm machinery still varies around the world – even within the European Union – other developments like the software and precision part are similar everywhere.

“What we share globally is the stuff behind the machines, like data, analysis and automation,” he said. “…That’s the technical side of future farming, but in the end it’s just going to be farming.”

Joining the dots

However, even as the digitalisation of agriculture gathers pace, farmers and suppliers around the world face some major hurdles before they can translate these advances into practice.

“If you go 50 years back in time we had more or less the same situation,” van Hattum said. “You had tractor manufacturers and you had implement manufacturers, and some of them had their own ideas about how things should work…Some things fitted and some things didn’t, so you had to make them fit yourself, do some welding and so on.

“You can see more or less the same happening again because every supplier of software and data has their own way of thinking. They each have their own ways of storing data and how to read the file.”

He added, “We need some kind of standard to make stuff connect with each other and make it work.”

Toward a harmonised system

Fortunately for farmers, this is a problem that industry leaders recognise. Anthony van der Ley is President of CEMA, a trade association for tractor and agricultural machinery manufacturers. In a recent interview with Future Farming, he emphasised the need for a harmonised approach within the European Union, to ensure that workers, farmers and crop consultants can exchange data easily within a defined centralised system.

Van Hattum claims that the bigger, modern farmers in countries like Australia and Brazil are just as advanced as their counterparts in North America and Western Europe when it comes to the latest technological developments. Although many European farmers aim to understand precision farming techniques, those farming vast tracts of land elsewhere in the world – perhaps a Brazilian farmer with 80,000 hectares – tend to be more likely to see the value in measuring and digitally managing different parts of their farm.

Fear of the new

But while digitalisation may be the way forward in Europe too, most farmers are still hesitant to get on board, van Hattum said. He suggests that only about 5-10% of farmers in Western Europe are adopting new technologies, with most still content to use a traditional approach.

“The majority of farmers are not adopting the new technology because of fear,” he said. “You can invest €30,000 in a new fertilising system or something for your tractor, but they want to know what it’s going to bring them back.”

According to van Hattum, farmers tend to see improvements with precision farming techniques, but they are not necessarily recouping their investment.

“We have the new technology – and that’s going to be the only way in 30 or 40 years – but we are now in an in-between phase,” he said.

NPPL project to assist farmers

In the Netherlands, the NPPL project (The Dutch National Experimental Ground for Precision Farming) aims to tackle this gap. With financing from the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, it started in 2018 with six arable farmers, and has brought 10 more on board in 2019, including in new sectors such as dairy and bulbs. The idea is to help farmers and growers with precision farming, to lower environmental impacts and improve return on investment. The project is implemented by Wageningen University & Research, which provides expertise when needed.

“The main goal is to make it work and make things connect,” van Hattum said. “…Here’s my tractor, there’s my field, here’s the machine. What do you need to make it work?”

The farmers all want to measure certain variables on their farm to make spreading or spraying more efficient, but they often encounter difficulties when they try to implement their findings.

“At the moment they are still struggling because the ideas about how to make it work are very clear on paper but it’s not so easy to make them work in practice…We measure a lot but we still don’t know what you really can do with it, and I think it will take quite some time before we have some sophisticated harvest models that will tell us the way to farm for wheat or barley or grass or vegetables.”

That said, things are moving fast. At the moment, a few dozen early adopters are working with precision technologies, experimenting and learning about their capabilities, but the next generation of farmers is learning about these tools as part of their studies.

“It all starts with the farmer, and if he likes it and sees progress he will do it,” van Hattum said. “I think the new generation that’s coming up, who are now aged between 15 and 30 years old, as they get in touch with it during practical study they will adopt it. They want to understand – but it’s impossible to force it.”