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Throwback Thursday – interview: Growing potato seedlings on own soil; the smart way.

In our brand new section ‘Throwback Thursday’ we dive into the rich and long history of Girugten by revisiting or republishing interesting (translated) articles of the past. In this first edition we ease into it and rewind to 2017. The original article, written by Bart-Peter Smit was first published in Dutch here, and the translation below was done by Thijs van Soest. Enjoy!

At many farms, precision agriculture is already used in autonomous driving systems and localization via GPS. The Girugten editorial team wants to know how this phenomenon takes place in practice. Therefore, at a warm summer evening, Jeroen (de Regt, editorial team member), Lisette (Woltjer, editorial team member) and me ended up at the kitchen table of Derk Gesink. He is an expert in the field of precision agriculture and he has the possibility to implement new innovations directly at his own farm. In the Groninger clay at his farm in Mensingeweer, he mostly grows seed potatoes, which are exported all around the globe. The main question the editorial team has for Derk is how he uses precision agriculture to achieve the highest possible yield on his farm.

By using GPS, it is possible to know the location of the plants and drive in-between the rows. Source: Derk Gesink.


Derk tells that he first came in contact with Netscape (the predecessor of the modern internet) during his study ‘plantenveredeling’ in Wageningen. His interest was directly attracted, which indicates that he is a so-called ‘early-adaptor’ of new technologies. After his study, Derk first worked somewhere else before joining his father in agricultural life. Around 2005, Derk used his knowledge of technology to implement a GPS-system to a tractor. This system enabled him to partially drive autonomous across his field. At that time, the precision of this kind of systems increased fast, from 1 meter deviation to only 2 centimeters. Derk emphasizes that he thinks that he will be able to completely autonomously drive with his tractor in 5 to 10 years. He expects it to be much earlier than when he will be able to drive his car autonomously, because of all the extra space a tractor has around it.


Nowadays, Derk is the owner of the agricultural company that was his father’s before. He tells about the agricultural life so close to the civilised world. His neighbours moved from the Randstad to Mensingeweer and are living close to his farm. Multiple times they wondered if he was allowed to spray pesticides so close to their homes. He confirms, but he stresses that the rules and regulations are strict. If only 4 drops of pesticide end up in a 70-kilometre long ditch, the authorities can notice it, with a hefty fine for the farmer as a result. Furthermore, Derk finds it important to make this clear in the area, also to raise awareness for agriculture. For him, it is important to show that precision agriculture is also an example of sustainability because it is a method to obtain maximum profit with minimal input.

Profit optimization

Derk stresses that the Netherlands is an unusual choice for agriculture. Because of the 17 million people, there is relatively few land available for agriculture, which makes the land expensive. Therefore, it is important to treat the ground well, at the same time as realising maximum profit. He sees precision agriculture as essential to achieve that profit maximisation. Also, he expects the degree of adaptation of precision agriculture to be an important aspect of the rate of success of specific agricultural companies.

Drones

In agriculture, GPS usage is a very common thing. Partially self-driving tractors and calculations of precisely where a seed has to be planted are some examples. For those known with precision agriculture is this phase also known as ‘precision agriculture 1.0’. The next phase (2.) is the ‘smart’ monitoring of the crops. As a renewing farmer, Derk is already busy with phase 2.0.

While we walk to the barn where the drone is stored, we pass a variety of impressive agricultural equipment that somewhat amazes us. And also that equipment is packed with sensors to measure a range of variables. Light-hearted explains Derk that the machine we watch can process 3000 kilos of potatoes with ease. Actually, he would have liked to analyse those potatoes on their size and weight directly, however, that is unfortunately not possible with the current technology.

Letting the drone fly is easy, Derk tells us while he grabs a tablet. On the tablet, an application is installed with which he can select the parcels where the drone needs to take images. This application will then automatically choose the optimal flight path and send it to the drone, after which the drone will follow that route fully autonomously.

The drone in action. Source: Derk Gesink.

Laws and regulation

The Dutch law states that there always should be someone who has the drone in sight at all times. Furthermore, drones are prohibited from flying higher than 120 meters, and they are not allowed to fly over people. Luckily, there are not that many people on the Groninger countryside, but for farmers as Derk, it would be nice if they were allowed to fly somewhat higher. That way, the drone could take pictures of a larger area, leading to less time spent on this by farmers. Besides that, it is a challenge that someone should always have the drone in sight. The drone is able to fly its paths completely autonomously and it is even possible to let it do that on a periodic base. At the moment, Derk still loses quite some of his precious time on monitoring his drone, a task he would love to outsource.

Other farmers prefer the ‘wait and see’ approach concerning drones. That is because it is quite an investment and start-up problems are guaranteed. Laughing, Derk tells us about some of the hardest crashes of his expensive drone, including one happening where it fell on the ground only meters away from the waterside. There are always some (small) problems and interest in technology is, therefore, a requirement for working with the newest iterations of precision agriculture according to Derk. He works on his drone frequently himself. At this moment, it is really pioneering, you need to make sure that your normal work will not be brought to a standstill due to these problems. When having problems, you should be able to put your drone away and fall back on more reliable alternatives. The next quote comes directly from the interview with Derk:

”It is also a piece of technology. Many farmers do not even know how to operate such a tablet, let alone that they are able to solve all the issues you have with a drone when you want to let it fly. You have to be a bit crazy for that.”

The data

When flying over the plot, the drone takes a picture every 5 meters. As a result, a plot easily delivers 200 pictures. Those pictures map differences, out of which zones can be made. An example of the usage of this data is that the pictures show Derk the spots where too much fertilizer is used. The next time the ground will be fertilized, Derk can inform his machines with this date to use more fertilizer at the spots where it is needed, and the other way around. This way, Derk can use his resources more efficiently, which is good for the ground and for his wallet.

On the basis of this data, it can be seen that the health of the plants in the field is not distributed evenly. Source: custom drone.

The drone is able to measure 5 different light spectra. The first one is the ‘normal’ spectrum that we see with our eyes. Besides that, the drone can see in infrared, Red-Green-Blue (RGB) and red-edge. By combining the red-edge view with the RGB view, the percentage green on the field can be measured. And a green field means a more successful field than a less green one. In fact, you can then measure the success of the crops on the field. By combining the spectra, a relation with the amount of nitrogen can be observed in the plants, an important factor in the growing process of plants. Currently, nitrogen is the only element of which such a relation is observed. Derk says that precision agriculture would be helped enormously if this kind of relations with other elements that are important for the growth of plants, like potassium, is determined.

Problems with the data and their improvements

At this moment, there are no reliable algorithms that can accurately interpret the data. That means that there are yet no instructions that the computer can use to calculate what the pictures really mean and how the strategy needs to be adapted to it. So, for now, the farmer still has to interpret the data himself with his own feeling and experience.

That computers are yet not able to do that work is mainly the result of the diversity of the differences in the factors that are responsible for the different measurements. it can be due to a difference in moisture, structure, amount of fertilizer, etc. The expectation is that these instructions will be available (soon) when more data is available. In that case, computers can teach themselves to come up with instructions based on the data, a process that is also called ‘machine learning’. Connecting data is, as Derk says, “the holy grail of precision farming” and the drone data is only a small link in that.

The plan is to keep an eye on the soil even better than now and to continue testing with the drone. Sensors will be installed in the field that will measure a wild variety of variables, such as moisture and soil conditions. This has to be done at many spots to be able to spot differences at areas that are as small as possible. The drone will then fly over once a week to monitor the growth of the crops. With that data, a system can get started and calculate the probability that the degree of growth will go in a certain direction. The hope is that the farmer will be able to predict how a plant will grow and to take action at an early stage to make that plant grow even better. This increases the yield while reducing the pressure on the soil.

In addition to analysing the data, the size of the data is a problem. Many farms have a very slow internet connection. Derk is happy with his 100 Mbit connection, but the majority of the farms have to do with much slower internet. For example, a participant in Derk’s innovative only has a 2Mbit connection. All data from the drone must be processed externally and when you consider that a day of flying around with the drone easily yields 8 Gigabytes of data, which means that for the mentioned participant the uploading of the data takes no less than a day and a half. The group that Derk is with is fanatically busy experimenting with the successor of the mobile network 4G, which is called incredibly original 5G. This will probably make it possible to upload and process the data in real-time so that the farmer will get his data back much faster. This group also promotes the use of fiberglass to connect farms better with the rest of the world.

Processed data reduced to a zoning-map. Source: FarmHack.nl.


Export and competitive advantages

The Netherlands is already known among Dutch people as a country full of potato eaters, but the quality of our potatoes is also recognized internationally. With his company, Derk mainly produces seed potatoes that are intended for export. He has a card in his room where his potatoes are shipped to every year. There are large countries on it, including in South America and Central Asia. Smaller countries are also mentioned, such as an island group near Australia. Derk says that improving the quality of our agricultural products has many economic benefits as well as ecological ones.

The growth of potatoes can be even better and a proportional improvement in the yield easily brings in a lot of money. To illustrate this, we make a comparison between potatoes and wheat, both of which see an improvement in the yield of ten per cent. If you increase the yield of a ton of wheat by ten per cent, you will earn around 150 euros. If you have that same improvement on a ton of potatoes, you can easily earn a thousand euros. In addition, yield and quality are related for potatoes, because the yield of a potato plant is caused by the genetic composition of the potato from which the potato plant has grown.

The Netherlands is a market leader in improving potato harvests by making use of precision agriculture, which in turn produces competitive advantages. However, the yield in kilos is not the most important thing. Foreign companies do exceed our revenue due to scaling up whatsoever. For us, it is much more important to focus on differentiation by quality. That makes it possible to earn a higher price for our products in a market of full competition. It is therefore not surprising that mainly our seed potatoes are popular abroad, simply because those potatoes have a higher yield than the seed potatoes of competing countries.

Conclusion

The conclusion of this long story is that precision farming can enormously improve the quality and quantity of the yield of a crop while the crop can be grown in a more sustainable way. Those improvements are needed for us as a country to continue to maintain the market leader in (seed) potatoes and to provide the growing world population with sufficient food. Farmers have now largely accepted the first phase. They use positioning to partly control their machines and can work more accurately that way. Many farmers still have to get used to the second phase. By monitoring the land and crops, it is possible to generate even more profit. Derk Gesink has shown us with his drone that he is one of the first farmers that dare to take that step. The future will show in which other innovative ways farmers will approach this innovation in agriculture.


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