Improved sustainability through precision farming
The cultivation of ornamental plants is not exactly known as the most sustainable sector in agriculture. Although the use of plant protection and pest control products in the flower bulb sector has already drastically decreased since the 1990s, Dutch entrepreneurs are aware of the need for sustainability to continue to improve and dependence on crop protection products to be reduced. Technological developments such as precision agriculture, big data and smart farming are being explored as potential solutions.
Precision weed treatment
Thanks to digital agriculture, it is easy to discover hedge bindweed among crops of lilies using images from drones. Hedge bindweed is a weed that can be very well handled chemically when it grows out of the top of the lily. If the farmer has drones fly over the lily fields, they receive a lot of data about the presence of hedge bindweed. If this information is processed into a task map, machines will be able to take location-dependent action against weeds. That means spraying only takes place where it is absolutely necessary. In this way, less chemicals are used.
The precision techniques are not only intended as ‘plug and play’ for agriculture. In terms of ease of use, all options are open. Moreover, not all farmers and farms are convinced of profitability. In order to promote greater acceptance of precision farming, the ‘National Proeftuin Precisielandbouw’ (NPPL) (National Experimental Garden for Precision Farming) project has been launched in the Netherlands. In this project, experts from Wageningen University support farmers and gardeners in the application of various methods, such as location-dependent weed control and precision fertilisation. The objectives are better harvests and a lower environmental impact from agriculture.
10–20% water saving
The project started in 2018 with six farmers. In 2019, ten other farmers joined, including a number of bulb growers. One of the participants, Huetink Bloembollen, grows onions and strawberry crops as well as lilies. Those are all plants that need a lot of water. The grower’s plots of land are also in unusual shapes and often border built-up or paved areas, making them difficult to irrigate efficiently. In order to save water, Huetink is testing digital methods for measured irrigation in the NPPL project.
To irrigate the flower bulbs at the right time, in the right place and with the right amount of water, the grower is testing a digital system in which irrigation reels are fitted with technology. This allows the farmer to control, calculate and coordinate the water supply. The first results are promising. It is possible to irrigate within the boundaries of the property, and the irrigation machines are able to irrigate over obstacles such as dwellings. With this method, the grower expects a water saving of about 10-20%.
Digital farming: sensors in the ground
However, the search for optimal water savings is not yet over. With the help of moisture sensors in the soil, the water content in the various soil layers can be documented very precisely. In the future, the grower wants to create digital task maps on the basis of these soil samples, which should be decisive for irrigation. Ideally they would like to go one step further: by connecting the soil moisture sensors to a consulting system for automatic irrigation, they could further optimise their work and farming. By saving water in this way, they are working on a solution to future long-lasting droughts, which can be catastrophic for the harvest.
The future of precision farming
Another initiative that contributes to the digitisation of agriculture and farming is well known in the Netherlands: the ‘Bollenrevolutie 4.0’ (Bulb Revolution 4.0) programme was launched at the beginning of 2019. Various entrepreneurs from the flower bulb sector are working with Wageningen University & Research in experimental gardens to develop methods for growing bulbs using such technologies as precision agriculture, smart farming, robotics, artificial intelligence and big data.
Through both the NPPL project and Bollenrevolutie, the Netherlands is building up a lot of experience with precision farming and smart farming. GPS on tractors, sensors in the soil, drones flying over the fields – all this has been made reality by advancing digitisation. The challenge now is to achieve ever-increasing accuracy in machines and robotic systems, so that the data can be used optimally and costs reduced. In addition, the systems need to become more user-friendly so that farmers can use them more quickly and easily. Only then will the technology pay off for the environment, agriculture and their wallets.
For the time being, let us not forget that drones are not only useful in the context of digital agriculture for the detection of weeds and diseases. It is also thanks to this innovation that we can enjoy magnificent images of Dutch tulip fields.