Partial digitalisation may be the way forward for farmers still using mainly traditional mechanical equipment, according to the EU agricultural machinery industry.
A new policy paper compiled by field mapping service 365FarmNet, a company active in digital farming within the European Agricultural Machinery network (CEMA), was presented yesterday (27 February) at the SIMA farm machinery fair in Paris.
The Agriculture 4.0 white paper was based on input from a broad range of stakeholders such as academic and industry experts, and policymakers.
It notes that partial digitalisation is “a way of introducing digitisation rationally” while keeping existing agricultural equipment that is still in service.
“The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), working in synergy with other EU policies and funds, is prioritising innovation and digitisation in agriculture as never before,” EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan said.
“This is essential not only to keep our farmers competitive and profitable but also to protect our precious environment and contribute to EU climate targets and sustainable development goals,” the EU official added.
Agriculture 4.0 refers to the connection of agricultural equipment with technology to increase efficiency productivity and environmental consciousness in the EU’s agriculture industry.
“If everyone is to share in in the opportunities offered by Agriculture 4.0, we also need feasible, affordable solutions for bringing analogue machinery into the digital age,” CEMA Secretary General Dr. Ulrich Adam told euractiv.com.
The call for wider digitalisation in agriculture comes as global demand for agricultural products is increasing, driven by the increase in global population.
The United Nations projects that the world population will rise to more than 9.7 billion in 2050 and will exceed 11.2 billion by 2100.
According to the white paper, “this is compounded by climate change as well as tighter regulation of, for example, pesticides and fertilisers”.
However, a number of challenges face farmers who may wish to take advantage of partial digitisation.
“Not everyone has digital agriculture equipment, is aware of its benefits, or trusts it sufficiently to use it,” the study reads.
The policu paper notes that the average age of tractors has “increased steadily over the last 30 years”, which is due to both the longevity of the machines as well as their high cost of purchase (50,000 to 500,000 euros). In 2012, the average tractor in Germany was 27.5 years. Because of this, “a large number of tractors used are currently not state of the art and are not network-enabled”, making digitalisation more difficult.
Lack of knowledge
There has also been some resistance to digital technologies from farmers. The paper suggests that this is due to age or a lack of prior knowledge.
“The crucial point here is that digital solutions need to be seen as a source of practical assistance, a relief rather than a burden,” it reads, nevertheless stressing that farmers need to embrace digitisation rather than resist it.
Embracing technology can be difficult in rural areas, however. The policy paper highlights limited mobile signal or landline internet connection as another challenge facing farmers in this area.
The digitisation of agriculture faces legal uncertainty, too. Utilising lots of technology in farming would create a large amount operational data that existing laws don’t guarantee protection for, the paper says.
“Many farmers are worried that data leaving are leaving their businesses that they would really prefer to keep to themselves,” said Dr. Martin Kunisch, chief executive of the Kuratorium fur Technik und Bauwesen in der Landwirtschaft e.v. (KTBL).
Making sense of a large amount of raw data that would be collected could be an issue in itself as well. According to the study, in order for all of this data to have any impact, it would need to be collected in a central database where it could be systematically combined, analysed and interpreted.
However, linking digital agricultural products is difficult. Many are standalone products and cannot be easily integrated with one another. Options to improve this could be standardisation of these products and the creation of interfaces.
What’s the point of a digitised farm?
With all of these challenges, why should farmers want to move toward digitisation at all? For one thing, it pays to digitalise.
The collection of data can increase accuracy in accounting, which can increase the efficiency of a business. “In agriculture, proper accounting is the basis on which a company is taxed,” the policy paper recommends.
Besides saving money, there is also a potential for saving time. Farmers have to ensure the traceability of their products and keep detailed information about the fertilisers and pesticides they use. “Automation means production managers no longer have to perform routine admin tasks such as entering non-sensitive data by hand,” Kunisch said.
Manual data entry is still necessary for some software solutions, however, because the lack of interfaces and standards and redundant data prevent full automation.
Digital data collection can increase transparency as well, which can benefit agricultural businesses looking to gain credibility by doing more for things like environmental protection and animal welfare, the paper notes.
Tech solutions for analogue equipment
“Due to the relatively high average age of agricultural equipment there is an increasing demand for solutions that retrofit machinery and ensure its connectivity in order to integrate it in the digital world,” the study notes.
One of the proposed solutions is the creation of Bluetooth “beacons”, or transmitters, that could be installed on equipment to transmit the data collected to devices that can process it, such as smartphones, tablets, and computers. According to the authors, every vehicle can be fitted with one of these beacons, no matter its age.
In a similar way, regular GPS systems can be installed on agricultural equipment to enhance the information that can be collected about the location of one of these vehicles.
Radio-frequency identification, or RFID, is a well-established technology for detecting animals at automated feeding machines. A reader within the RFID system has interfaces with other IT devices. Since its development at the end of World War II, RFID has been useful in agricultural activities, such as livestock management, and is now being tested in tracking batches of cereal crops.
“Indeed, digitisation will not happen overnight but is nonetheless a much-needed, evolutionary process for EU-farmers to stay competitive worldwide, as the rest of the world accelerates on this technology as well. Digitisation is undoubtedly the future, also for young farmers able to assimilate this technology quickly and eagerly,” Jean-Paul Beens, Head of Public Affairs and Industry Relations at Yara fertilizer company, told Euractiv.com.
“Being overwhelmed by all that Big Data should not be a barrier as there are plenty of new talents, academics and companies competent to transform it into valuable farm management information. Nonetheless, all help is required to shorten the process as much as possible, providing catch-up or maybe even head-start,” he added.