ZLTO, the Dutch farmers’ association, is committed to work with its 16000 members for a productive, efficient and sustainable food producing system. Its CEO, Elies Lemkes-Straver, tells Geospatial World more.
Dutch farmers are well-known for their profound track record. How did they get this far?
This is the result of a combination of several factors. First and foremost, Dutch farmers started to unify in an association or entrepreneurial organisation such as ZLTO in the 1900s. By working together and organising the agricultural sector as a whole; farmers were able to invest and innovate to increase efficiency.
Another factor is government policy. The Dutch government implemented stimulating policies to assure an increase in productivity across all the agricultural sectors. Subsequently, this policy was also adopted by the European Union. For many years they provided incentives to different agricultural sectors in order to bring it to the next level.
The third factor is the strong knowledge infrastructure in our country. For example, Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR) is a globally-recognized key player in the agricultural knowledge domain. Our government has invested in a well-developed educational infrastructure.
How about capacity development in this sector?
On all educational levels; vocational, college and university, areas of study that focus on agriculture can be found. It has been the strategy of the government to invest in knowledge development and a knowledge-based economy. A significant investment in Research and Development was made in parallel.
The Netherlands has a unique system with some agricultural schools. The topics taught at college come forth from real-life business challenges and questions. Businesses and financial institutions, therefore, also invest in the educational system and directly benefit from the research done. Cooperation amongst the different stakeholders is necessary and results in a win-win situation. All these efforts have ensured that the farmers are very well educated and are able to come up with out-of-the-box solutions that result in both product and process innovations.
Furthermore, traditionally these skills are being handed over from parent to child, as most of the businesses are family-run. It is well-known that family businesses are being managed differently and often more successful than other businesses due to their long term planning.
What do you think is the most critical challenge being faced by the agriculture sector in Europe?
The most important challenge is to keep raising efficiency and production in a sustainable way. Another important challenge is expanding the role of agriculture in a broader perspective so that the farmers are not only seen as the grower of food but also as a producer of bio-based materials and green energy. Many people are moving to cities leaving the country-side empty, which makes it imperative for the farmers to adopt multifunctional agricultural practices in order to keep the countryside vivid. The Dutch farmer, with assistance of, for instance ZLTO, is rethinking its business model. It is our vision that future farmers will be the managers of nature, the producers of energy, the guardians of water quality and quantity, the suppliers of healthcare and still produce healthy food that the world needs.
How do geospatial technologies contribute?
If we look at the entire agricultural sector, geospatial techniques are being used for different goals in different subsectors. In the first place, for arable crops, the use of GPS, and especially the combination between map and sensor-based data, allows us to further increase yield while reducing costs. It enables us to practise agriculture in a sustainable way by less water, seed, fuel and pesticides usage. We are the frontrunners in Europe in using GPS technology. In the Netherlands, about 50-65% of the farmers are using GPS for precise land management. In Europe this is about 10% of all farmers.
In Smart Livestock Farming (SLF), geospatial technologies are used to measure and manage animal welfare, manure logistics, animal logistics and these add up to transparency. These technologies help the farmer understand his own management cycle and also the nutrient cycle within his own business. The dairy industry is taking the lead herein, followed by the pig herding and poultry farmers.
Another example where geospatial technologies are used, is in swapping parcels among farmers and the government. The Dutch government wants to reconnect the Natura 2000 European corridor; therefore some parcels that were farmer-owned were needed. For some farmers it was easier to manage a closer-by parcel, belonging to the government, as it was simply geographically closer. Using geospatial technologies to support communication between the stakeholders, we are able to guide and safeguard the process to swap parcels with about the same size and potential yield.
Geospatial technology is used a lot these days for precise area mapping. How does this work in agriculture sector?
Most farmers use estimation on the size of their parcels. However, most parcels are actually about 2% smaller than these farmers think. This variation in the perception of a farmer with regards to the farm size will therefore save 2% water use, 2% fertilizer use and buying 2% less seeds. Furthermore, a farmer can save 3% and 5% on these inputs by using GPS and in parcel logistics, respectively. Precise sowing and crop management will increase yields up to 15%. This is realised by optimizing the potential of every square centimetre.
For instance, crops near the tramlines receive more sunlight as there is less competition due to the open space left by the tractor. Here, crops can be sown closer together to assure maximum production. Near the edge of a parcel, trees can be found. As trees cast shade there is more competition for sunlight. Crops can be sown a bit farther apart to reduce this competition and also optimize yield in these areas of the parcel. In addition, efficient routing will save diesel and ensures reducing CO2 output.
What is the best strategy to mainstream precision agriculture?
Regarding precision agriculture, a technical gap that still needs to be closed is ‘communication’ between datasets from different sources (satellites, sensors, remote sensing, drones, etc.). Additionally, to reach all farmers, a management system is needed with readily-analysed data and factors that gives clear tasks to the farmer.
In order to make precision agriculture more mainstream, upscaling the use is needed. In such, machinery and tools will become less expensive and more farmers can afford themselves to buy these new tools and technologies. Technology is not the largest challenge in this. Most technology is well-developed and ready to be used. However, there remains the barrier of investment. As most farmers in the Netherlands (and throughout the world) are small-holder farmers, they cannot always afford these high-tech solutions yet.
Moreover, we need to have a higher level of capacity building; not only in the on-farm management cycle, but throughout the entire food processing supply chain. In this, a precondition is social innovation. This can take technology to the next level.
What is your expectation towards the geospatial industry?
The geospatial industry can complement the agricultural sector to strive to a more transparent supply chain and food producing system. This can be done by improving the accuracy techniques in track and trace. Analytical experience in interpreting geocoded data and the translation towards actions is also something the geospatial industry has a lot of experience in. The primary sector will gather tremendous amounts of (geo-)data that will need to be analysed and understood.
Cross-sectorial cooperation is therefore preferred, as agricultural organisations and the geospatial industry talk in different languages. The knowledge sharing and mutual understanding of each other’s sectors is required, which is key in a more widespread adoption of geospatial techniques in the agricultural sector.
Future Farming: The Dutch way