Argentina Digs Into Data-Driven 'Precision Agriculture'

AI, Big Data and blockchain are some of the expensive tools that are necessary for precision farming, but their contribution to cost-effective and greener agriculture is making them essential to any farmer wanting to produce food for world markets.

Precision farming in Argentina
Precision farming in Argentina
Lucas Villamil

BUENOS AIRES Autopilot systems, GPS receivers, and mapping, yield monitor systems, drones, NDVI imaging, weed sensors, automatic section cutting, variable dosing, AI, blockchain, big data... Even pioneers of direct seeding could not have imagined, 30 years ago, so many technical terms raining down on modern farming.

The first thing any producer or contractor will tell you is that automatic pilots and variable rate seeding and application (VRA) are now established as basic requirements. These applications must now be incorporated in any new machine, and have a great impact on the efficiency and quality of field operations.

"Autopilot systems are a highly adopted technology. As the signal improves, there will be more variable-rate seeding and application with section cuts," says Diego Villarroel, a precision farming specialist at the Manfredi agricultural testing station in Argentina's central province of Cordoba. The most widely sold technologies he cites are seeding control monitors, satellite mappers and yield monitors, though he says operators need more training in their use.

Savings of up to 90%.

Private consultant Andrés Méndez agrees, pointing out that universities in Argentina still lack precision farming courses. But he says firms are using these technologies more than thought and reaching interesting conclusions. Producers, he says, "invest in data analysis and more than recover their investment. The big supply firms have taken notice, and have their data analysis buildings."

Clarín"s correspondent spoke to Villarroel, Méndez and some producers in Carlos Casares in the Buenos Aires province, where the farming services firm Tomás organized a conference on agriculture technologies.

The president of Tomás, Carlos Borla, told the opening of the conference, "We are convinced that with these techniques we can produce in a way that is friendly to the environment, rural workers and the communities to which we belong. But we will also maximize production per hectare, so we can survive tax pressures and current trade wars in the world."

In the quest for higher production with lower costs, another increasingly used tool is weeds sensors that apply products with precision and assure savings of up to 90% in inputs while reducing the environmental impact. There are also electronic dosing systems for seeding machines, which boost the speed and precision of work. Beside crop farming, intensive livestock farming is also adopting these technologies to boost efficiency and quality.

Working on solar panels in an Argentine field — Photo: INTA Argentina via Instagram

Villarroel explains that drones make it easier to monitor extensive areas and allow early detection. Insurance firms, he says, are incorporating drones to allow them to quantify damages much more easily, and there is great demand for training in the interpretation of yield maps. Indeed, Argentina's National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA), which runs the Manfredi station, provides courses every year for 450 people, mostly young agronomists who now need this skill on their CVs.

Looking a little further down the line, Méndez, the private consultant, sees satellite imagery not drones pictures as the up-and-coming source of information. "Drones will be used for application" of products, he says, and this is already happening in Argentina "with vehicles carrying up to 100 liters of product."

The producer who doesn't enter this dynamic will find it very hard to compete.

Another instrument Méndez mentioned as quietly gaining adepts and intended to complement overhead data, is the so-called SmartFirmer, a soil sensor fixed to the planting machine, to scan conditions like moisture or temperature prior to seeding. Méndez says it collects much detailed, updated soil data compared to overhead or satellite images. He says "there is never an ideal moment for investing in new technologies, especially if we don't know where we would use them, but in the long term, putting seeds in the wrong place will cost you dearly."

In the coming years, Méndez says the market will insist on product differentiation, and such instruments are key to a more efficient production chain. He cites traceability as an example of a product's added value in future markets. Certain products, he says, are already on shelves with QR codes allowing consumers to know their entire production process just by scanning them with a phone. "The producer who doesn't enter this dynamic will find it very hard to compete," he says. He believes companies working in large portions of land should already have an IT engineer on their staff. In the coming years it will be clear which technologies have passed the filter and joined the world of high-tech agricultural production.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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