Getting Ready for Smart Farming

Getting Ready for Smart Farming

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

In the aftermath of World War II, two new Nations were born in two different geographies. Both were ruled by Britain prior to independence and attained freedom in 1947-48. Both had a rich cultural heritage, history of tense interfaith relations and were home to diverse population. Both had to go through massive displacement and resettlement of large number of displaced families due to the partition and creation of new political entities.

Today, after 70 years of gaining freedom, the two nations present a study in contrast. With determined leadership and creation of a conducive entrepreneurial ecosystem, Israel is advanced by global standards and ranks within the top 20 nations in the world in the latest UN Report on Human Development Index. India on the other hand is saddled with a population nearly 4 times the population in 1947 and is home to significant proportion of the people at or below sustenance level. The unbridled population growth and structural constraints in the social and economic spheres have held back the country and its people despite significant progress in some fields.

In order to understand the development gap between the two Nations, born in similar circumstances seven decades ago, one needs to look among others at the way agriculture and the related sectors like livestock, food-processing and biotechnology have evolved. The significant strides made by the tiny Nation in all these areas highlight how technology has been leveraged to improve the output, quality, value-addition, employment and income of most of the agrarian population. While the thrust areas of Israeli economy are high-technology and industrial manufacturing, the country exports more than $1.3 billion worth of agricultural products every year, and another $1.2 billion worth of agricultural inputs and technology products and services. These figures need to be understood in the context of the size of the economy and demographics while comparing with the larger comparator.

Agriculture is the most strategic of all sectors of India’s economy and society. It is both the problem and the solution in lifting rural India from deprivation, poverty and indebtedness. With problems aplenty, long and sustainable solution to India’s Agriculture and related issues is indeed “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” to borrow the words of Winston Churchill, spoken in another context. Decades of Soviet style planning and bureaucratic procedures have kept Indian agriculture captive to the patronizing dole outs of politicians and the tight grip of land-owning, money-lending, farm-trading lobbies. Rent seekers and middlemen have been holding our rural economy to ransom for decades. Add to that the low level of social development and the continuing hold of feudal mindset and you will see why little has changed in the backyards of the Nation, especially in the heartland states.

In many parts of the world, notably the US, Spain, Netherlands, Israel, Japan, South Korea and China, in tandem with the adoption of path-breaking digital technologies in diverse fields from manufacturing to commercial activities, the agriculture sector has also seen revolutionary transformation. Advancements in Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Internet of Things (IoT) and Automated Mobility solutions have led to disruptive innovations in the entire value chain of per-farming, farm operations and post-harvest activities. These changes have brought about significant improvements in yield, price realization and innovative farm-to-market value addition.

Universities, Government Agencies, Research Institutions, Private Companies and Startup Entrepreneurs are engaged in coordinated action to develop and deploy advanced digital technologies to enhance yield, quality, process efficiency and holistic agricultural value chain growth.

It is worthwhile looking at some examples of digital technology applications in agriculture that are transforming the way farming is done. The productivity, efficiency and quality of farm output are enhanced by these and many other applications in the Agri-Tech domain.

Farm Robots: In farming, robots are being deployed for various applications, but one big use is the automation of weed management. Similarly, for fruit plucking, robots with sensors programmed to assess the ripeness and readiness can ensure optimal plucking time and minimize losses arising from early or late plucking.

On-Field Sensors: The field information can be collected either from satellite imagery and drones or from the sensors installed on the farmer’s machinery. These sensors can be attached to harvesters or tractors and collect information on things like grain yield, moisture levels etc., enabling farmers to make better decisions on when to harvest, plan next season and fertilization, analyze field variability, and many other farming related matters.

Farm Management Analytics: Farm management software platforms are just what they sound like  platforms that help farmers manage their crop production. These platforms integrate with the different hardware devices that are used in precision agriculture. The result is integrated data gathering and analysis from satellites, sensors and other connected devices used in agricultural operations. Based on analysis, localized action specific to precise farm segment can be triggered through interconnected devices.

Telematics — This involves machine-to-machine communication between the hardware and sensors that are involved in automation. For example, when a camera identifies a weed, it needs to communicate this information to another piece of machinery that can pluck the weed out of the ground or spray it with some herbicide. Telematics is crucial in automation.

Precision Planting — Precision planting is an automated approach to optimizing the planting of seeds. It allows for better seed spacing, better depth control, and better root systems. There are many pieces of information that are used to make the proper analysis in identifying the optimal conditions for planting, and this is all easily collectable with the various forms of precision agriculture technology.

Drones: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are being effectively used for pesticide spraying, monitoring weather, moisture etc. and for aiding precision farming.

The above are just some of technologies deployed for enhancing the process and outcomes of farming. In India, various initiatives have been made in states like Punjab, Haryana and Maharashtra with extensive farm lands. In Andhra and Telangana, digital technology deployment on pilot basis are already under way with the Governments working alongside technology companies.

Using disruptive technologies for farming requires enabling policy framework and supportive government interventions. There are key constraints that must be addressed if India is to be readied for transformational digital technology applications in farming and allied sectors. Structural, cultural and technological initiatives need to be implemented in an integrated manner if Indian agriculture is to be empowered to play the strategic role it legitimately is expected to considering the sheer reach and impact that farming has over the Indian life, especially in the villages.

In India, like in many African, Asian and Latin American countries, fragmentation of agricultural landholding makes it unviable and impractical to apply smart farming solutions where the scale of operations matter. For social equity and lessening the rural indebtedness, there is need for fast tracking land reforms by devolving ownership to the actual farmers. At the same time, there is need for consolidation of field size with an enabling legal provision to pool farming over large areas to ensure the advantage of scale. This should be done with adequate safety and flexibility to meet individual needs that may arise out of contingencies.

To meet the huge investments required for upgrading the agricultural infrastructure including farming, storage and transportation, we need to attract and support private investment and public-private collaborations. Agri-based startups have a significant role in the agricultural success stories of the world. In Israel, South Korea, Japan and Spain, the Governments have rolled out highly successful incubation and entrepreneurial support programs to create a robust start-up ecosystem for agriculture-related technology development and productization. There are many examples where agri-tech incubation is actively supported by agricultural universities and research institutions in India. What is needed is to integrate and transform such initiatives into a national movement with clear focus and time frame.

One of the major roadblocks in modernizing our agriculture is that too many people are engaged in agriculture leading to low productivity and resistance to adoption of smarter technologies. Implementation of integrated human capital planning, development and deployment is critical to successfully migrate the excess farm labour from the primary sector to manufacturing and services sector through skill development programs and encouragement of entrepreneurship.

Technology is fast changing and is throwing up unprecedented opportunities for lifting the masses out of poverty. The success however is greatly dependent upon the quality of political leadership and its commitment to plan and execute effective and sustainable transformation of agriculture and rural economy.

*The author is Principal Consultant & CEO of Cherrypick India, Trivandrum and can be contacted at