Smart Farmer: Drones and data deliver higher yields

Derk Gesink is a great believer in ‘precision agriculture’. For the past four years, drones and sensors located between his potatoes have collected data so he can compare results of different growing methods. Fertilizer use is down and yields are up.

Derk Gesink first started collecting data on his farm in north Groningen, the Netherlands, in 2014. He wanted to gain a better understanding of exactly how fertilization stimulates crop growth. Today, he gathers information about moisture, temperature and nutrients. As a result, he can take direct action if necessary to protect crops or stimulate their growth.

Absorbing nutrients

“Initially, I was just measuring the level of chlorophyll in the plants’ leaves,” Gesink says. “It’s a good indication of how well nutrients in the soil are being absorbed.” Through a process of trial and error, he has extended data collection methods in the last four years, and is analyzing it to farm ever more efficiently. “We’ve been collecting real-time data on the level of nutrients in the crops and the soil year after year, varying the amount of fertilizer on specific parts of our land to study the effects.

“But fertilization is just one of the factors that influences crop growth. There are many other variables, like soil quality and moisture. One year, the dry parts of my farmland may be the most successful, but the next year the wetter parts could have the highest yields. It’s a complex matter.”

“We’ve been collecting crop and soil data for four years”

- Derk Gesink

To further improve results, last year Gesink enlisted the help of nearby Wageningen University, specialists in agricultural research. “Experts there looked at the patterns in our data and gave us advice about how best to adapt our practices. As a result, we use less fertilizer. We now only apply it where and when it will really make a difference.”

Transferring data remotely

At first, the sensors were not 100% trustworthy, but they are now fully reliable. As a next step, Gesink plans to fully automate his ‘smart potatoes’. “I currently load data from the sensors onto a USB stick. It’s a time-consuming process,” he explains. “I want to start transferring the data from the sensors remotely to a central computer for analysis.”

One challenge remains: the weather. “We can’t predict rainfall,” he says, “and it can really slow down the research.” Nonetheless, Gesink figures he has increased yields on his farms in Denmark and the Netherlands by some 10% since 2014. “And that’s while we reduced our reliance on fertilizer,” he adds. “Farmers in the Netherlands are being forced to use less fertilizers, so this is definitely the way forward.”