Stop! Time for a new generation of farm machinery

Universities and industry are working together on the SMARAGD project, developing light agricultural machinery to improve soil quality, increase yields and reduce environmental impact. Rabobank is assisting with funding , knowledge and network.

As farms scale up, agricultural machines are getting larger and heavier. The result? Soil compaction, lower crop yields and poorer soil quality. There is an alternative, as Herman Schoorlemmer, expert in sustainable agriculture at Wageningen University & Research, explains.

“At the SMARAGD project, we dream of very light, self-propelled machines,” he says. SMARAGD is a public-private partnership between eleven companies and two universities in the Netherlands. Their aim is to adapt agricultural machinery in order to decrease soil compaction and increase soil quality. As a bonus, the new generation of machinery will run on electricity, not diesel. Schoorlemmer continues,“If farmers no longer need people to drive their machines, it won’t matter to them if they work with one large or a hundred small ones. And 100 light machines do much less damage to the soil.”

“100 light machines do much less damage to the soil”

- Herman Schoorlemmer, Wageningen University & Research

Innovation-enabled

SMARAGD’s main objective is to develop prototypes. The partners will also look at issues such as legislation, ICT standards and integration into businesses. As the new machinery is being developed from scratch, it can be optimized to ensure greater crop yields and lower environmental impact by taking into account methods like controlled traffic systems, intercropping and precision agriculture.

Controlled traffic systems mean the machinery only travels on fixed tracks instead of over the entire plot. Jeroen Nijenhuis, who represents agricultural cooperative Agrifirm on several committees for SMARAGD, explains: “These systems reduce impact on the soil, increasing yields by up to 10%, but the current generation of agricultural machinery is barely suitable for it, if at all.”

So-called intercropping is the practice of growing multiple crops on the same plot of land. Nijenhuis: “For example, farmers could grow a few rows of onions next to a few of carrots, so that pests don’t spread as quickly, and plants compete less for nutrients, water and sunlight. Yields rise by up to 20% as a result, while the need for fertilizer and plant protection products is reduced.”

“Many people now see the urgency of tackling soil compaction”

- Gea Bakker, Rabobank

Location-specific fertilization and protection

SMARAGD is also designing machinery that enables precision agriculture. Here, cameras and sensors analyze the crops so that the farmer knows the exact quantity of plant protection products and fertilizers are needed at a specific spot. Drones or light, self-propelled spray machinery can then apply these extremely accurately without affecting the soil. A robot that can distinguish weeds on the basis of image recognition will be trialed at the SMARAGD test site this year.

Image recognition technology was already fairly advanced when SMARAGD launched in the spring of 2017. “Still, it will take about five years for the first machines developed entirely within the project to reach the market,” predicts Gea Bakker, who is participating in the project as Agrifood Sector Manager for Rabobank. “The big question is to what extent we can scale up after that.”

Apart from the many technological hurdles, Bakker believes achieving scale is SMARAGD’s main challenge. “At the moment there’s very much a ‘seeing is believing’ mindset,” she says. “Fortunately, a large group of people does see how urgent it is to tackle soil compaction. I expect there will ultimately be broad support for building and testing prototypes because the project involves so many different parties and they’re all contributing their own expertise.”

Higher yields, less environmental impact

In addition to providing funding, Rabobank is also deploying its knowledge and network to support SMARAGD. Bakker: “Our agricultural land needs to produce a lot more in order to feed the growing world population, and with less environmental impact. That’s something we take very seriously, not least because we’re the leading bank in the agricultural sector.”

If the new technologies are successful in the Netherlands, they can be introduced abroad. “Dutch agricultural land is expensive, so there’s a greater need for us to come up with these innovations,” says Nijenhuis, who visits many foreign farms on behalf of Agrifirm. “Once people elsewhere see that these innovations mean higher yields and less environmental impact, they’ll be happy to switch. Ultimately, the whole world will be able to benefit from these technologies.”