The potential of precision agriculture

By Moses Robby

In modern agriculture, farmers tend to use precision agriculture to be able to understand weather patterns, soil temperature and humidity. It is important in today’s farming practices as it helps farmers to make production more efficient.

According to the Wikipedia definition, “Precision agriculture, or satellite farming, or site specific crop management is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops.”

practical-session_gps-functionsGlobal Positioning System (GPS) has added more value to the practice of precision agriculture. Farmers and researchers have used this technology to pin-point precisely on the map, the location in the field, that allows for map creation as a tool for accurate decision making.

Precision agriculture makes it quite easy to measure from maps with spatial variability such as determining crop yields in a field, distinguishing terrain features and topography of the field for new planting, determine the moisture levels, etc.

By having access to this information and studying the various factors using precision agriculture technique, smallholder farmers are able to produce more food supply at a fraction of the cost.

For instance, in some countries, farmers are now using GPS to carry out site-specific surveys for new planting or help in harvesting using GPS computer guided tractors.

One of the examples in precision agriculture is the evaluation of soil variability on a given field. Soils with more water table can be planted densely whilst irrigation is spared. Or the plot or area can be used for cattle grazing than a similar area of poorer soil quality.

According to the NARI Strategic and Results Framework 2011-2020 (2011), the focus of agriculture development in PNG has changed due to new technologies released over the past 18 years. These new technologies have also taught local villagers on how to nurture and grow food crops that will;
• improve food security and nutrition and health,
• Increase income per capita among rural population,
• Increase gainful employment, and
• Sustainable natural resource base and environment.

In essence, the rural population has seen a major break-through in supporting their livelihoods through cash income and employment through Small Medium Enterprises by selling their produce viz commercial arrangement with business houses or through barter system – ‘selling crops at the market’.

Whilst this is relatively important for rural communities, farmers can now use precision agriculture in the form of site specific practices using available data such as soil sampling collection, crop yielding data collection, or having access to aerial imagery, drainage levels, potential yields which are relatively available and can be obtained from NARI GIS Section.

PNG smallholder farmers like many other farmers around the world are encouraged to use precision agriculture practices to better their farming practices.

There are a range of suitable services and solutions on precision agriculture for smallholder farmers for enhanced productive agriculture environment. These services are available in PNG with various institutions and developers.

However, a major setback has been the general lack of knowledge on where these services are and their usability and benefits. Precision agriculture is applicable to all agro-ecological conditions of PNG. Farmers should embrace the technology to change from traditional agriculture to a modern agriculture footprint for national benefit.

Smallholder farmers can use precision agriculture services in crop production, farm management, yielding and marketing by utilising these services within their reach;
• Digital farm maps – ,maps are important and they make life easy, providing much needed information on the land area including points of interest for farming, water, etc.
• GPS data collection – use of handheld GPS to collect data and processing using GPS software to calculate hectare(s) of planted area, new area for planting and derive other useful information for farm management,
• Farm production information – providing information on areas planted and yields to derive projected cash flow to support decision for loan and commercial business arrangements, and
• Using mobile acquire data app – to capture variables if GPS is not available. Mobile app is an emerging technique to help farmers in data collection.

Coffee and cocoa are major cash crops, providing income for more than a million households. A recent funding of US$30 million by World Bank to the PPAP project in PNG is expected to benefit up to 60,000 coffee and cocoa farmers and their families (World Bank Report, 2012).

Oil palm is a recent crop in the smallholder farming system. The use of precision agriculture techniques to maintain good farming practice will leverage on-farm trials such as conducting research to improve farming system which helps the farmers to seek advice and direction on how to improve.

The two main influencers of crops are altitude and rainfall. Studying these two phenomenal climatic variables are often good for smallholder farmers in oil management practices. For any sustainable farming operation, the characteristics of soil should be considered priority prior to commitment in terms of financial and labour input.

Precision agriculture in soil management and surface water management plans helps set up the long term benefits to the farmer.

In general term, precision agriculture is all about mapping and having the data available for good decision making to improve productivity and cash income for smallholder farmers.

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