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  • Writer's pictureZia Haq

Smart farming, but for few

By Zia Haq

New Delhi: From Trimble Inc’s Greenseeker, an algorithm-based hand device that can instantly read soil nutrient levels, to CropIn Technology Solutions Pvt Ltd’s cloud-based ‘SmartFarm’ platform, which can remotely detect crop damage, cutting-edge farm technologies are now available in India, but to just a few.

Technology should be welcomed in a country where farm incomes are low, about one-third of those of non-agricultural households.

Yet, those actually using these technologies are less than 1%. Experts point to a peculiar problem. Data shows that in manufacturing, high-tech has spread fast, a process called technology diffusion. For instance, according to the World Bank’s estimates cited by its president Jim Yong Kim in a 2016 speech, automation threatens 69% of today’s jobs in India.

In agriculture, innovation is still bottled up at the top because most land parcels (plots) are too small, hurting long-term productivity growth, economists say.

Farmers, who have been able to pool in their lands to increase their farm size to at least 100-200 acres have been the early beneficiaries. This has given rise to exclusive groups, known as farmer producer organisations.

Since the Green Revolution of the 1960s, India has not had a truly leapfrogging technology other than high-yielding seeds and genetically modified BT Cotton, introduced in 2002, which saw India become the second biggest cotton exporter.

The catch with this new array of technologies is that they need large farms to offer economies of scale, which refers to reducing per unit costs with every increase in production.

“The main challenge in technology diffusion (in agriculture) is that land holdings are so small that even using a tractor makes no sense. Secondly, all our technologies, like high yielding seeds, are for irrigated lands, although 48% of our sown area is drylands (those outside irrigation cover),” said Tamil Nadu Agricultural University’s agricultural economics head K Mani.

Indian farms desperately need technology. “Cultivable area is reaching its limits, so yield increases are a must,” according to a latest report by the OCED and the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER). Indian rice and wheat yields are approximately 3 times lower than world’s highest.

A key issue in tech diffusion is the increasing rate of fragmentation of land ownership or operational land holdings, Mani said. Nearly 90% of farmers are small and marginal. The average size of a farm is now just 1.15 hectares. According to the Agricultural Census 2016, 85% of land ownership is of less than 2 hectares and account for 45% of the total cropped area. By contrast, only 5% of farmers operate on land parcels larger than 4 hectares.

Often, those exploiting smart technologies aren’t farmers but large agri-businesses. Some of these tools are used by farm-loan companies for risk management, such as the Mumbai-based Netafim Agricultural Financing Agency (NAFA), the farm credit arm of the Israeli drip-irrigation multinational Netafim.

NAFA uses Smartfarm, a software as a service-based platform offered by Bengaluru-based CropIn Technology, one of its officials, requesting anonymity, said. SmartFarm maps out large farms and then scans every square inch of crops through satellite every 10 days. NAFA can thus estimate yields, maturity date and also keep track of a farmers’ incomes from sales, he said.

“We want to take out inefficiencies through technology,” said Kunal Prasad, co-founder of CropIn. The cost for 1,000 acres is around Rs 3-5 lakh, he said. Two large horticulture farmer groups in Andhra Pradesh — Vigneshwara Farmers’ Producer Company in Krishna district and Sri Siddeshwara Rythu Parasparasahakar Sangam in Chittoor — are currently using its system.

Trimble Inc, a US multinational corporation which sells precision-farming tools, is tapping into farm-equipment rental firms to make their products affordable. Its products include laser-controlled land-levelling equipment that helps to distribute water equally across a farm.

Robert Bosch Engineering and Business Solutions offers an Internet of Things-enabled system to schedule irrigation timings. It is accessible through both the web and mobile applications hosted on enterprise cloud. Trimble’s targets are the top and middle of Indian farms. “About 20-30% of large and medium farmers control 70-80% land and our initial target are those farmers,” said managing director Rajan Aiyer.

The message for Indian farmers, according to Mani, is clear: pool together or suffer alone.


First published in the Hindustan Times: Aug 06, 2018 13:01 IST. Read the original here

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