This year has seen Wageningen University and Research Centre (Wageningen UR) launch Boerderij van de Toekomst (the Farm of the Future). The farm will reflect current practice as much as possible but, instead of monoculture it will work with strip cropping, a robot, drones, and precision farming technologies, with minimal addition of artificial fertiliser and crop protection products. The Farm of the Future was developed for the following reasons:
As part of this project, consideration is being given to the potential for making agriculture a greater contributor to the loop than is currently the case. This means including human waste streams, i.e. sewage sludge, in fertiliser.
“The greatest leak in the agricultural loop is when human excrement disappears down the sewer,” explains project manager Chris de Visser. “We will be working out how we can create greater circularity. We will also be working in collaboration with a cattle farm: we will grow grain and clover, and receive manure in return. We will also generate solar and wind power to replace diesel.”
Pressure on the cost price of products is no longer a determining factor. Instead, the aim is to achieve a permanent reduction in the consumption of raw materials and to reduce the impact of agriculture on the living environment. This approach is ultimately intended to improve the farmer’s earning power, while reducing harmful emissions into the soil, air and water, and improving biodiversity. The food supply urgently needs to be both economically and ecologically efficient.
We need a systemic change, a completely different perspective on crop growing
While the agriculture sector has already taken some steps in the right direction by perfecting chemical control of diseases and pests, and paying attention to improving the resilience of soil, these measures have proven to be insufficient. “In order to truly become more sustainable, we need a shift in our thinking,” says De Visser.
“We need a systemic change, a completely different perspective on crop growing. I don’t think it will be possible to salvage the situation on large plots with monocultures, even using state-of-the-art technology. These large plots provide the ideal conditions for diseases and pests to thrive. You might achieve a 20% reduction in the use of crop protection products, but you won’t manage a reduction of 80 or 90%.”
For this reason, it is necessary to test out a different approach. Initially, the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality will fund the project for four years. Strip cropping is a key technique, which is where the Agroecology & Technology Fieldlab, located a few hundred metres away, comes in. It’s an important testing centre for cultivation techniques and has been studying alternative cultivation systems, including strip cropping, for several years now.
Robots will also play an important role. It is now time for Wageningen UR’s autonomous tool carrier Agrointelli Robotti, which has been taken back and forth to show off its skills at demo events, to be put through its paces. “Now comes the hard work,” says Bram Velthuisen, one of the three young researchers jointly responsible for the day-to-day running of the Farm of the Future. “That will certainly involve hoeing and weeding, but we need to be able to do more with robots: soil cultivation, sowing, crop care and also harvesting, if possible.”
High-end technology must also be made ready for practical application to allow not only robots, but also drones to demonstrate their usefulness. For years now, Wageningen UR has been working on AI in laboratory settings to automatically identify diseases and pests, and then to weed or spray them. This requires vast quantities of images to be sent, read elsewhere and converted into instructions to be sent to the robot. All this has to happen in a matter of milliseconds, and for these enormous quantities of data, a 5G network will be required.
Growers must be able to control their robot or drone manually by speaking to it using just a smartphone
“Everything is essentially already in place, but we still need to develop our system further and make it ready for practical application,” explains De Visser. “It involves a very high level of data traffic. The drone spots something odd in the field, and in response, the farmer sends the robot out. The AI used for image recognition and harvest time determination is advancing significantly. This technology also needs to be very simple to use. Growers must be able to control their robot or drone manually by speaking to it using just a smartphone.”
At the Farm of the Future, Wageningen UR is studying the extent to which strip cropping and the use of the field robot can help to reduce soil compaction, make crops more resistant, deal with climate change, increase biodiversity, improve perception of the landscape and increase the operator’s income.
The notion of ‘reflecting current practice’ means that something should generate a return, or that the system at least has the prospect of generating a return. “We will be monitoring costs and returns closely. On balance, some outlay will be required initially,” notes Chris de Visser. “You could see it as a kind of tuition fee. When we switch over, the first job will be to invest and learn. And the robot will initially still needs someone to supervise it. But what we would like to test first is whether a system of integrated sustainability can work. It’s a thought experiment that we are now realising.”
De Visser also recognises that the Farm of the Future will create innovation for suppliers. “Even firms on the periphery can support the transition to a different kind of agriculture. If it just remains a project for Wageningen-UR, then we haven’t succeeded.”
But De Visser is optimistic: “There is a great deal of interest in strip cropping and robot applications. It would be fantastic if the sector snatched it out of our hands. I have certainly noticed how much demand there is for solutions.”