A growing solution

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Jersey’s farming community, in common with others around the world, has struggled with the seemingly opposing issues of needing to increase yields and productivity, while also protecting the environment.

The Digital Jersey Smart Agriculture Working Group has come up with an innovative set of solutions, which could revolutionise the way we farm, as Gwyn Garfield-Bennett explains

THE Jersey Royal potato is synonymous with the Island, and a valuable export. Our fields are currently full of them and, by late spring and early summer, they will be on supermarket shelves across the UK and beyond.

Maintaining the quality of this premium product is essential but, with the pressures of rising costs and competitive retail prices, more needs to be done to ensure the Jersey Royal potato remains a viable product.

Tim Ward, operations director at Albert Bartlett, explained the problem: ‘Agriculture is under such intense pressure at the moment. Margins are minimal because of increased costs of inputs like fertiliser and shipping, which have gone up by 60-70%, and that is putting added pressure on it being viable to sell to the UK market.

‘We are right on the edge. There were 250 potato suppliers at one time, now there are fewer than ten. The area of growing has reduced from 19-20,000 vergées for potato export to around 14,000. Everyone wanted to buy washed packed potatoes so we had to invest in the Island to meet standards. It’s brought more pressure in terms of the quality of the product going into the pack as, before, 80% of product was sent off-island dirty.’

On the one hand, the growers have rising costs and, on the other, the supermarkets are trying to push down prices. Since Aldi and Lidl entered the UK market, price competitiveness has reached new highs.

The Jersey Royal industry dates back 140 years and still follows the traditional methods of hand-planting, but here we cannot rotate crops due to the limited land availability, and that brings increased risk of disease from the potato cyst nematode, which is the scourge of the industry.

Growers are already doing a lot to reduce chemical interventions in controlling pests by using natural bio methods. Islanders will have seen the yellow flowers of the hot mustard which is sometimes planted. When this is cut and rolled back into the ground, it can help to eliminate PCN populations. Likewise, the prickly potato (Solanum sisymbriifolium) tricks the PCN cysts to hatch, as they think they are on potatoes but, without their food source, they die.

More needs to be done to keep the potato industry viable. Cue Sebastian Lawson, business development manager with Digital Jersey. Sebastian’s background was in drones and mechanical engineering. He became a part of the Digital Jersey Smart Agriculture Working Group, which includes farmers, government representatives, Jersey Water, JT and Airtel. The problems were clear, and what the growers needed was more data to help them to tackle them.

While soil samples were being taken from fields, it was time-consuming and not focused enough so the samples did not take into account the different needs within the field. For example, one area of a field might need additional irrigation, while another might not. If the farmer could understand these variances, then it would result in less water wastage.

Using Jersey’s LoRa network (the long-range wide-area network which connects devices over long distances), the group placed 20 to 30 sensors into each of six test fields. That soil sensor data was then overlaid with drone imagery from two different cameras: the standard RGB cameras and also a multispectral camera which measures the light reflected from the crop. Combined, they can help pinpoint areas within a field where the plants are stressed.

The drones take hundreds of images across a field and that data is combined with the soil sensor data, so that the farmer can see exactly how well the crop is growing and take the necessary steps for particular sections that are under attack from PCNs or need watering. It reduces manpower and enables greater accuracy than ground-level surveillance. Most importantly, it allows for variable rate of inputs so that farmers are not ‘treating’ areas that do not need it.

Dr Ben Cruickshank, technical and agronomy manager at Albert Bartlett, explained: ‘We’ve never captured so much data in one go and so comprehensively. We do a lot of soil sampling but have never been able to get such a broad capturing of data and apply technology in such an advanced way.’

The telcos, JT and Airtel, provide the network and sensors, and IoTCI assists with the project. Both the Jersey Royal Company and Albert Bartlett are taking part. They have put aside their commercial rivalry for the benefit of both businesses and the Island as a whole.

With global warming, no discussion about agriculture and the environment would be complete without taking into account the impact of climate. Winds can spread potato blight and rain obviously has a big impact. The next step for the project is to create a simulation model, an agricultural digital twin, into which the data collected can be fed so that the impact of climate can be predicted, which will help determine what chemicals and water might be needed.

While there are currently only six fields using this technology, it is already providing valuable data. As the Island is the only place in the world where Jersey Royals can be grown, it is imperative that this valuable export crop is protected. However, Jersey’s soil-quality issues and growing challenges are not unique and so, ultimately, this project could be exported globally.

It is also hoped that by introducing technology and data into the farming lifecycle, it will encourage more young people to enter the industry. The image of high-tech drone-flying and digital-simulation models might be more appealing than just digging a potato out of the mud.

You can find out more and watch a video of the project: https://www.digital.je/initiatives/smart-fields/

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