A Look at Smart Agriculture

We are at an interesting time in the history of man. The population just crossed the 8 billion mark. At the same time, we’re seeing big changes in weather patterns all over the globe that are disrupting the traditional ways that we raise crops. Some areas are already looking at prolonged droughts, while other places are a lot wetter than ever before. And just about everywhere is hotter.

I remember when I was a kid that there was a lot of talk about world starvation. The world population in 1960 had just hit 3 billion people, and there were a lot of countries on the edge of starvation. Science came to the rescue with new varieties of wheat, rice, and corn developed by Norman Borlaug and others, and food production around the globe soared.

The way to feed today’s population is through smart agriculture, and we don’t have far to look to see what that looks like. The Netherlands, at about the same size as Maryland, is one of the major food producers in Europe and the second biggest food exporter behind the U.S. The small country produces 4 million cows, 13 million pigs, and 104 million chickens annually.

Netherlands is also one of the major providers of vegetables for Europe. The county has an amazing 24,000 acres of greenhouses that grow crops. The greenhouses are efficient and can raise ten times more crops per acre than traditional fields, using less fertilizer. It takes only a half-gallon of water to grow a pound of tomatoes in greenhouses compared to the global average of 28 gallons.

Netherlands is also the world’s top supplier of seeds for ornamental plants and vegetables. There are multiple climate-controlled seed banks that maintain multiple strains of plant seeds to be able to provide the diversity that is needed in the race to keep crop strains ahead of the diseases that can destroy crops.

Greenhouse agriculture is highly dependent on technology. Greenhouses are automated for the watering and tending of crops. Greenhouses utilize a system called Scoutbox that captures and analyzes insects in greenhouses to allow for a quick reaction to avoid infestations. Farmers have virtually eliminated pesticides in greenhouses. Greenhouses are automated for the watering, tending, and shipping of produce – they are food-producing factories.

Field crop agriculture is taking advantage of smart tractors and other smart equipment. Drones are widely used to monitor field crops. Satellite images are analyzed to pinpoint areas of fields that need water, fertilizer, or other amendments. Computers track and monitor farm animals from birth. The county has developed a side industry that gathers food and crop waste to feed animals.

The country is a hub for agricultural research, with 15 of the top twenty agribusinesses having research and development labs in the country. All of this agriculture needs broadband. Like the U.S., the rural areas of the country are the last to get broadband. But the country has put a big push on connectivity. 100% of homes and farms can buy DSL. This is not like the slow rural U.S. DSL, but mostly with reliable speeds between 25 Mbps and 50 Mbps. Over 92% of residents have access to cable company broadband. Over 30% of homes now have access to fiber.

It’s obviously easier to fully wire a small country than our humongous far-flung farming areas. But the Netherlands example is highlighting a different way to raise food by putting greenhouses close to the people who consume the crops.

The one drawback to the agricultural methods in the country is that greenhouses require a lot of power. That’s a particularly pressing problem in a year when the Ukraine war is restricting oil and natural gas supplies. Like much of Europe, this tough time is goading the country to move more quickly to alternate energy sources. The country is already getting a lot of energy from wind and is working towards creating electricity with biomass and geothermal technologies.

The U.S. is experimenting with all of the same agricultural technologies being used in the Netherlands. But this small country is way ahead of us in terms of implementation. You have to wonder which region of the country will push these new technologies forward the fastest – it could be a big deal for an area looking to create jobs.

6 thoughts on “A Look at Smart Agriculture

  1. Hi Doug. Nice article highlighting productivity in agriculture. As an RF guy, you will find it interesting that a microwave radio company created a product line of wireless sensors and gateways to help greenhouse growers maximize efficiency with inputs for better yields using less energy. Sensors use ISM band for transmitting to gateway up to 3km with good line of site.

  2. Great post (as always)! One thing that the intersection of broadband and ag has brought up for me is the ongoing importance of developing high capacity wireless networks. This has helped me better understand the nuances of the fiber-for-all campaign that we’re seeing throughout the country.

  3. Given that some crazy portion of their country is under sea level it’s no surprise that The Netherlands is a model of ingenuity.

    But, automation is hardly going to create new agriculture jobs — 90% of the population were involved in agriculture in 1800, 50% in 1900 and under 2% now…all because of automation. (My grandfather and his brother had the first fully automated farm in their county during the Depression.)

    The scale of rural areas doesn’t make sense for anything other than starlink-style networks. Or, fully government subsidized efforts, equivalent to the REA.

    But, what is also happening is the depletion of our groundwater which is going to kill off farming west of the Mississippi and, since most of the arable land is already spoken for, that will jumpstart exactly this sort of thing. (Interesting new data uses satellite gravitational effects to show the devastating level of depletion.)

    So, rural internet continues to be impractical for lots of reasons.

    • (My cousin and his partner do the farming for the property that my grandfather owned in the Depression, along with the properties of thirteen other landowners, mostly elderly relatives. They are another automation success story. Don’t get them started on “right to repair” of tractors…)

  4. What a wonderful way to provide food for their own country but also provide a valuable export for the country! Being in the midwest, we are constantly hearing farmers’ frustration with lack of reliable internet to transmit key data from crops and livestock to their inventory/health tracking programs. The grants are slowly making a dent in this enormous problem.

    On a side note, it is unfortunate the Dutch government is forcing 3,000 of these farms to comply with the EU’s mandate to slash emissions. Seems like the world food supply will take a hit when that happens.

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