An agro technology revolution is feeding the world

Consumers want all year-round healthy and sustainable fruit and vegetables wherever they live. The pressures are enormous on hard-grafting farmers but Spanish agro technology company Hispatec is showing how agriculture 4.0 can support them to boost productivity and keep environmentally conscious customers happy even thousands of miles away.

From ancient farming practices to agriculture 4.0

Farming is one of the oldest professions in the world, dating back to the first attempts to grow grain in Ancient Mesopotamia roughly 13,000 years ago.

Yet for today’s farmers to survive whilst taking care of the planet, they are increasingly counting on some of the most cutting-edge precision and agriculture technology available. “Growing food is the oldest task in the world, but nowadays it mixes chemistry, biology, software and marketing,” says Gonzalo Martín Díaz, head of research and development at Spanish agro technology company Hispatec.

And he should know: Hispatec was once a tiny generalist IT firm founded 35 years ago in southern Spain, in the dry province of Almeria, but the founders quickly discovered local growers needed their services more than anyone else. They decided to focus exclusively on agro technologies and have served the sector ever since.

International expansion of advanced agriculture

Unexpectedly, it was the financial crisis of 2008 that triggered Hispatec’s international expansion. Chief Executive José Luis Molina, an agricultural engineer, found investors to buy the company from a savings bank (Cajamar) that had acquired Hispatec in its early life.

They began prioritising the research and development of products that meet the needs of clients far beyond the company’s home country. Hispatec stepped first into Mexico in 2013, and then opened subsidiaries in Chile and Peru five years later.

This strategy also allowed Hispatec to add larger clients to their portfolio, including Spanish cooperative Trops, which groups 3,000 mainly tropical fruit growers together, and Peruvian company Camposol, which farms more than 17,000 hectares, supplying the likes of Lidl, Walmart and Costco with fruit and vegetables in Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Using big data for crop and fruit analytics

“We want to help clients make the 10 to 15 decisions which will determine their results.” – Martín

Hispatec also set up a fruit analytics unit. It worked for Camposol, registering the thousands of fruit pickers arriving in coaches and assigning their tasks through a mobile application, without the need for them to queue to be assigned to a field. The unit allows Camposol to review operations by crop, field and workers on a real-time dashboard system.

The system has improved productivity by between 3.4 and 6 million euro a year, says Carlos Flores, central manager of IT for Camposol. “This real-time information gave us the possibility to see how many workers we have available, to see how many we need for tomorrow and to make a more efficient use of overtime,” he says in a video presentation on the agro technology.

“We aim to be a one-stop shop for managing decisions pre-harvest and post-harvest.” - Martín

A node in a global agriculture farm to fork network

International collaboration to develop some of the best data analysis products has proven key in driving Hispatec’s revenue growth, which was about 30-40 percent from 2013 to 2018 and 20 percent in the last few years despite the pandemic.

Hispatec recently partnered with Spanish laboratory company AGQ Labs and Portuguese irrigation specialists Hidrosoph in a Eurostars R&D project that is pioneering a new analysis of individual crops whilst also underpinning a fresh approach to food supply.

Instead of seeing fruit and vegetable supply as a chain (from grower to the stores), Hispatec and its clients want to take decisions based on an agrofruit network, which includes feedback from customers.

“This is the first project to test our new mentality as a node in an agricultural network. We wanted to work with stakeholders who have an impact on growers and create value for them.” - Martín

In the Eurostars project CropWatch 4.0, the partners developed a lysimeter to measure the changing Ph levels of the soil and monitor nutrients in crops. They also developed an artificial intelligence (AI) system based on the knowledge of crop specialists. After creating a system that makes recommendations for particular crops, they tested it on blueberries.

When they noticed a different growth performance to what they expected, the programmers refined their AI through consulting the crop specialists about the surprises. “What we’re trying to do is get all those models out of the heads of the advisors in order to analyse the data,” says Martín. “We’re democratising intelligence so that recommendations about plant nutrition can be improved in much the same way that surgery has been improved through systems using objective data to help qualified people operate it.”

Advanced agriculture is reducing environmental impact

The partners have tested their AI with blueberries (supervised by very knowledgeable specialists), and find it matches the best performers, meaning growers could take more tailor-made decisions about crop nutrition on an ongoing basis. Martín believes this is how crops will be managed in the future. “Science is advancing rapidly in terms of analysing what food agrees best with individual humans,” he says.

“Plants can’t speak to us directly, but we can observe the effects of different nutrition on them.” - Martín

In addition to the system developed, Martín believes the project showed the importance of a public funding and partnership approach for SMEs. “We were born in a small corner of Spain. CropWatch 4.0 helped us ensure our international spirit trickles down to all our 200 workers,” he says.

The international project partners think they can commercialise the agriculture system as growers look to manage water and soil better because of climate changes. Moreover, consumers continue to demand the freshest of fruit and vegetables wherever they live. “As consumers, we are insatiable today. We want what we want wherever we live,” reflects Martín. “We want to always be able to get a lettuce, the perfect avocado and different types of garlic. And we don’t want them to contaminate the planet. The pressure on growers is to manage the consumer’s desires, the climate and changing rules. Farming is the hardest profession in the world.”

And the challenges to farmers are only set to increase, as the world’s population is expected to grow from 7.8 billion in 2020 to 9.9 billion in 2050. Agriculture 4.0 will play a vital role in helping produce a wide variety of crops for humans and animals while reducing the impact of farming.

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Posted 21 September 21