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Technology, agriculture’s friend in the sustainable economies of the future

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How can European agriculture become more environmentally friendly and ensure healthy, profitable production?

The answer lies in innovative production methods and high-tech, such as those used in the Dutch “Farm of the Future”, developed by researchers at Wageningen University to provide solutions for sustainable production. They say that their farm, which is being trialled in Lelystad, is characterised by closed-loop recycling, high biodiversity and minimal environmental emissions. They also strive to provide sufficient income for farmers and ultimately avoid the use of fossil fuels.

We need new technology for new agriculture

The farm has two field labs, one specifically for testing agroecology and technology. There is also a space for the National Centre for Applied Research on Renewable Energy and Green Resources (ACRRES) to conduct renewable energy projects. The farm of the future is in partnership with the EU-funded Nefertiti project, which aims to stimulate the use of innovation in agriculture and contribute to a more competitive, sustainable and climate-conscious future.

Wijnand Sukkel is the farm’s project manager. He says they use a combination of agroecology and technology, with a particular focus on soil management. “We focus on crop diversity, not only temporal crop diversity, such as crop rotation, but also spatial crop diversity, which is mixed cropping, strip cropping,” he adds.

Monoculture versus strip cropping

Bands of different crops, as opposed to monoculture fields, create mini ecosystems that benefit biodiversity. Crop rotation and cover crops improve soil quality. Soil quality is compromised when heavy machinery compacts the soil. Subsoil is the soil directly below the topsoil, which is about 30-45 centimetres deep. It is essential that the subsoil is loose, as plant roots penetrate it easily and it increases the soil’s natural drainage.

A solution to compacted subsoil is being tested on Future Farm to counteract compacted subsoil. Vertical holes drilled deep into the soil are used to break up the solid layers.

Increasing technology

Robots are a key component of modern agriculture. They fit well with sustainable production methods and provide useful data. Bram Veldhuisen is a researcher at Wageningen University. He explains that “machines have often become bigger and bigger, and now with robots we see that they can be smaller and that’s better for the soil”. “Sensors such as satellites and drones give us much more insight into what’s on the ground,” he adds.

For farmers, technology helps them make better or better supported decisions

The internet is essential to make this kind of technology available to everyone. That’s why the European Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy has set a target of bringing fast broadband internet to 100% of rural areas by 2025.

Broadband internet has no specific technical meaning, but refers to any infrastructure for high-speed internet access that is always on and faster than traditional dial-up access.

Scientific and natural farming complete with new farming methods. One such natural method is cover crops. These are planted during the winter and used to keep the soil healthy. These plants take up minerals through their roots, forming proteins and organic forms of nitrogen that protect and improve the soil.

Nitrogen is essential for life, but if too much is in the soil due to overuse of fertilizers, it can damage the environment.

Laboratory tests are done to check soil balance before sowing and after harvesting. Organic farmer and researcher Koen Klompe says that at Farm of the Future, “we always take some soil samples to see how much nitrogen is left in the soil after the winter, so we can optimise fertilisation. So if there’s still a lot of nitrogen, we need to fertilize with less nitrogen.”

Bye fossil fuels

Farm of the Future researchers are generating renewable energy for their machines. Farms and barns have already been fitted with solar panels to generate electricity.

In a project to be launched soon, they also want to harness the potential of wind turbines to power a hydrogen fuel plant. Sukkel says that “we will produce hydrogen gas from the electricity, which we will store here and use for our tractors”. The small machines use electricity.

The fact that they can do this will help them become self-sufficient in fuel, which is the goal of any future economy.

Source: https://www.euronews.com/green/2021/03/30/technology-agriculture-s-friend-for-the-sustainable-farms-of-the-future