Planting high-tech seeds of change - Farmers urged to utilise more technology to boost yields, income
Jamaica’s agricultural sector has the potential to churn out higher yields if farmers adopt more technology in their production techniques, according to information and communication technologies (ICT) and agricultural experts.
Data from the Planning Institute of Jamaica for the first quarter of the financial year (April–June, 2019) show a 2.5 per cent decline in agricultural production, partly due to devastating drought conditions across the island.
Technical services manager at Contax 360 BPO Solutions and former ICT lecturer at the Northern Caribbean University, Henry Osborne, said that if technology were to be correctly infused in the practices of farmers, more produce would be available in markets and there could be an increase in food exports.
“We are nowhere near where we can be in terms of technology use as only the richer farmers are able to access the necessary technology, while the poorer farmers continue to use traditional methods,” Osborne observed.
He noted that there would have to be a major overhaul of the sector, with the Government having direct oversight, to make it easier for all farmers to have access to the various markets.
Osborne said drones, for example, could be used to map and plot the size of farms and provide a holistic view of crop growth, enabling the farmer to identify issues and better target their field.
He said having an overview of multi-year drone data allows for even better planning and monitoring of farms. Drones can also report farm characteristics, which include temperature, moisture, slope, and elevation, among other areas. This, he said, would enable more accurate soil sampling and the production of more suitable seedling prescriptions.
Osborne, however, noted that one of the inhibiting factors to accessing this technology was the cost. However, he expects the prices to fall soon so that the average local farmer can access it.
Drip irrigation, other technologies can
Turning to other technologies, the ICT expert said that soil sampling techniques should be incorporated in farming practices on a wider scale to determine nutrient content, composition, acidity, and pH levels, which are critical to achieving greater yields.
“We are not there yet as it relates to this technology. Without this technology, farmers are not able to determine what crops [will] best [thrive] in a particular location; farmers are unable to know when the soil is depleted,” said Osborne.
He added that a comprehensive soil test will help to determine the amount of fertiliser crops need as the farmer can take advantage of the nutrients already present in the soil. This makes the technology a very cost-effective tool for managing a fertiliser programme.
“Soil sampling can go mainstream. It will tell the farmer why the crop is failing. It is also more data-driven agriculture and not just guessing,” he said.
Osborne, however, noted that technologies such as drip-irrigation system technology was more being utilised by Jamaican farmers. He surmises that this could be attributed to climate change and prolonged drought conditions.
Drip irrigation is a type of micro-irrigation system that has the potential to save water and nutrients by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, either from above the soil surface or buried below the surface. The goal is to place water directly into the root zone and minimise evaporation.
Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, Audley Shaw, has been imploring Jamaican farmers to take advantage of new agricultural irrigation technologies available locally.
Speaking at the official opening of the new Isratech complex at Reading, St James, last year, Shaw bemoaned the fact that a majority of the more than 200,000 registered farmers on the island are yet to capitalise on technologies such as drip irrigation, which can increase yields, reduce water bills and make their farms far more profitable.
“We are not taking adequate advantage of the technology and the technologies that they (Isratech) have brought to agriculture in Jamaica. The drip-irrigation system that they are producing – all these drip-irrigation pipes and the whole technology of it – I wish I was able to tell you that the number one market for it in the Caribbean is Jamaica,” said Shaw.
He revealed that several containers of drip-irrigation systems were being exported to other countries in the Caribbean, owing to Isratech’s bullish efforts as the premier manufacturer of irrigation equipment in the region.
“We have a lot of work to do because the irrigable land we have in Jamaica of close to 200,000 acres … , right now, we are only formally irrigating about 12 or 13 per cent of that figure,” Shaw added.
Isratech, which has been operating in Jamaica since 1985, is headquartered in Manchester and specialises in products and services for applications in the environmental, agricultural, water and alternative energy sectors through its three divisions, Jamaica Drip Irrigation, Isratech Waterworks and Isratech Energy Solutions.
The company is collaborating with the JN Small Business Loans Climate Smart loan facility, which is providing financing for climate-resilient equipment to farmers at an interest rate of four per cent per annum. The initiative falls under the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation’s Adaptation Programme and Financing Mechanism.
Agriculture is a discipline that requires scientific approach
Chief technical director in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, Courtney Cole, recently said that agriculture can no longer be seen as a vocation for those with limited education and shallow pockets.
“It is a discipline that requires a scientific approach as well as a serious business mindset if one expects to make a meaningful return on investment,” Cole emphasised.
He said Jamaica’s economy benefits significantly from farming and if more persons took on agriculture as a serious business investment, both the sector and the economy would experience a significant boom.
Osborne noted that another practice that should be looked at closely was vertical farming, which is the practice of producing food in stacked layers or vertically inclined surfaces and or integrated in other structure.
“This type of technology is poised to take off on a large scale, especially in urban areas,” he said.
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