While efforts to increase food production through so-called “smart farming” might conjure images of artificial intelligence, robots and big data, improving agriculture isn’t always about cutting-edge technology.
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And when it comes to rural smallholder farming, being “smart” is often about finding affordable and clever ways of boosting crop production while using natural resources efficiently and without harming the environment.
That’s precisely what FAO’s “Smart Farming for the Future Generation” project is about.
The USD 3.4 million project, funded by the Government of the Republic of Korea, is helping dozens of rural families in Uzbekistan and Vietnam improve their agricultural production in greenhouses in ways that enable them to produce more food with less pesticides, less mineral fertilizers, less water, less labour and more safety.
The overarching idea is to make greenhouses more efficient by addressing five interrelated factors: climate control; pest and disease management; irrigation; plant nutrition; and cultivation practices.
Using sound scientific advice and evidence-based solutions, whether traditional or modern, the project is turning greenhouse farming into successful businesses, providing their owners with higher incomes and increasing employment opportunities for communities, as well as offering more diverse, affordable and safer food, all year round.
“We have seen high-tech greenhouses with high levels of investment but low productivity because local conditions have not been considered. Low-cost systems such as these optimized greenhouses offer greater yields with less resources,” said Melvin Medina Navarro, the project’s lead technical officer.
When FAO experts first approached rural households with low and irregular income in the three pilot districts in Uzbekistan, they found obsolete and ineffective methods of cultivating fruits and vegetables in greenhouses.
For instance, pollination was being carried out by hand, and harmful pesticides were spread liberally. Mud was used to cover the greenhouse to create shade and lower the inside temperature during the hottest months, when the day’s highs can peak at 42 degrees Centigrade.
“The first thing we did was to recommend the use of new covering materials,” says Khayrulla Esonov, an FAO agronomist for the project.
The greenhouses were equipped with plastic film with special additives to increase their strength, reflect ultraviolet radiation, reduce dust and prevent condensation.
Instead of harmful pesticides, the experts introduced special sticky traps and anti-insect nets to control pests and diseases. Another effective response to the threat of viruses and bacteria came in the form of disinfection mats and a double-door system, in addition to the clearing of weeds around greenhouses.
Water management was improved using drip irrigation systems consisting of electric water pumps, filters, water tanks and drip lines through which soluble nutrients are applied more efficiently, reaching the plants’ roots directly.
In addition, each beneficiary was given instruments to measure the quality of the water. According to tests, the water used for irrigation in all three pilot areas was found to have high pH levels. This is now being brought under control by adjusting fertilizer levels and adding special acids to the water.
Mother Nature also came to the rescue in the form of buff-tailed bumblebees, which were tasked with replacing the time-consuming and ineffective practice of manual pollination.
Such changes, coupled with the technical assistance provided by FAO, raised greenhouse management to a new level with, at times, spectacular results. The project originally aimed to increase the production of vegetables by at least 20 percent. However, during the first crop cycle, the farmers enjoyed an increase in the yields of tomatoes and sweet peppers of 90 and 140 percent, respectively.
Nigora Pulatova, one of the farmers involved in the project, was surprised to obtain the same harvest with half the number of seedlings used by other farmers. The quality of the products also increased tremendously in terms of size, shape, colour and zero pesticide residues, allowing the farmers to sell them for a much better price.
Another farmer involved in the FAO project was Matluba Alimbekova, a mother of five based in Gumbaz mahalla, in the Andijan district of Uzbekistan. Matluba has been growing tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, garlic and herbs, but kept losing almost half of her yield due to pests and diseases. This year, she planted a new variety of sweet pepper called Anetta that is better suited for local conditions and has so far harvested over two tonnes and earned about USD 1 100 (12 million Uzbek Soms). She is currently harvesting over 90 kilograms of peppers every week and plans to plant radish in November to generate more income during the winter season.
“The project has provided some significant help to our family by increasing our income,” said Matluba.
Matluba said she used to spend half of her earnings to cover production cost, but through the smart farming project, such costs have fallen to less than 20 percent.
The next steps in the project involve market assessments, upgrading food safety laboratories and training local experts to increase the export of fresh vegetables and generate more income, continuing to transform rural communities with affordable and replicable techniques. ■
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