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Podcast Precision agriculture summary

Collocutor Dr. Zvezdomir Zhelev, assistant professor at Plovdiv Agrarian University, Phytopathology Department, specialist in plant diseases at the Centre for Integrated Management of Plant Diseases

Differences between conventional faming and precision farming

Precision farming uses technology: information t6echnology, internet and communications, measurable data such as chemical control of diseases, mineral fertilizers, in other words precision comes from the application of chemical science and technology. It is related to sustainable agriculture, to smart agriculture and is thus part of a broader concept. Farming is not an easy job. It involves agronomy, organization, working with people, technology and institutions, with markets and that makes it quite complicated. Precision and the new technologies facilitate this work, both the administrative and the field aspects.

Precision agriculture ensures saving for the producers

That is my favourite aspect because savings are the first thing that farmers and others involved in the sector are looking for. For a farmer saving are not the most important thing, that is not an end in itself; the real thing is to be economically viable and profitable. For a farmer it is crucial to have sustainable results and some security. Only then comes the economy.

Predictive models and climate change

Predictive models form a part of the so-called decision support systems not only in agriculture but also in other spheres of the economic life. In agriculture in particular these are climatic models based on monitoring data from the climate stations. Precise predictions are made for the following hours and days. Then through algorithms and mathematical models the climatic conditions, changes and dynamics are analyzed to help the farmer take the right decision for the specific situation. These predictive models are an excellent instrument farmers in Bulgaria use for a variety of crops. We started with the most intensive crops, the riskiest to help them secure a healthy production then proceeded with the more extensive. They help them adapt to the natural conditions, but also the economic ones.

The role of information and communication technologies

They are an important condition to make the connection between the environmental factors and the risk of diseases or the way plants should be fed. And they keep improving. Today the system can transfer climatic data from a station or a satellite by the hour and allows to make forecasts. Processed in special ways, they turn into up-to-date and even hour information about the risk of diseases and pests. Farmers possess real-time data to take their decisions.

Adaptation of the models to various sorts

The models are adapted not only to the climate dynamic but also to the sort. To be specific, it depends on the models, on the specificity of both crops and diseases. Sort-specific forecast is rarely done for the intensive crops such as grapes, apples, stone fruits and vegetables. The farmer or the consultant may consider the sort as well. While as regards extensive crops like corn, sunflower wheat and barley, the focus on the different aspects of the technology is much bigger, not just the climate but also the sort. For us this is very labour-intensive because the sorts must be calibrated and validated. But it is extremely useful for farmers because today there are big differences between sorts, take wheat for example and its response to diseases.

Quality of the production of precision agriculture

There is one fundamental article of an Israeli colleagues, professor Steinberg from some 10 years ago. He emphasizes the importance of how intense the crops are and how big the risk is. He also talks about the interface and the communication of the system with the farmer. And the article ends with the conclusion that it is not that important whether the models are convenient for farmers or not. At the end of the day, the most important thing is the market. If there is demand for a specific sort of tomatoes, to be able to survive farmers should produce it. If the market wants pesticide-free products, the farmer should adapt. You should have noticed demand for organic products is growing in Bulgaria, as well as the control of pesticides, just as in Europe and globally. The market dictates behaviour and farmers adapt to it. Precision agriculture contributes to higher-quality products, better for the consumer health. Here is a comparison: the standard calendar approach requires 4-5 treatments of crops like apples in the spring with products that are strong and may leave residues; but with the precision approach we will know when there is no risk on the field and may skip the treatment for a whole month. It is even more relevant for the manna on the vine because there we can even opt for fungicides. When a risk emerges, we send a signal and farmers concentrate their efforts in that specific period. This very flexible method reduces and use of pesticides and fertilizers and is especially useful in the context of climate change. One feature of these changes is the extremely uneven distribution of rainfall for example. In the past few years we have seen very intense rainfall, which creates great pressure in terms of diseases, followed by extended draught. And we have to adapt. Plant diseases can be controlled and better results can be achieved, including for the consumers. Precision agriculture includes many of the features of organic agriculture because the new methods improve the overall production environment. The fruit, vegetables and other plants have better qualities and are more nutritious. We now speak of food density, meaning more vitamins and microelements thanks to balanced soils and a functional ecosystem.