Crops and Computers

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At the Agricultural Cooperation for Development (AC4D) farm, the team is now testing some of the newest technologies to increase crop yields while minimizing the quantity of resources applied to the crops. These technologies make it possible to save expensive resources such as fertilizers, while also saving water in a water-scarce country and reducing the amount of salts in the soil.

“At the farm, we are using hydroponic systems in our greenhouses. It has helped us to reduce the amount of water we are using with 75 percent compared to conventional growing methods,” says Tanner.

Tanner is 25 and is a mechanical engineer for hydroponics. For almost a year he has been helping the farm implement new digital technology. The aim is to give the plants exactly the right amount of water and nutrition at the right time.

“We have gathered information for each crop we grow and can track and apply different nutrients throughout every stage of the crop’s life - from planting to harvest,” says Tanner, while busy finding and weighing the right nutrients and mixing them in different buckets.

Close to him, on the wall in the small farm office, is an electronic screen showing the status of the open-field crops (not-hydroponic). Green, yellow, and red marks give the team a quick overview of how much and what kind of nutrients are needed, and where. And when today’s nutrient mix is put into a spread sheet, the colors will update to green to show that the plant is satiated for now.

“The field is divided into 24 smaller areas, and different valves and pipelines make it possible to pump irrigation water with the relevant nutrient mixture to each area. In that way we can target each crop individually with the nutrition it needs,” Tanner explains.

Recycled water

In the hydroponic greenhouses, the irrigation water is pumped from a big tank outside to the roots of the pepper or tomato plants, while excess water is collected and circulates back to the tank. This closed-loop system reduces water consumption and evaporation. The unused and excess nutrients mixed into the irrigation water also return to the tank.

“In the tank, sensors are routinely measuring the level of acidity, temperature, and nutrients in the water, and the system automatically adjusts these variables, especially when fresh water is entering the tank. In that way we are recycling the ingredients until it is all used,” says Tanner.

He opens the electrical box next to the tank and reveals a mix of wires, circuit boards, and small electronical devices.

“These are the three small pumps,” he points out, “that add ingredients from the small drums containing our stock solutions to the tank whenever the sensors tell them to.”

At the moment, the electronical circuit is a prototype, but will soon be developed as a production ready circuit board.

“It will help local farmers to build hydroponic systems and use the same technology; especially because we can produce this new electronic device at 1/10 of the usual market price,” says Tanner, who hopes that many local farmers will adopt the system and subsequently improve their crop quality and have sustainable farming practices, increasing their income and providing a long term solution to the challenges of farming in the Jordan Valley.

Fact box:

  • Hydroponic systems reduce water usage by 75% compared with conventional growing methods.
  • A hydroponic system in a greenhouse also reduces the number of pests by quarantining the crop.
  • The system isolates the plants from the soil, as the plants are grown in a separate medium, e.g. coconut peat.
  • The nutrient tracking system helps to apply the right chemicals at the right time, tailoring the fertilizer mixes for the plant’s current need.
  • The new hydroponic circuit board adds acid and nutrient stock solutions to the water when needed.

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