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A day in the life of an agricultural consultant, and how APOLLO can improve it

Agricultural Consultants – Greece
Georgios Savvidis is an agricultural consultant from Pella in Northern Greece. He is one of three consultants from the area taking part in the APOLLO project in the hopes of testing the services on their wheat and cotton fields. We asked him about the challenges he faces day-to-day and what role the APOLLO app could play as part of his toolkit.

Could you describe an average day in the life of an agricultural consultant?

Agricultural consultants are generally trained agronomists who provide advisory services to farmers, own or work in agricultural supply shops. An ordinary day includes field visits, discussions with farmers about crop problems and recommendations on how to deal with them. Within the Agricultural Cooperative of Pella, we have been implementing the Integrated Management System for peaches several years now, so we are addressing cultivation problems with a more holistic and environmentally friendly approach.

Credits: Giorgos SavvidisWhat kinds of problems do you encounter in the field? Are there one or two that particularly stand out, in your region?

Most problems caused by biotic factors are successfully dealt with on an annual basis. There are some exceptions through, such as the outbreak of Taphrina (a plant fungus which causes leaf curling in peach cultivations) which has affected crops in the area over the last two years. The biggest issue we have had to tackle in recent years has been the adverse weather conditions, which have crippled the production of tree crops. As far as arable crops are concerned, we had a big problem with cotton bollworm (Heliothis armigera), a few years ago, but we were able to neutralise the threat.

What tools do you currently use to address them? How do you expect APOLLO to improve them?

The tools we use include:

  • Agricultural alerts for our region provided by the Ministry of Agricultural Development. They are open to all, through the Ministry’s website and other agricultural websites,
  • Observation on the field with regular visits, which is often very time-consuming.

The way we tackle serious problems like disease or pests is by trying to suppress their outbreak and prevent further spread. The downside of this method is that by the time we intervene, the damage is already done. With APOLLO, we hope to prevent outbreaks in the first place, and to intervene in a timely and effective manner whilst they are still small enough to control. An additional bonus would be the time saved by not always having to be physically present to check on the crops in the field.

“The potential to use satellites in support of agriculture has opened up new horizons that are constantly expanding.”

Credits: Giorgos SavvidisWhat do you think the most useful advance in farming has been in the last few years?

The potential to use satellites in support of agriculture has opened up new horizons that are constantly expanding. APOLLO is a prime example of the kind of application which such technologies are making possible.
Can you think of any tools that contemporary agricultural consultants must employ in order to stay competitive? How do they differ from those that you used in your earliest days as a consultant?
An agricultural consultant’s competitiveness depends on firstly, effectively identifying emerging crop problems and, secondly, intervening in a timely manner. Therefore, any tool which improves these abilities is desirable, as it allows the consultant to “buy some time” and work out how the problem should be targeted for best results.
There are several tools like this on the market at the moment – and APOLLO will soon join them – but this was not always the case. in the past, a consultant had to search for crop problems in person, and work out the nature of the problem and its location in the field without any scientific and/or technological help.

Do agricultural consultants in your region have experience in smart farming methods?

Yes, a small percentage of agricultural consultants has relevant experience, mainly in irrigation scheduling for maize.

What motivated you to get involved in the APOLLO project and try its services?

I wanted to have a tool that would help me to identify crop problems reliably and rapidly. It also seemed exciting to have a hand in creating such a tool and seeing how it would work first hand.

Photo credits: Giorgos Savvidis

What APOLLO offers to farmers in La Mancha Oriental, Spain?

Our partners in La Mancha Oriental, Agrisat, speak about their region and explain how APOLLO will help local growers overcome some of their major challenges.

1. Tell us about Agrisat!

AgriSat is a Spanish SME based in Albacete (Spain), founded in May 2014 as a spin-off of a series of EU and national projects dedicated to the development and demonstration of the operational use of Earth observation (EO) and web-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for water management and farm advisory services. We draw on 20 years of experience in leading-edge technology, which has been rigorously tested and applied in the form of decision support tools for operational irrigation and farm management in a wide range of environments. Our mission is to make this knowledge and the corresponding easy-to-use tools widely available to the water and agriculture sectors and thus, to help farmers save water, energy, and inputs while maintaining or increasing yields and ultimately increase farm profitability in an overall context of sustainable agriculture.
In APOLLO, we are responsible for the co-creation of services with the help of users, as well as for the pilot implementation of the platform in Spain. 20 farmers from our region are participating in the APOLLO pilot.

2. What makes the La Mancha Oriental region unique from an agricultural point of view?

La Mancha Oriental is located on the south-eastern end of a plateau some 600-800 meters above sea level. The mountain ranges which surround the area are a double-edged sword: whilst protecting the region from damaging storms, they bring about extreme temperatures in both winter and summer, and cause dry, arid conditions in the area. As a result of these geophysical and climatic properties, many of La Mancha’s rainfed crops are extensively farmed. These include cereals (wheat, barley, etc.), legumes (peas, bitter vetch, etc.), and woody crops such as grapes and almonds. In addition, this area favours the cultivation of saffron, which is renowned for its world-class quality. The area supports 100,000 ha of irrigated land, supplied by water pumped from the aquifer by numerous wells.

Credits: Vicente Bodas3. What is the typical profile of a La Mancha Oriental farmer?

Typical farmers in La Mancha are men and women between 40 and 45 years old. Farms range between 10 and 30 hectares in size, with the average plot measuring approximately 2 hectares. The main crops cultivated in La Mancha are maize, winter wheat, chinese and purple garlic, wine grapes, almonds and olives.

4. Do farmers in La Mancha have experience in smart farming methods?

Yes, some of our farmers have been using smart farming methods for a number of years. Popular examples include irrigation scheduling, crop monitoring systems (water and nutritional needs) and – more recently – positioning systems, self-guided vehicles, crop yield monitoring methods and variable-rate nutrient application. Information derived from Earth Observation satellites has been used for 20 years to control aquifer water abstractions in a large part of the area*. More recently, Earth Observation data have been used for on-farm management operations such as irrigation and fertilisation**.
The two most important obstacles standing in the way of greater technological uptake are (1) access to the technology itself, which is often down to its high up-front costs; and (2) lack of knowledge on the use of such technology. The latter is starting to change as more farmers become aware of how much they can do with new and existing technologies.
APOLLO can assist farmers by providing affordable tools and easy-to-use technology that can help them to make more informed decisions regarding the tasks that must be performed on the crops at different times during the growing cycle.

Credits: Vicente Bodas5. Why did Spanish farmers choose to get involved in the APOLLO project?

Farmers in La Mancha see their participation in APOLLO as an opportunity to improve their understanding of how new technology can facilitate their decision making on the job, and ultimately save them time and money.

6. Is there a particular benefit that the APOLLO services will bring to La Mancha Oriental?

APOLLO’s four services can provide farmers in La Mancha with numerous benefits, many of which relate to overcoming some of the local challenges:

  • Tillage Scheduling: Although rainfall in our area is generally scarce, it does become moderate at certain crucial moments during the year, such as the cereal sowing period. This service will enable farmers to plan the pre-sowing tillage at the most appropriate time for the soil at a given parcel. In addition, they will be able to schedule tillage for the entire farm based on APOLLO’s recommendations.
  • Irrigation Scheduling: Although rainfed crops predominate in La Mancha, and water resources are limited, there are a certain number of irrigated farms in our region. APOLLO tools can be of great help in managing limited water resources and optimising water used in irrigating crops.
  • Crop Growth Monitoring: Information on the nutritional and health status of crops is crucial in order to obtain a yield and quality that translates into economic benefits. This APOLLO service ensures that farmers have access to this information for their crops, while also helping them to make decisions when it comes to applying plant protection treatment, for example.
  • Crop yield estimation: This APOLLO service is particularly interesting as regards the planning of harvest logistics, since in many cases this is an extra burden for farmers to have to deal with. Working out the size of the harvest can help the farmer to make decisions on the size and number of vehicles which must be made available for transporting crops, for example, as well as on the harvest’s destination (market or storage).

The APOLLO pilots are already underway in La Mancha Oriental. The first results of the pilots will be communicated in early autumn.

Image credits: Vicente Bodas.

*An initiative under the framework of the long-term project ERMOT which is jointly funded by farmers, regional government, and the River-Basin Authority.
**Introduced by the EU projects PLEIADeS, SIRIUS and FATIMA, and national projects like HERMANA.

Less is more: How better water resource management can improve the quality and quantity of your yield

Water is one of the most important elements supporting life on our planet. Climate change, urban expansion, and the need to feed a constantly growing population are greatly affecting fresh water resources. Certain areas are faced with imminent water scarcity, and paying for fresh water will soon become a reality in many regions in order to minimise wasted water.
It is therefore evident that there is a strong relationship between agriculture and water resources, especially for crops growing in areas with low precipitation. Overuse of water for irrigation may result in water scarcity, and irrigation practices must be adapted accordingly. But for farmers, water scarcity is not only the problem threatening their yields.

Credits: Ugljesa TrkuljaThe artificial application of water often leads to over- or under-irrigation; both of which are damaging for crops due to the changes they bring about in soil quality. Maintaining the appropriate levels of soil moisture is a key factor for the healthy growth of plants, as it greatly affects the fertility of the land. Up until recently, water was relatively cheap and easily accessible in most places in Europe. Therefore, for many farmers it is has become common practice to apply (often unnecessary) quantities of water when symptoms of unhealthy crop growth are observed. However, making judgements about soil moisture based on plant observation alone is inherently inaccurate, as it relies on the farmer’s assumptions about sufficient crop moisture levels. This practice usually leads to over-irrigation, jeopardising the health of crops.

Excessive irrigation can result in:

  • seeds not getting enough air to “breathe” (respire) effectively, thus hampering germination;
  • plant roots not growing properly, again due to lack of oxygen;
  • increased surface salt due to evaporation, affecting soil fertility;
  • the creation of an environment favourable to diseases;
  • the movement of nutrients and pesticides from the root zone into the ground water (“leaching”);
  • increased cultivation costs.

On the other hand, it is well-known that lack of water can hamper the crop’s health. When irrigation is performed at the right stages during their growing season, it can preserve the crop’s high quality and increase the expected yield. Knowing when plants need water and – perhaps more importantly – when not to irrigate is the first step towards a healthy and prosperous cropland and sustainable resource management. Besides improving the soil’s fertility, good irrigation management can help farmers to minimise the cost of pumping water; the key is to improve crop water use efficiency.

“Using less water, farmers can achieve the same quality / quantity yield and potentially improve it”.

Keeping soil fertile from year to year

Keeping the soil’s moisture at the appropriate level and preventing its fertility from degrading (through nutrient leaching) will save the grower energy, money, and labour. Degraded soil will need time and additional inputs, in the form of nutrients, to return to its initial state – and this can have a negative impact on yield over several growing cycles.
Scheduling irrigation is a complex task. Water resources (which in many cases are limited), salinity, and rainfall variability/uncertainty are some of the environmental parameters that need to be taken into account for proper water management. Routine irrigation without proper consideration of these parameters will almost always result in overirrigation and waste of water and energy. In addition, different crops demand different irrigation strategies over the various crop growth phases.

Good irrigation practices lead to:

  • high quality yields;
  • keeping the soil moisture at a stable level so that the possibility of diseases is minimised while attractiveness to pests is also decreased.
  • energy conservation;
  • water conservation
  • increasing farm productivity.

Credits: Ugljesa Trkulja

How APOLLO can help

From seeding to harvest, APOLLO will help growers to easily improve their farm water management.
APOLLO will provide regularly updated advisory information regarding irrigation (Irrigation Scheduling Service) along with weather data in one-glance interpretation maps. Specifically, APOLLO will provide information on irrigation timing and dosage along with a weather forecast.
Farmers will be able to use these maps to make better decisions on irrigation, saving both energy and time. The expected result is higher quality yields with less water consumption.

APOLLO’s Irrigation Scheduling service will be provided at a low cost to farmers. It can be used alongside the Tillage Scheduling and Crop Growth Monitoring services. The APOLLO services are provided independently from one another, but the natural relationship between tilling, irrigation and crop growth means that it makes sense to use the three of them together.

Relevant APOLLO data products will also be valuable to agricultural consultants, who will be better able to give trustworthy advice to their clients.

References/Sources:
1. Huang, B. and Scott NeSmith, D. (1999), “Soil aeration effects on root growth and activity”, Acta Hortic. 504, 41-52, DOI: 10.17660/ActaHortic.1999.504.3, https://doi.org/10.17660/ActaHortic.1999.504.3
2. Suat Irmak, Soil and Water Resources Engineer and Irrigation Engineering Specialist, Professor (2014), “Plant Growth and Yield as Affected by Wet Soil Conditions Due to Flooding or Over-Irrigation”, Nebraska extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
3. Growstone (2012), “The importance of aeration of soil”.
4. Bhishm Khanna, “What are the harmful effects of excessive irrigation?”, Preserve articles website.

Special thanks to our scientific advisor Mr. Evangelos Anastasiou, Agronomist, Agricultural University of Athens.

Image credits: Uglješa Trkulja, UPOR

APOLLO services go live to trial users!

Starting this month, and until the end of September 2017, APOLLO services will be tested in the field by trial users as part of the project’s pilot phase. This exciting development represents a milestone in the development of the services and will pave the way for their future evolution.

The first agricultural season will pave the way towards the 2nd agricultural season later in 2018 and the finalisation of services which is scheduled for early 2019.

APOLLO’s pilot phase is a co-creation process between growers, consultants and the APOLLO team, during which the initial versions of the services are put to the test and validated in fields in Greece, Serbia and Spain. Each pilot region has its own environmental characteristics as well as its own farming tradition, and the services will be tested on both irrigated and non-irrigated crops.
APOLLO aims to develop effective, easy to use yet affordable advisory services, and this wouldn’t be possible without meaningful engagement with farmers and consultants, trying the services in real-life conditions. In this way, not only will the services be tested and constantly improved, but trial users will be trained (free of charge) and informed on how to exploit APOLLO technology for the benefit of their farms.

This is a great opportunity for farmers and agricultural consultants to participate in the creation of new services, which are closely tailored to their needs. APOLLO aims to provide advice for both farmers and agricultural consultants, and more specialised data (such as NDVI, biomass, soil moisture information etc.) to agricultural consultants. With APOLLO, the benefits of recommendations will out weight their costs, as by design APOLLO will be available at a very competitive price.
APOLLO pilot activities during the first agricultural season will cover a range of crops in the pilot areas, as per the following table:

May-September 2017
Pilot Country Crop
Agricultural Association of Pella Greece
  • Cotton
  • Durum wheat
Municipality of Ruma Serbia
  • Barley
  • Maize
  • Sunflower
  • Sugarbeet
  • Winter wheat
  • Soybean
La Mancha Oriental Spain
  • Maize
  • Winter wheat
  • Chinese garlic
  • Purple garlic
  • Wine grapes
  • Almond trees
  • Olive trees

If you are interested you can register here to become a trial user at any time.

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The Vienna University of Technology is organising the 4th Satellite Soil Moisture Validation and Application Workshop

APOLLO consortium partner the Vienna University of Technology (TU-WEIN) is organising the 4th Satellite Soil Moisture Validation and Application Workshop and the CCI Soil Moisture User Workshop in Wien, Austria. The workshops will be held between the 18th and the 20th of September 2017.

Satellite Soil Moisture and Application Workshop
The Satellite Soil Moisture and Application Workshop brings together experts from all around the world to discuss and reconcile recent methodological advances in the development, validation and application of global satellite soil moisture data.
The workshop follows up workshops held at the European Space Agency in Frascati (Italy, in 2013), at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam (Netherlands, in 2014) and at the Millenium Broadway Hotel in New York (USA, in 2016).
The workshop series is unique by bringing together satellite soil moisture users and developers to focus on both the derivation and exploration of soil moisture data from passive or active microwave satellite missions (SMAP, SMOS, ASCAT, AMRS-2, Sentinel-1, and other legacy missions).

CCI Soil Moisture User Workshop
The CCI Soil Moisture User Workshop is similar in scope, but focuses on users of the CCI Soil Moisture products. Users from any relevant application area are invited to present their experiences with the data and provide ideas for future product improvements. The CCI Soil Moisture User Workshop is an event organized within the framework of ESA’s Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Soil Moisture project.

For more information, registration deadlines, costs and other details about the workshops, please visit the 4th Satellite Soil Moisture Validation and Application Workshop and the CCI Soil Moisture User Workshop site.

Dates:
18th September 2017: CCI Soil Moisture User Workshop
19th-20th September 2017: Satellite Soil Moisture Validation and Application Workshop
Venue:
Vienna University of Technology
Gußhausstraße 27-29, 1040 Wien, Austria

TU-WEIN’s Role in the APOLLO project
TU’s Remote Sensing (RS) research group of the Department of Geodesy and Geoinformation (GEO), led by Dr Wolfgang Wagner, is leading the activities for the validation of Earth Observation and operational pilot data activities.
Learn more about TU-WEIN here.

Hot off the press: Download our new brochure and leaflet!

APOLLO brochure and leaflet now available for download!

We are pleased to announce that our 8-page full-colour brochure and 3-fold leaflet are now available to download!

The APOLLO brochure offers insight into our objectives, services and pilots and describes why we care about delivering high-end precision agricultural advice services to smallholder farmers, through innovative remote sensing technologies.

The APOLLO leaflet offers an overview of APOLLO’s accessible, affordable, and easy-to-use services and the pilot areas on which they will be tested.

Download the brochure and leaflet at the following links: