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Knowledge beats technology
For more than 20 years Peer Leithold, Managing Director of Agricon from Ostrau in Saxony, has been scientifically engaged in plant cultivation. As the son of a farmer, he deepened his knowledge by studying agricultural science in Berlin and Halle an der Saale. Afterwards he worked as a consultant in agricultural analytics, when the beginnings of precision farming became visible at the end of the 1990s. "At that time, arable farming and plant cultivation were carried out on the basis of scientific findings. This is still the case today. Precision farming is nothing higher", he classifies the hype. In the meantime there are many terms for it: Precision farming, partial-plot agriculture, computer-aided or smart farming.
In order to use fertilizers or pesticides as precisely as possible, a whole series of field trials, calculations and programming work must be carried out. What was previously analogue and experience-driven is now automated and digitized by Peer and his team. Agricon has developed solutions for the precise planning and efficient use of machine fleets, tools and equipment in large farms. Since the company was founded in 1997 and now has 100 employees, it is no longer a start-up in the true sense of the word.
The Agricon team wants to automate crop cultivation and plan the use of machines, tools and resources, providing digital applications.
Data management on behalf of the farmer
Peer uses nitrogen fertilization as an example to illustrate how digital crop cultivation can look in detail. Sensors measure the nitrogen uptake of the plants based on reflected wavelengths. The measured values are directly converted into a recommendation in the sensor via control functions. During the next step the collected data is processed by the fertiliser spreader. The algorithm calculates in real time how much nitrogen must be supplied to the plant for optimum growth. The sensor is also networked with the cloud-based data portal agriPORT via an interface. There, all information from the sensor is collected and work is documented.
A second pillar of Agricon is the optimisation of basic fertilisation. The company's regional technicians take soil samples, which are then analysed in a laboratory and classified according to partial field and soil group. The optimum quantity of phosphorus, potash, magnesium and lime fertilizers is then automatically calculated by agriPORT on the basis of this data for all impacts. From the data portal, a corresponding spread chart is then exported "over the air" to a terminal. "All calculations run in the background. Our system carries them out on behalf of the farmer. As a rule, he doesn't notice any of this," says Peer.
Peer Leithold founded his company in 1997 being one of the pioneers in precision farming.
Now and then
Even before there were institutions like Agricon, fertilizers were applied in relation to plots of the field. "GPS was a key technology for machines in the field. At the end of the 1980s, it was for the first time possible to precisely locate and cultivate partial areas," explains Peer. At the end of the 1990s, sensors, later software systems and digital maps were added. As a result, agriculture became more and more precise.However, Peer warns against too much obsession with technology: "Technology is only an aid. If you cannot master practice as a farmer, then even the most modern technology is useless," he asserts. In addition, he believes that knowledge and know-how in digital crop cultivation are still essential, as is continuous further training. He is convinced: "In 2000, we only had 25 percent of the knowledge we have today. In ten years' time we will have more know-how."
The restored farmhouse (on the right) was extended in 2011 by the international competence centre (on the left) and has already been awarded an architecture prize.
No hi-tech without tutoring
Hence the "no hi-tech implementation without tutoring" motto of Agricon. Eight years ago, an international competence centre was completed on the company's premises in Ostrau, where regular training courses are held. "Here we show how the sensor technology and the algorithm work. The farmer has to see what the machine does in order to back the decision," says Peer. This is another reason why new customers are visited several times during their first year after purchasing a sensor. One of our consultants always accompanies the integration process of the technology.
Agricon's target group includes full-time farms from 300 ha of corn land upwards. The purchase of a sensor costs a one-time fee of € 24,000. For around € 2,000, customers also receive a service and consulting package with a license for data management in agriPORT, the latest version of the Precision Farming software, installation and maintenance of the sensor, access to a service hotline as well as introduction in the first year and support in the period thereafter.
Agricon itself does not produce any hardware, but links sensors with machines independently of the manufacturer. According to their own information, a farmer earns about 100 € per hectare and year through the N-fertilisation method. With a farm size of 1,200 hectares, the investment would pay for itself after just two years. Today, Agricon serves about 2,000 customers, mainly in the eastern states of Germany and Eastern Europe. Until 2023 the Saxons want to develop further organizational structures in Scandinavia, BeNeLux and France.
The sensor mounted on the tractor measures the nitrogen uptake of the plants in the field. The algorithm calculates in real time how much fertilizer the spreader should spread on the partial areas.
A change of the mindset
The greatest challenge for AgTech companies is still the minds of the farmers. "First, they need to understand that they need to change and digitize their management system," Peer said. However, such a change should be strategic and take four to six years. Farmers are also concerned about data security. At Agricon, all data is stored on servers in Thuringia and is protected under German data protection law. Peer emphasizes: "We do nothing with the data. I don't sell tractors or fertilizers to farmers. Nor am I the office that monitors him. I am merely the trustee who manages the data for him". Peer cannot guarantee what the sensor and machine manufacturers do with the data, it's a different matter.
For sales, the contractor usually relies on the slow establishment of relationships with the customer. In regular exchange meetings with farm managers, Peer and his team learn what farmers are missing and what they need. "There is no better way to do field research: Just listen to what the farmers are currently doing". Values such as "Made in Germany" and "family-run" are important. Investments are handled catiously. They are financed from liquid assets. The next technical innovation is almost ready to be released and the next generation is already part of the company: "With my son, who has been with the company for a few years, I already have a successor," says Peer.
The original article was published in August 2019 on the website of the network f3 - farm. food. future.
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