Farming Systems Research – Untying the Gordian Knot

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The legend of how Alexander of Macedonia acquired his famous sobriquet, “Alexander the Great” is a tale of enormous fascination and, more than anything, a perfect epitome of the conqueror’s incredible pragmatism. According to legend, Alexander the Great had ridden to the ancient city of Phrygia to winter there before his next campaign. As was customary, Alexander had made his first stop at the city’s pagan temple where upon arrival the priests guarding the temple had presented him with a nearly impossible task – untying the famed Gordian knot.  A thousand men had attempted to untie the Gordian knot before Alexander, and a thousand men had failed miserably. According to Phrygian legend, it was said whoever untied the Gordian knot would rule the world over. Alexander the Great had stared at the knot for a while, and then, almost instinctively, swung his sword and sliced the knot in half, exposing its ends while around him men stood in astonishment at the peculiarity of his solution of the Gordian Knot. The Phrygian myth indeed lived to its promise as Alexander the Great conquered and subsequently ruled all of Asia after that fateful day. Thus, the Alexandrian Solution – or the notion of quite simply ‘thinking outside the box’ – was born; problems previously thought to be without solutions suddenly had a million possibilities. Alexander the Great’s skewed way of solving problems had set precedence for a new school of thought, one which sought to cut the problem in half and nip the cause in the bud. The most notable of these is farming systems research (FSR). The FAO defines farming systems research as, “a diagnostic process, providing a collection of methods for researchers to understand farm households and their decision-making. Its applications use this understanding to increase efficiency in the use of human and budgetary resources for agricultural development, including research, extension and policy formulation.”

Earlier in the week we were privileged to host Professor Hans Schiere from Wageningen University in the Netherlands; a remarkable scholar whose brilliance is matched only by his Alexander the Great-esque approach to complex agricultural problems. Professor Schiere’s message was clear and succinct: Problems are not always as complicated as they may appear. Sometimes the solution calls for stepping outside the conventional belt and slicing the problem in half. He also cautioned that, because of the complex nature of agriculture, this radical method to problem-solving would certainly be impossible without looking at the problem as a whole in lieu of separate individual components. One simply cannot study the human anatomy by looking at individual cells at a time, Professor Schiere argued. A more practical example is ’13.’ Alone, it’s difficult to determine whether it’s the number ‘13’ or the letter ‘B’ (presumably drawn by a toddler). When it is written in the sequence: 12, 13, 14 – we can say with absolution that it is indeed the number 13.  However, substituting the sequence to the following: A13S – the context suddenly changes, spelling out that fantastic braking system inherent in most modern cars (read: ABS). Coming back to my Alexander the Great illustration. It would’ve been incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for Alexander the Great to untie the Gordian knot had he narrowed his attention down to the individual threads that kept the knot together. However, through a holistic and not reductionist approach, it had been much easier for Alexander to find a solution and put an end to the Gordian riddle.

The intricate nature of the agricultural industry is a feature that not only sets it apart from other industries, but also means it is saturated with technical, financial, institutional, socio-political, as well as cultural problems that often leave managers and policy makers in the dark with regard to formulating intelligent solutions. The risk and uncertainty that come as standard terms and conditions of endeavouring in agriculture certainly need farmers to be flexible in their decision-making; quickly adapting to unforeseen circumstances by taking their minds out of the barn to ensure the sustainable growth and development of agricultural systems.

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Houston, I think we’ve got a drone

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Drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have been commercially available since the 1980s, though their presence was strictly restricted to certain industries such as film and geographical information systems. The past five years have witnessed the drone industry transform from a relatively insignificant niche in the toy section of many retail stores to a multi-billion dollar one with revenue sales rivaling those of computer manufacturers. The almost sudden popularity of drones can be credited to their vast array of uses, including film, construction, science, household espionage, the military, package delivery, and more recently – and might I add importantly – agriculture. Drone technology has flown right into agriculture, essentially improving crop health, water efficiency, fertilizer application, field irrigation, as well as crop field monitoring.

The following is just a few ways drones could substantially improve farming while advancing South Africa’s competitive edge in the international trade of agricultural commodities.

  • Crop Health – Crop quality is the most pivotal determinant of competitiveness next to retail price. The value of any crop is a function of its health and quality. According to the Environmental Defence Fund, drone technology is very useful in this regard in that drones equipped with sensors can collect plant height measurements by gathering range information from the plant canopy and the ground below. This in turn aids in creating vegetation index images, indicating which plants are healthy and absorbing maximum sunlight by measuring near infrared wavelengths through a multispectral sensor.
  • Fertilizer application – High-tech drones with satellite mapping and sensors that absorb near-infrared wavelengths have the capacity to show where phosphorous and nitrogen are needed, or where there is an excess of such nutrients. This means nutrients can be applied where they are needed the most with absolute precision, helping to increase production efficiency and ultimately yield.
  • Natural resource preservation – Agricultural drones have thermal cameras that are able to distinguish well-irrigated regions from dry patches. This could help farmers with adjusting field irrigation accordingly while saving a fortune on water costs, particularly in South Africa where water is a tremendously scarce resource.
  • Crop field monitoring – Crop field monitoring can be quite costly and time-consuming, especially when done the primitive way, which is to say on foot or by a tractor. Drones are a relief in this regard because of their ability to survey fields and immediately provide feedback which helps farmers to take quick decisions about potential hazards such as disease outbreaks. In addition, drones also help in identifying areas of the farm, such as fencing, that need maintenance.

Agriculture is a dynamic and enormously uncertain industry with resources, both natural and man-made, at a bare minimum. Drones however limit the inherent risks associated with agriculture by instantly providing farmers with aerial vegetation index images that aid in curbing wasteful resource administration while simultaneously increasing efficiency and aggregate yield.