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Farm mechanization 2.0: are we there yet?

The answer is just about. With better machines, Farming-as-a-Service and
automation-based technologies, the scope of farm mechanization has
definitely moved ahead, but we’re still playing catch up to the western
world.

Given we are an agrarian economy, technology in agriculture is not novel. In fact, it’s been thriving since the Green Revolution introduced the quintessential farm vehicle and biggest step towards mechanization – tractors. As a matter of fact, as per PWC and FICCI, today, we are the largest tractor industry accounting for 1/3rd of global production.

Yet the entire farming sector still faces colossal challenges. The yield is low, the labor is scarce, and the pressure on land is enormous, to name a few. These shortcomings have brought swelling recognition that innovation in farming has become critical, more than ever before.

Fortuitously, Indian agriculture and allied sectors are waking up to this fact and are on the verge of adopting new technologies.  

What does the next leg of farm mechanization look like?

Custom Hiring Centres

The high cost of equipment ownership has always been a key impediment to the adoption of farm machinery. It is why government-run custom hiring centers (CHC) are one of the essential drivers fuelling mechanization in farming.

CHCs allow collective buying and leasing of both basic and big-ticket purchases. They rent not only minimum needed equipment like cultivators, rotavators, and seed drills but also high-end agriculture gear like those aiding in-situ management of crop residue, at a fraction of the cost.

Presently, the total number of CHCs have crossed 38,000. Together, they rent out 2.5 lakh pieces of farm equipment annually. According to PIB, 2300 Custom Hiring Centres were established in 2019-20, distributing 1,44,113 machineries.

Farming-as-a-Service

Low investment appetite coupled with small and fragmented landholdings is another cause for poor offtake of farm machines in India. Unwittingly, it has helped Farming-as-a-Service (FaaS) gain momentum. These ‘Uber’ for farm equipment companies, like EM3 AgriServices and Trringo, bridge the gap between the need for specialist equipment and the capital necessary to attain it. They link owners of farming paraphernalia with those who need mechanization services to create a win-win situation. The renter gains additional revenue, and the rentee gets to use tractors and other quality mechanical implements on a pay-per-use basis.

UDP Machines

With the rise in pollution due to excessive use of chemical fertilizer and nutritional losses, Urea Deep Placement (UDP) machines have caused a momentous spurt in farm mechanization.

UDP tools, like Distinct Horizon’s Vriddhi, can be integrated with tractors and power-tillers, to place fertilizers deep into the soil. The mechanization reduces dependence on chemical inputs by 30 to 40%, lowers adverse environmental impact, and increases crop yield.

Post-Harvest Automation

Packaging, handling, transporting, and storing of post-harvest produce is a constant pain point in the agriculture industry. Though still in the initial stages, AI-enabled machinery is partly solving this issue for packhouses and steering packaging towards higher productivity and improved accuracy.

Some of the largest apple businesses in India have already commenced investing heavily in sorting, grading, and packaging automation because the tech is programmed to act as intelligently as humans.

Putting the lens on the current scenario, one engendered by COVID-19, it’s clear that the pandemic acted like a catalyst for farm mechanization. Punjab and Haryana governments rolled out strategies and facilitated the supply of advanced machinery like paddy transplanters and Direct Sowing Rice machines.

The augmentation of farm mechanization is in the hope to offer a soupçon of aid to over 2 million farmers who are now left with a severely limited labor force due to distorted migration.

Turning the corner to a new era of farming

Farm mechanization is poised at an inflection point in India. But have a glimpse at the latest technologies used in the western world and it’s apparent that we still have a ways to go.

Hands-free farming

The UK has planted, maintained, and harvested barley, without a single human stepping on to the farmland, under the Hands-Free Hectare project. The crop was cultivated using completely autonomous machinery without an operator in the driving seat or agronomists on the ground. They successfully repeated the project with a wheat crop and now plan to grow three different crops across 35 hectares.

Robots

The US has moved on to robots like FarmBot that give a grower the power to manage farming from anywhere. Its drag-and-drop interface allows the mapping of crops and building a sequence of farming actions that the automated hardware then performs. The FarmBot effectively fills the labor gap because a single machine acts as the seed injector, precision watering nozzle, soil sensor, weeder, and more.

Tortuga Agtech’s strawberry harvesting robot is another powerful example of farm mechanization. It has surpassed one of the biggest design challenges in agtech – damage to fruit or vegetable while picking. The robot can not only identify and evaluate if a fruit is ripe enough to be picked but also harvest them without any bruising. 

Envisioning future farms of India

When compared to its global competitors in the agri-space, the level of farm mechanization in India is qualitatively low, but we are on the right track. Tracking mechanization through farm power availability per unit area demonstrates it has improved. It’s the speed, however, that’s a tad slow.

The government allocated INR 600 crore for farm mechanization and policies that offer rebates and incentives to FPOs will be instrumental in greater penetration of farm mechanization in the coming year.

Blend these officially chalked out plans with the agri-tech ecosystem, which is nearly 500+ start-ups strong, steadily India is progressing towards truly smart farms.

Note – This article was originally featured on Agrospectrumindia.