“If OneSoil were available in Africa when I worked there, I would have been 10 times more effective.” Agricultural consultant Francisco Castanheira
How does geography influence technology, and what does agronomy look like in different parts of the world? Why is it awesome to be a farmer, and how can technology help with farming? There is an interview with Portugal-based agricultural consultant and OneSoil Scouting app user Francisco Castanheira.
About childhood, work experience in Africa and who should never be a farmer
— How did you come to the Ag sector? Is anyone else from your family involved in this area?
— I’ve always been passionate about the outdoors. Nature and the wild have always been my preferred places to be and to explore. There was a small step from that appreciation of nature to going to agronomy university, and that step was inspired by my grandfather, Francisco. I can still remember the lovely smell and sweet taste of the peaches that he brought home from the fields in the summer when I would stuff my belly with all kinds of sweet fruits from the farm that he oversaw.
Around the time I was finishing my studies at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon, I dreamed of going to Africa. After my first field experience in southern Angola, I immediately accepted a job to work at Grupo João Ferreira dos Santos (JFS) with smallholders. It’s a business that expands trade and invests simultaneously in agriculture, livestock, and navigation.
Those were some of the best days of my life. I was going miles and miles to the poor and lost interior of Mozambique to help rural families. They were struggling to achieve higher yields on their small plots of land where they grew maize and manioc for subsistence and some income. If only OneSoil Scouting were available then, I would have been 10 times more effective in helping those families. An app like OneSoil can be very good for teams who support African families because they can supervise fields without traveling many kilometers. African roads are terrible, and distances are very long — 500 km from one road to another. With technology, you can be more objective.
Then I started to realize that there are two types of farmers in the world — the ones that live to farm and the ones that have to farm to live! I stayed in Mozambique for two and a half years and then shifted to Brazil to see the other side of the coin — a powerful, booming agricultural sector that even had TV channels 100% dedicated to cattle and farming. I was shocked once when one of the tenants of the 12,000-hectare farm that I was taking care of decided to leave his crop in the field because the price of beans wouldn’t be worth the effort! I compared this to the families in Mozambique that had to scrub and dig for roots to survive.
Then I started to realize that there are two types of farmers in the world — the ones that live to farm and the ones that have to farm to live!
But as I was travelling back to Portugal, I understood that I couldn’t give up on agronomy and decided to give it another shot, looking at the Alqueva region in south-central Portugal. A place with everything to grow crops except water, until it was provided by agro-engineers. By building a dam, so great that it created one of the largest artificial lakes in Europe, with enough water to irrigate 150,000 hectares — the Alqueva region was born!
— Who should never be a farmer? What kind of people: probably, those who are lazy or uneducated? And why?
— As for me, a farmer should be very adaptable, resilient, and tenacious. He has to endure all types of climate as it’s becoming harsher and harsher! Nowadays, in addition to being an outdoor lover, a farmer should also be a tech lover, as farming is becoming an increasingly hi-tech activity. It would be great if people realized how difficult it is to turn farming into a viable economic activity.
About the geographical and tech specifics of the farm culture in Portugal
— You have been in agronomy for more than 20 years. What has changed during this time? In the sphere you’ve worked in, in technology, in the land, in relationships?
— Over the past 20 years, a revolution has really occurred in the cultivation of olives and fruits. In the early 1990s, taking care of an olive grove was made almost like it was in Ancient Greece, with big trees, hand trimming the canopy every 3 years using a saw, and hand-picking fruits with sticks and sheets on the floor. We now have different hardware and software, including harvesting machinery, variable rate technology, soil and NDVI mapping, and big data to predict fungus or insect attacks.
Thanks to these technologies, everyone can start to think about applying precision farming techniques. The first booster was the mechanized harvesting helped by drip ferti-irrigation. That’s allowed larger areas to be planted by a single entrepreneur. The mechanized harvesting operation in Portugal reduced costs from 0.1€/kg to 0.02€/kg and also reduced labor dependency ten-fold.
— What are the nuances of your work in Portugal? Do you have your own farm?
The subprime crisis in 2009 made people and companies look around to find new business areas! Portugal is seeing a very good business decade. Even a lot of Spanish entrepreneurs were attracted to it. What Portugal lacked was dynamics in agribusiness, and now it has that! The fervor has spread from the north to the south of Portugal with several crops like cannabis, almonds, and avocados. I believe that, in a few years, Portugal will be the country that can produce more kilos of olive oil per hectare.
As for my farm, I have a small garden where I plan to plant olive trees.
— What do farmers spend the most money on?
— There is no doubt that the biggest expenses are directly related to weather conditions. After all, it is the one great aspect that farmers can’t control. Water scarcity and its proper management is also an important factor.
There is no doubt that the biggest losses for farmers are directly related to weather conditions.
— Do you have government support? How is the government helping or not helping farmers?
— Yes, there are European funds and European policies that support farming investments. 99% of farming in Portugal is private. Did you hear about the program PDR 2020 (Rural development program for Portugal — OneSoil)? Most European countries have it. Initiatives like these support farming and each country’s government must participate. You can get a lot of benefits from the young farmer payment, or YFP (Support program for young farmers — OneSoil).
About technology, the OneSoil Scouting app, and the future of farming
— How did you find out about OneSoil and which function won you over?
— I found out about OneSoil while talking to a Portuguese farmer (an agronomic engineer) from the maize sector that is very fond of precision technologies applied to farming. OneSoil is cool because it helps farmers to achieve the highest yields possible in each hectare of their farms — not that the whole farm needs to produce equally. Because soils, the main support of our crops, vary in acidity, texture, and many other characteristics. It’s not possible to obtain the maximum everywhere!
Your app is one of the ‘new technologies’ that are used all around the world as long as there are smartphones and internet available. OneSoil can be used by both the mega-company that bottles the most exquisite champagne in the world and the smallholder that uses his hands and knows how to sow his fields. In Portugal, for example, we have many types of soils. That’s a big problem for further land management. I must do it right all from the first time as a good agronomist.
✋ Read more about Francisco’s experience with OneSoil in this article
OneSoil helps me define zones of different soil types. I use NDVI images to understand that. The way the crop develops depends on the type of soil. In zones with poor soil, vegetation would grow less quickly and be less abundant than in zones with good soil. These differences generate different NDVI values. With this information, I can go directly to the zones with different soils and collect soil samples. With lab info on soils, I can properly manage irrigation sectors and variable rate fertilizer application.
OneSoil is cool because it helps farmers to achieve the highest yields possible in each hectare of their farms — not that the whole farm needs to produce equally.
— Is agronomy now a promising area? Why?
— Yes, it is! The problem of food security turned it into one! And so much technology is being invented for the agriculture sector, but it’s so difficult to be sustainable. Let’s just clarify that ‘sustainable’ isn’t just equal to ‘green’! It’s very difficult to get a solution that is good for everybody: for the government, for people, and for entrepreneurs.
— If you will imagine an agronomist in the 22nd century, what would he look like? Can we grow potatoes on Mars, like in the movie The Martian?
— Exactly! While farming on planet Earth will be totally robotized. Our need for food will require us to put farms in space! Space modules orbiting our planet will be used to grow food and will also be service stations for those travelling through our galaxy!
— Is farming possible with only robots? Can it survive without manual labor?
— That’s a tricky question, but I believe that it can be possible, although I don’t want it to happen. In modern olive groves, manual labor was reduced by approximately 70 to 80%. When self-driving vehicles are developed, it will boil down to product handling and technical supervision, consultation, and management! Even technical supervision can be severely reduced with the use of sensors and data loggers. But if we work only with robots, not humans, rural areas will be deserted.