“In Latin America, farmers want to invest in technology that could improve yield.”
The avocados in your fridge most likely come from Mexico, and the coffee you drink in the morning, from Colombia or Ecuador. Latin America is one of the leading players in global agriculture, which invites the question “what does farming look like there?” We posed this question to Chilean-born expert Ignacio Salgado, with more than 15 years of experience working for both local and international companies.
1997–2004 — Studied at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso for an agriculture engineer. Worked with a research team of scientists who studied tsunami impact in Chile using geographic information systems (GIS).
2000–2007 — Owned a consulting company that designed and installed irrigation and drainage equipment.
2008–2009 — Worked for a winery Viña Concha y Toro in Chile, then got a job at a soil sampling company MISS and moved to the Midwest United States.
2009–2012 — Got a job at a research station at Monsanto as an agronomy lead and he oversaw every process of growing corn.
2012–2017 — Joined DuPont Pioneer and moved to northern Chile where he grew corn in the desert.
2017 — Started his own consulting company and consulted a small startup. Developed some smart applications for avocado and grapefruit orchards.
2019 — Worked with Bayer Crop Science, Germany. Was involved in southern Germany corn breeding program.
Farming in Latin America
— Could you tell us more about farming in the South American countries you worked with? What are the main crops there? What are some unique regional attributes?
— I mostly worked with row crops, such as corn, soya bean, and wheat, while many countries in South America are famous for fruit tree orchards. For example, in Chile, the main crop is table grapes. They also grow avocados, oranges, lemons, and much more. Big companies have very large fields, hectares of crops, and they primarily aim to export their produce, which is what not-so-big farmers do, as well. It is very common to see small farmers that grow blueberries or raspberries, for example, handpick their harvest directly to the package that you’d see at a store in North America, Europe, or China. Meanwhile, farms that grow row crops are usually pretty small.
In Latin America, farmers are willing to spend money on technology, better irrigation systems, and consultants to advance their farming.
Row crop farms aren’t a big business in Peru, either. The country specializes in growing fruits: farmers grow avocados, grapefruit, and now they even harvest blueberries. It’s a very attractive market nowadays. Today, the country grows them at the rate that Chile grew them 10 years ago, but it’s rapidly accelerating. Peru is a very attractive market for investors from all over the world today. That’s why farmers are willing to spend money on technology, better irrigation systems, and consultants to advance their farming.
In Brazil, the biggest crop is soybeans, but orchards are also very common there. They grow a lot of oranges, which is why orange juice often comes from Brazil. Argentina also specializes in growing row crops. They have more than 30 million hectares in use for row crops, mainly soybeans and wheat. That’s why all the big science companies that study row crops are very well developed in Argentina. Mexico is also big in row crops. They actively breed corn, so they grow many different varieties of it. Mexico is famous for avocados, too.
— What kind of commercial agricultural enterprises prevail there in terms of size?
— There are lots of small farms, as well as many big farms that own between 200 and 1,200 hectares of land. This is the scenario that you see in Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. But, in Ecuador and Colombia, for example, there are a lot of small coffee farms that grow a specific type of coffee beans in a small amount, and it’s all handpicked. Small farms in South America often turn into really hi-tech ones. For example, they use greenhouses to grow lettuce and other hydroponic crops, which makes it possible to use water and other resources more efficiently.
It is important because water scarcity is a major challenge for farming in South America these days. Farmers need to figure out how to grow crops with very poor water supply. Ten years ago, some farmers had to just let their crops die because of drought. Local research programs have been investing lots of effort in developing new varieties that require less water.
Water scarcity is a major challenge for farming in South America these days.
— What are the other challenges?
— I think the next challenge for agriculture in Latin America is the workforce. Local farmers usually hire a lot of people to do work for them, but now it’s becoming more and more difficult to afford many workers. Labor is becoming more expensive, which is a major trend seen around the world. Another big issue for South America is logistics. For example, it takes at least 20 days to deliver berries from Chile to China by ship. The southern part of South America is very remote, so imagine how hard it is to transport fresh produce from there.
Farming technology in Latin America
— How technologically advanced are farms in Latin America? What kinds of technology are most common there?
— Farmers strive to export their produce, so the majority of them are willing to invest in technology that could improve yield. Precision irrigation systems are widespread. These are irrigation systems that are connected to a weather station. They make decisions about when and how to water plants based on real-time information. Some farmers also use soil moisture sensors, while some use sensors connected to crops to measure overall plant growth or fruit development.
Equipment and machines with onboard computers aren’t commonly used because they’re too expensive for the average farmer. Not so many farmers own drones, which are usually piloted by startups and agricultural companies. Plus, the berries market is very well-developed and progressing quite well in South America. I also know of berry-picking robots that harvest wine grapes.
— The previous two decades have shown considerable growth in agricultural production in Latin America. What factors are fostering the steady growth, in your opinion?
— In terms of food demand, the world will never be satisfied. In terms of land, there is still a lot of free land to use in Latin America. But one of the main reasons for the growth in agricultural production, I think, is that new markets are opening up, especially China. The opportunity to export to new big markets is stimulating agriculture in South America.
For example, avocados were not a fruit easily found in Europe ten years ago, but now every store sells them. And Chile is the third-largest avocado producer in the world and is continuing to grow in this crop. I don’t know when this is going to end, but I know that there are still many more markets to be discovered and penetrated. At the same time, technical improvements in agriculture and the appearance of new varieties are also definitely contributing to increased production.
— Does this also mean that the productivity of farming has increased?
— Yes! 15 years ago, farmers got an average of 15–17 tons of avocados from one hectare of land. Nowadays, they can yield an average of 23 tons from the same land. Farmers’ incomes have also grown due to improved yields, but I can’t say that this made agriculture more popular.
— You recently moved to South Germany. Does farming there differ much from what it’s like in Latin America?
— Based on my personal experience, farming in Germany is more labor-intensive. Here, a farmer does a lot by himself, while in Latin America, there’s still this vision of having many workers do the job for you. I thought that farming in Germany was going to be very technologically advanced, but, in this regard, farmers here and in Latin America are very similar. They do what they do because this is how their fathers and grandfathers farmed from time immemorial. They stick to their legacy. This is particularly the case in South Germany where I live now.
OneSoil and the future of precision agriculture
— How can you compare the development of precision agriculture from when you just started working in this area to the situation today? Has the industry made significant progress since then?
— Yes, definitely. Hi-tech goes faster than mankind, so significant progress has been made. For example, 15 years ago, you had to have a special computer to process a satellite image. Nowadays, you can open it on your smartphone. 15 years ago, you couldn’t have real-time information. Nowadays, it’s freely available.
— What are the main obstacles to the wider use of such technology among farmers?
— One of the problems I see is a lack of understanding among farmers as to how they can benefit from these technologies. Companies often come to a farmer and offer to map his field, or shoot images with drones, etc. But farmers get the data and then what? What are they supposed to do with it?
The ideal app should answer the big question “Is my crop doing well?”
We already have a bunch of tools and technologies for precision agriculture, but we don’t have a single application that would help farmers to make decisions. Farmers usually think of the worst-case scenario for their crops. They are afraid to lose everything because of a drought, cold weather, or something else. The ideal app should answer the big question “Is my crop doing well?”
— That sounds very much like what we’re trying to do at OneSoil: to make farmers’ lives easier with a single app. Tell us, how did you find out about OneSoil?
— When I was searching the internet for precision agriculture companies, OneSoil popped up. I think OneSoil app has so much potential. A farmer can be home watching TV, but he’ll still know how his field is doing. This makes decision-making for farmers much easier.
— What is the future of precision farming? Do you think that every farm will be a “precision farm” in the future?
— I would say so, but if we keep adopting technology at the same pace, this won’t happen soon. I think that the future of precision agriculture will be driven by data, not machinery. It requires mental work: we need to spend more neurons and time figuring out how to put information together, manage data, and then come up with more technology that can predict the future for farmers. It isn’t machines that will transform agriculture — it’s data.