Freeman Cebu Business

Indoor & smart farms: The ways to go

FULL DISCLOSURE - Fidel Abalos - The Freeman

In all respects, numbers don’t lie. These numbers include those relating to the sectoral contributions to our economy (as measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product or GDP) and the labor forces that respectively delivered them. 

Looking intently at these numbers, the agriculture sector remained disappointing. In recent years, we saw the rise of the service sector and the fall of the agriculture sector. To recall, in just a few years, we saw the drop of the agriculture sector from a contribution to our GDP of around 10% down to a little over 7% two years ago. Adding to such woes, the labor force in the same sector went down from what used to be in the vicinity of 30% to just 26%. 

This reduction in the labor force should have been better if this was due to modernization or mechanization of the country’s agriculture. Apparently, however, it is not, as the contribution of the sector to our economy went down to just a little over 7%. If there is one obvious reason, it is due primarily to rural exodus. It simply means, farmers or farmworkers left their farms and tried their luck in highly urbanized areas. The main reason, abject poverty.

Still, whether or not there is rural exodus, these figures reveal the obvious. That with 26% of the country’s labor force in agriculture and just contributing 7% to GDP, this sector is downright inefficient. Consequently, we are resorting to importation of agricultural produce like rice, corn, spices, etc. 

When compared to other countries like the USA, the discrepancies are obvious. Its agriculture sector’s contribution to GDP is .9% but only employs 1% of its labor force. Notably, not only that this sector supports USA’s food manufacturers, it also exports some of their farm produce.  

Good news for this sector, it is getting more support from investors. Known to have biases for tech companies, venture capitalists (VCs), according to a new study by Finistere Ventures, poured in a record US$22.3 billion in the food and agriculture start-ups last year.

These investments were poured in not just out of impulse. Just like what we saw and experienced in the country, VCs (in the USA) saw how the pandemic disrupted the normal production, processing and distribution of food. While farmers had to dump or throw away some of their produce that they couldn’t ship or store, moneyed shoppers were emptying grocery stores and hoard supplies in their homes. 

Recognizing these predicaments, according to Finistere Ventures, there is now a growing interest among VCs in ag- tech like “growing food in controlled environments, such as vertical farms, where yields are predictable.” These indoor farms are often “built closer to the urban centers where much of the produce they grow will be consumed.” Consequently, ag-tech companies were able to “raise around US$5 billion across 416 deals in 2020.”

Cebu can easily replicate this.  Probably, on a smaller scale than that of the USA. With a growing metropolis, indoor farming (done mostly for vegetables) is certainly viable.

What about outdoor farming? A smart farm is the answer. According to Meghan Brown of Engineering.com, “smart farming and precision agriculture involve the integration of advanced technologies into existing farming practices in order to increase production efficiency and the quality of agricultural products.” In simple terms, “drones monitor and spray pesticides from above; automated tractors till the soil; AI-powered drip irrigation systems feed crops; and agrobots (agricultural robots) harvest them.” Consequently, she continued, “they also improve the quality of life for farm workers by reducing heavy labor and tedious tasks.”

Obviously, unlike indoor farming, this approach is difficult to replicate completely. But we can have a few of them. A drone and a drip irrigation system may be considered.  Obviously, this is not affordable for small farmers who are mostly agrarian reform beneficiaries. However, this is where the government should come in. Even if not AI driven, a drip irrigation system (also called water diet) can come as a support to these farmers. 

Moreover, through the Department of Agriculture (DA), the government can buy drones and operate them to spray pesticides to clustered farms of agrarian reform beneficiaries at reasonable fees to make the approach sustainable. Though not entirely smart farming, yields will certainly increase.

Then, the government must complement this by building “farm-to-market” roads and hire the excess farm hands (excess labor due to automation) to work on these projects. This way, all of them are productive

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