Smart Agriculture

Farming Goes High Tech

2018 / August

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

“At midday, sweat drips o’er the soil.” So goes a traditional description of farming.

But in today’s countryside, drones spread fertilizer and pesticides on humans’ behalf. Machines are “more precise than people,” and they help to conserve resources. Take, for instance, the drip irrigation system at the ­Neipu Tea Plantation in Ping­tung, which automatically turns on at night, saving electricity and water. Or consider the vertical farming performed at the Yes­Health ­iFarm in Tao­yuan. Un­affected by wind, rain or scorching sun, it overcomes the traditional ­farmer’s subjugation to Mother Nature’s whims. With an emphasis on “smart agricultural production and the digitization of production, marketing and services,” smart agriculture is transforming the ancient profession of farming into a high-tech modern industry.


“Now flying at height 1.5 meters, advancing at three meters per second. Ready! Spray!” At the side of a rice paddy, a drone operator is controlling a drone remotely to spray pesticide.

The “pilot” is Wu ­­Junyi, a research assistant at the Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute (TARI). He explains that it would take a farmer at least three hours to apply pesticides by hand to a hectare of rice paddy, whether he used long hoses or carried a tank of pesticide on his back. On the other hand, a drone—or “plant protection machine”—can do the work as it circles above in about 30 minutes. 

Drones save manpower and pesticides

After finishing this job, the drone is going to a pitaya orchard to spread fertilizer. There 1,000 square meters can be finished in under five minutes. The young farmer Anderson Lin has offered his paddy fields and fruit trees to TARI for testing. Four years ago, he ended his public relations career in Tai­pei and returned to the countryside to plant paddy rice, loofah and pitaya.

He explains: “With my father getting up in age, no one was around to do the farm work, so I came back to take over. Farming is hard work by its nature, and I don’t mind the blood, sweat and tears. But the single task I hate most is applying pesticides, and having drones do it for me is safer and less time consuming.”

After checking the pesticide spraying densities recommended by TARI in Tai­chung and seeking spray formulations and quantities suitable for drones, they discovered that they could cut nine-tenths of the pesticides they had been using but still achieve effective pest control.

In 2013 Guo ­Horng-yuh, chief of the Division of Agricultural Chemistry at TARI, and his team, began researching the use of drones in “smart agriculture.” Drones can patrol fields, inspect damage caused by weather or pests, and spray fertilizer and pesticides. Currently his division is researching drone-based hyperspectral imaging to detect plant diseases. It’s like using artificial intelligence to identify people’s faces. With proper monitoring mechanisms, they should be able to calculate the extent and density of damage and come up with strategies in response.

Huang Yu-bing, an assistant entomologist at TARI’s Pesticide Research Lab, points out that climate change and invasive species are posing new pest and disease threats to crops. He urges farmers to upload photos of their fields demonstrating the damage. Thanks to Internet-of-Things apps and analysis by smart networks, warnings can be issued, and prevention and control measures can be taken.

Smart machinery, efficiency gains

Smart agriculture, as outlined under the Council of Agriculture’s Smart Agriculture 4.0 program, is based on a foundation of innovative technology that leads to applications drawing on the Internet of Things, big data and smart technology—all aimed at achieving innovations via smart production and management. At the same time, the program promotes Taiwan’s outstanding agricultural products to the world.

The ­Laopi tea plantation in Ping­tung County’s Neipu Township, in the shadow of Mt. Bei­dawu at the southern end of the Central Mountain Range, provides an outstanding example of how to employ smart-­agriculture technology.

The Taiwan Tea Corporation planted its first tea seedlings there in March of 2017. Today, Laopi has more than 200 hectares of flat land under cultivation, making it the largest tea plantation in Taiwan.

Steven Teng, a manager at TTC, points out that the ­Laopi plantation from the start introduced smart-­agriculture concepts involving the mechanization of production and the digitization of crop data.

Looking out at the endless vistas of tea fields, Teng says, “We’re winning by working fast.”

Amid the green foliage of the tea plantation, women workers are operating picking machines. Each of these vehicles can pick three hectares per day. In comparison, traditional teams of three or four pickers couldn’t pick even half a hectare.

Its NT$200-million drip irrigation system imported from Israel is particularly unusual. The drip irrigation hoses, which are installed under the tea bushes, have holes every 40 centimeters. Just turn on the pump and you can irrigate ten hectares of the plantation. Each hour the system pumps out one liter per hole, but the paths between the tea bushes don’t get a single drop. The system conserves 70% of the water that would be used by a traditional sprinkler system.

“The drip irrigation system not only saves water; it also saves on electricity costs and manpower,” notes Teng. “That’s because we set it to irrigate at night when off-peak electricity charges apply—an approach that also cuts down on daytime losses of water through evaporation. And we run fertilizer through the system as well as water, enabling us to achieve our goal of practicing precision agriculture.”

In addition to automating work in the fields, the ­Laopi plantation’s managers want to record and digitize the experience and knowledge gained by the plantation’s tea processors over 20 years, and then use big-data computer applications to adjust the amounts of tealeaf “withering” and “rolling” to be done after picking. These adjustments will allow for customization, yielding leaves that brew with different aromas, colors and tastes.

Taoyuan’s YesHealth iFarm boasts a fully controllable smart farm system. With 14 levels, this vertical farming facility has more levels than any other greenhouse in the world. Its artificially controlled temperature, humidity and airflow settings give it an ability to mimic natural micro­climates. Drawing on understanding of the “Backster effect,” the farm plays classical music at varying tempos to enhance plants’ absorption of nutrients. The vegetables in the greenhouse sway gently in the breeze as if dancing to the music.

Life changes after confronting death

“At first, we just wanted to grow vegetables for ourselves!” says Winston Tsai, president of YesHealth, about his motivation for founding the farm a decade ago. Doctors at two major hospitals had looked at the tumors in his liver and considered him a terminal case. “I almost burst into tears: At six I lost my father; at 13 I became an apprentice; at 21 I opened a business. My whole life I never slacked off. At 44, when the company I was leading had just been listed on the emerging stocks market, the doctors gave me a death sentence. Life was too unfair!” 

Speaking rapidly, Tsai tells of his original desire to plant vegetables. “Back then we were faced with a ban on organ donations from mainland China. Seeing that I would have a long time to wait for a liver, I began to try a naturo­pathic therapy that emphasizes a raw organic plant-based diet. Five months later I was healed without medicine.”   

Having approached death’s door, Tsai came to understand the injunction of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek sage regarded as the father of Western medicine: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.” Changing one’s diet is the first step toward healing oneself. Consequently, Tsai left his job as president of an optoelectronics firm and committed himself single-mindedly to producing fruit that had zero pesticide residue, zero contamination with the fecal bacterium E. coli, and low levels of nitrates and bacteria.

“When people have good intentions, Heaven will help,” avers Tsai. “It just so happened that Eddy Tao, the CEO of Novatec Yachts, who introduced naturo­pathy to me, ended up sitting next to Wang Wang Nang, a professor who had emigrated to Britain, on a flight back to Taiwan. The two ended up discussing some of the problems I was having growing vegetables.” Thanks to this fortuitous encounter, Tsai asked Wang for help, and Wang’s artificial sunlight and nanobubble technologies solved the issue of waterborne bacteria.   

Taiwan shines at smart farming

Some seeds themselves bear bacteria, causing vegetables to grow poorly if chemicals are not used. To better understand these issues, Tsai took classes in the Department of Plant Pathology at National ­Chung ­Hsing University. He also brought his R&D team there to get extra instruction from Professor Tsay Tung-­tsuan. Moved by Tsai’s good intentions, Tsay provided the farm with “antagonist” microbial strains with anti-insect properties.

Tsai explains that with the 48 strong strains that Tsay has developed, once the microorganisms are well established they can suppress the growth of pathogens. The anti-insect strains among them release an enzyme that degrades the chitin in insect exoskeletons and egg shells, achieving pest control. It thus becomes no longer necessary to use pesticides. The protective microbes are delivered to the plants together with liquid fertilizer by the irrigation system.

Tsai’s scientific approach employing computerized monitoring and big-data analysis have raised the farm’s productive capacity such that its 1,300 square meters now yields 1,600 kilos of vegetables per day.

What’s more, the farm’s 12-channel-spectrum LED lights, which make use of fluorescent powder coatings, can imitate sunlight—but without the infrared and ultraviolet light that can burn plants. The lighting, moreover, can be adjusted to suit different plants. For instance, by imitating fall and winter sunlight, the farm can grow crown daisy in summer. “We can replicate the conditions of any location,” says Tsai. As a result, investors from places that have long had to import vegetables—Canada, Denmark, and the UK—have come to Taiwan to negotiate investment partnerships.

With smart greenhouses such as these, it is possible to plant and harvest 365 days a year. That attribute underscores another goal of smart farming—to be able grow food quickly and in a manner that makes the most efficient use of land. A verdant and bountiful agricultural future beckons.

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