Edgard Bressani looked to the sky to make the most of his farm.
Using satellites and a geographical information system (GIS) supplied by Geopanta - Agricultura de Precisão (Precision Agriculture), Bressani, c.e.o. of O’Coffee - Brazilian Estates and the Octavio Café coffee chain, has continuously monitored almost 3,000 acres of coffee farms during the past four harvests.
When he took the c.e.o. position his initial goal was to better understand the soil conditions of O’Coffee farms in Alta Mogiana, Brazil, but results went far beyond his expectations. “Now, we have better productivity and costs reduced by avoiding the unnecessary application of fertilizers,” said Bressani. This tool allows us to better understand which areas need attention (water, soil correction, and/or fertilizers). With this detailed information, “we can register a drop of up to 30% in our production costs in extreme cases,” he said.
Geospatial farming is not new in Brazil. But it is usually used for crops that have faster cycles such as soy, explains Felipe de Araújo Lopes, a specialist with Geoplanta, located in Barretos, Brazil.
“This technology is pretty new in coffee production, though, because the results take longer to be registered. Considering this is a perennial culture, the producer can see the real change in medium and long terms,” he explains.
The initial survey established a digital topographic database of one hectare grids visible in software on the company’s desktop computers. GIS field computers (consisting of a geo receiver and geo-imaging sensor) are also mounted on a tractor and aligned via GPS (global positioning satellite) coordinates from satellites.
The power of GIS is that it can relate unrelated information by using location as the key index variable. This “location intelligence” is stored in a relational database and ultimately tied to a “real” physical location where soil and leaf samples have been analyzed and recorded. This key characteristic of GIS generates insights into the soil and the precise nutritional needs of the coffee.
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Growers learn which fields need attention to make better use of labor and resources.
“Our goal since the beginning was optimizing the use of inputs. This is a smarter way to manage the crop because in the past we used too much fertilizer and water in areas that weren’t actually in need,” said Bressani.
Tractors equipped with a high precision dispenser are monitored in real time. The amount of fertilizer or pellets dispensed is automatically determined by the position of the tractor according to the needs of the plants. The tractor proceeds at the same speed but when it reaches an area with a needy soil, the dispenser rotates faster applying more inputs. Tractor drivers need only keep between the rows.
Soil sample locations projected on a Google Earth image of the O’Coffee Estates
O’Coffee has mapped its six coffee farms and a total of 2,965 acres (1,200 hectares) in the city of Pedregulho where they are located in the state of São Paulo.
Most farmers in the region produce naturally-tree-dried coffees, but O’Coffee exports 20 different taste profiles plus several microlots every year since its estates are devoted not only to natural coffee production, but also to pulped natural, demucilaged, fully washed coffees and blends in a passionate pursuit for coffee excellence.
Identifying which trees bear the most fruit, which hillsides are too wet or dry and the rate at which specific cultivars are depleting the soil has led to gains in overall productivity, reaching in a four year cycle an average of 40 bags per hectare, said Bressani.
O’Coffee believes in the use of technology including drones (to check for dead trees). Other gadgets can be adopted to monitor the efficient use of tractors and other equipment along with other electronic tools that keep an eye on the fields.
Geoplanta has not yet adapted the technology to address plagues and disease control. “We are working on that too, but our experience shows that farmers are not ready for this kind of tool yet,” explains Lopes.