Farmers—and Portuguese farmers in particular—face a long list of challenges, from global threats such as desertification and population pressure to local issues such as low soil fertility and the changing Mediterranean climate.
Despite all this, Professor Ricardo Braga at the School of Agriculture of the University of Lisbon, an expert in precision agriculture, finds reasons to be optimistic about the future. He attributes his optimism to the technological advances that Portuguese farming has seen in recent years.
Many threats to agriculture are beyond the control of the individual. Some seem insurmountable even collectively. However, some problems remain solvable at the farm level—and new technologies can help.
“If you’re a farmer, the most important thing you can do is to manage your farm correctly and optimize your production system,” Braga says. “If you do that—if you can produce more with fewer resources and materials, at a lower cost, and while polluting less—you will be in a stronger position and better shielded from some of these constraints.”
There are many challenges Braga believes Portuguese farmers can meet with the help of farm tech. Here are three.
Portugal relies on large numbers of foreign workers to grow specialty crops, whose production is not yet fully mechanized. There simply aren’t enough Portuguese workers available for farming’s most labor-intensive tasks.
The labor shortage is exacerbated by demographic trends affecting agriculture: today’s farmers are aging, and younger generations have less interest in jobs related to food production.
Farm technology could mitigate both trends by enabling growers to produce as much or more yield with less labor. For example, growers working with Ceres Imaging can use aerial data—instead of visual inspection—to detect irrigation issues.
Labor-saving technology can also help older farmers remain active in the field for longer by reducing the physical effort required for some tasks. At the same time, Braga believes modernized agriculture could prove more appealing to young people, who are particularly interested in technological innovation.
Across Europe, the term “agri-bashing” has come to describe the public’s negative perception of farming. Critics accuse farmers of being greedy and of indifference to the environmental sustainability of their operations—for example, by using pesticides indiscriminately. The negative perception is discouraging for farm workers and can affect productivity—some have even faced physical violence and demonstrations on their farms.
Braga thinks farm technology can begin to close the gap between public perception of farming and the reality that farmers are also passionate environmental stewards. “A lot of farmers have a hard time coming up with incontrovertible proof that they aren’t polluters,” Braga says. “If we have sensors, records that make it possible to track and demonstrate—with evidence—that, in fact, we aren’t polluting or using too much water, this process becomes much more transparent.”
When it comes to this type of accounting, Ceres customers have the advantage of crop data at the individual plant level. This level of precision makes it possible to more precisely track, measure, and compare the results of various sustainability practices.
Farmers in Portugal contend with huge swings in temperature in short periods of time, as well as periods of severe drought. As the effects of climate change become more apparent, experts expect to see Mediterranean climate extremes become even more dramatic and less predictable.
Farmers can’t change the climate, but Braga believes they can adapt to it—with the help of farm data. Sensors that measure crop health indicators and provide real-time reports allow farmers to respond quickly to changing conditions and make more strategic decisions about irrigation, fertilization, and other practices critical to protecting yield.
This type of timely response isn’t hypothetical: the technologies that allow it are already available in Portugal, and at an increasingly accessible cost.
Advice for investing in farm technology
Though Braga believes in the potential of farm tech adoption to benefit Portuguese agriculture, he stresses that simply having more data about crop health is not enough. Investing in the resources to understand and interpret the findings is key to results.
“The first step is to get the data,” Braga says. “Depending on the crop, this can be done in a number of ways. And then the second step, if their operation is not sufficiently well-staffed for this task, is to find consultants and organizations that can help them interpret what’s there and [guide them on] what they have to do next.
In addition to helping growers uncover hidden issues and opportunities on their farms, Ceres provides expert support and one-on-one advice for implementing changes in the field.
“Ultimately, it’s not enough to just look at the technology. You have to look at the technology, but also at what you’re going to do with it,” Braga says.