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This data-driven banana farm in Australia is embracing climate-friendly agriculture

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(Hitachi Vantara)

Decades of firsthand experience have taught Gavin Devaney what is and what isn’t in his control when it comes to the success of his banana farm. Devaney’s Bartle Frere Bananas — like any farm across the globe — is subject to hard-to-predict and changing weather patterns, as well as the inevitable price fluctuations that result from supply-and-demand market forces.

Given all that is beyond his influence, it’s understandable that Devaney, a second-generation farmer in North Queensland, Australia, spends most of his time focused on what he can directly impact. The only thing we have control over is our costs,” said Devaney, whose 250-acre farm provides fruit to supermarkets in Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide. 

The motivation to improve efficiency and lower costs led Devaney to adopt a range of technologies, including sophisticated sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) modeling, as part of a pilot project funded by the Australian government. The multiyear pilot is modeling an approach that, if adopted at scale, has the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Smart agriculture using advanced technologies is really about improving environmental outcomes on a farm by optimizing all of the practices that go into running a farm,” said Owen Keates, an associate vice president with Hitachi Vantara, who has worked closely with Devaney to implement new technologies at Bartle Frere Bananas. Optimizing the energy and labor that go into running Gavin’s farm by providing data-driven insights has the benefit of lowering emissions and improving sustainability.”

Reducing emissions on the farm

Reducing emissions from agriculture is a critical part of tackling climate change. According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture, forestry and land use are responsible for about 23 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. This is nearly the same portion as emissions from electricity and heat production. 

Decreasing the use of petroleum-based fertilizers and fossil fuels burned by farm equipment can make a big difference in tackling climate change. In fact, nitrogen fertilizers result in emissions of nitrous oxide, which has about 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year timescale. Nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer application and other practices result in 266 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a figure equivalent to the CO2 emissions from nearly 58 million cars per year. 

Precise application of fertilizers reduces waste and runoff

At Bartle Frere Bananas, solar-powered inline nitrate sensors help ensure that fertilizers are not overused, which can lead to higher emissions and costs, as well as harmful runoff that can drain into waterways and eventually the ocean. The sensors continuously monitor and report the nitrate levels present in the leachate that flows through the farm’s 2.5 kilometers of underground drainage pipes, which ultimately flow into a nearby river that drains into the Pacific Ocean. 

(Hitachi Vantara)

Data about nitrate levels helps Devaney ensure that his bananas are getting enough fertilizer to grow properly but not so much that it leads to waste and runoff. The farm’s sophisticated irrigation system also helps with precise fertilizer application. Applying fertilizer when too much water is present — either from the area’s prodigious rainfall or from the farm’s irrigation system — can prevent the banana plants from absorbing fertilizer and lead to waste and runoff.

To simultaneously irrigate and fertilize at the optimal levels, Bartle Frere Bananas has deployed soil moisture sensors at five different depths throughout the root zone of the banana plants. The farm also has its own weather station that integrates weather forecasting services and alerts Devaney when rain is imminent.

This allows us to know exactly what the penetration of rainwater and irrigation is onto the roots of the plants and to make data-driven decisions about when to irrigate and when to apply fertilizer,” said Devaney. We have been able to get my irrigation practices way better than I ever had them before.”

Devaney expects eventually to automate the timing of his irrigation system operations based on real-time weather, plant and fertilizer data. Keates hopes this pilot will showcase a sensor-agnostic approach that will help the technology scale faster at a time when there is a pressing need for climate solutions for all sources of carbon emissions. We can integrate various sensors and bring them together holistically for deeper analytics that provide decision support to benefit both farmers and the environment,” Keates added.

Efficient use of worker time and farm machinery

Bartle Frere Bananas has deployed other technologies that improve the farm’s efficiency and lower its emissions while also controlling labor costs. Making data-driven decisions about where and when to deploy workers to perform certain tasks can have a significant impact on both expenses and the emissions of the vehicles and machinery that workers use.

Bartle Frere Bananas’ workers are more productive now that the farm uses Hitachi Lumada’s AI modeling and predictive analytics tools to estimate exactly when the fruit will be ready to pick. This enables precision direction of the farm’s crews and vehicles, which cuts down on the kilometers the vehicles travel,” said Keates. That impacts carbon emissions and also reduces any damage to the pathways between the rows of bananas.” Because his vehicles are outfitted with GPS, Devaney has already been able to recognize the cost and environmental benefits of more targeted deployment of his team.

Over the two years of the pilot, Devaney has had to learn how to use new digital tools. But many of the fundamental practices and rhythms of his farm remain the same. Devaney still rises at 5:30 in the morning and spends his days making a succession of decisions about when to irrigate and fertilize his crops and where to send his workers.

But what is very different now is the information he uses to make all of those daily decisions. What you don’t want to do is look at a problem and make a mistaken decision that lasts for three months,” said Devaney. You want to get real-time data that allows you to make changes right away.”