South Africa has a fast-growing population, and all indications are that by 2040 South Africa will have to import approximately 66% of its basic produce to feed the nation. In addition, the challenging agricultural environment adds to the country’s looming food shortages. Consequently, potential solutions to alleviate shortages by increasing food production are under scrutiny. Typically, the expansion of land under cultivation, improved chemical treatments of soil and crops, and placing more land under irrigation have been investigated. However, South Africa has only 3% high-potential arable soils, most of which are already in full production. As it is a water-scarce country, competition for water sources is high and expanding irrigation is limited either by the availability of water, existing water distribution schemes or a lack of high-potential arable land. Consequently, to increase agricultural production new alternatives need to be implemented. One method to improve agricultural production is to increase production on current arable land by implementing precision farming practices. Researchers in applied farming technology have developed precision farming products and systems that can be commercially implemented by farmers to improve crop yields on their farms.
Precision farming, or precision agriculture, is an information-intensive process which uses specialised equipment, drones, tailor-made systems and computer software in addition to the precision farming services required from specialist advisors. This includes information obtained from real-time access to farming conditions on crops, soil, air, temperatures, humidity and other relevant information such as labour costs, tillage cost and available equipment. This information is used by the analytical software to guide farmers towards optimal decisions regarding crop rotation, optimal planting times, when to harvest and how to manage their soils. In addition, precision farming also differentiates the number of plants per hectare, application volumes of fertiliser and pesticides according to differing soil potentials in the field, and the application of pesticides to only the infested areas. Drones equipped with sensors measure temperature and humidity and guide irrigation systems to water areas that are not optimally irrigated. However, despite its obvious advantages, many farmers do not implement precision farming practices. Although many studies have shown that precision farming leads to increased production, higher crop yields and better profitability, many farmers shy away from implementing precision farming practices on their farms. This study therefore investigated the potential barriers experienced by farmers and why they do not implement precision farming processes.
The study employed interviews in a qualitative research design to determine the barriers to entry for implementing precision farming. The study population included all farmers in the designated region whose major farming activities consist of dryland extensive crop cultivation. Irrigation farmers and livestock farmers not planting crops were not considered for the study. Likewise, farmers who had discontinued the practice of precision farming were excluded. In total, nine farmers from the Eastern Free State were interviewed.
The finding of the study was that barriers to implementation of precision farming have changed over time. Initially a significant barrier was the absence of the service component of precision farming; however, as the concept matured, more suppliers and other specialists from the agricultural companies overcame this barrier. Initially, a technology gap also existed and the technologies were not as well developed and easy to operate as modern technologies. However, the interviews did identify that the specific region under investigation lacks the support services for precision farming. Although the quality of service is satisfactory, the availability (especially on short notice) seems to be a barrier to implementing precision farming. Farmers deem this as an increased crop production risk. The complexity of the precision farming systems and the calibration of the equipment is another barrier, and the risk of incorrect calibration could result in inaccurate data capturing; this would challenge the concept of precision farming and would be a costly error. Also, the cost of the technology and equipment is high. Farmers reap the benefits only in the medium to long term after the additional technological investment costs had been recouped. This means that the decision to implement precision farming involves commitment to a long-term investment. In summary, two major barriers were identified. They are (1) cost of implementation, and (2) the gap between theory and practice in implementing precision farming technology. The first barrier could be addressed by structured long-term financial products. However, the second barrier is more difficult to address. This barrier deals with synchronising data and technology. This requires specific computer literacy and operational knowledge which means that training is required to initiate the computer software and intensive data analysis correctly. It also increases the administrative workload of the farmers significantly. Farmers seem unwilling to facilitate this change. It does seem, however, that younger-generation farmers, who are more familiar with technology and computer software, are more willing to adapt and overcome this barrier. They seem to be more likely candidates who will switch the farming operations to incorporate precision farming practices.
Keywords: costs; food security; optimal agriculture; precision farming; profitability; qualitative research; semi-structured interviews