Digital agriculture: how Dutch farmers use precision farming for floriculture

Tulips are an important export article for the Netherlands. In order to remain successful while acting sustainably, the flower sector is experimenting intensively with precision agriculture.

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If you ask people what they think of when you mention the Netherlands, the most common answer – aside from clogs – is likely to be tulips. That is far from absurd, because the cultivation of ornamental crops is in third place for the country’s biggest-selling export articles. To remain agriculturally successful while acting sustainably, the sector has to be constantly imaginative. That is why, in the course of digitisation, intensive experimentation with precision farming is ongoing. Drones fly through the greenhouses to detect plant diseases and search for weeds among the fields of lilies and tulips.

Those who are not tall must be smart. The room for farming in the Netherlands is limited. To get as much as possible out of the soil, the Dutch farmers have to be innovative. The scarcity of agricultural land has made Dutch farming a world leader in various disciplines, such as greenhouse horticulture and floriculture. The country sees a new opportunity in digital agriculture.

Double harvests with multi-layered cultivation

Digital innovations in the flower bulb sector have repeatedly led to developments in agriculture and horticulture. One example of this is multi-layered tulip cultivation. This is where cultivation in the greenhouse is stacked vertically, so that the grower can increase production without having to expand the ground area in the greenhouse. The maths is very simple: with just two cultivation levels, the harvest is already doubled.

Smart farming

In this type of smart farming, an automated transport system moves the tulips and other crops from one level to the next. The tulips are grown partly in the dark, partly under LED lighting and partly in daylight. Searching for the ideal illumination for each individual level serves to develop the best tulip quality with minimal energy costs and thus achieve the greatest economic value.

Healthy plants through the use of precision agriculture

Diseases and pests are the most common causes of lost plant harvests in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Farmers and gardeners therefore do their best to protect the health of their plants. Greenhouse growers also check their crops daily for disease. An intensive, costly procedure for the operation.

A drone sees more and can detect more than a person walking through the greenhouse. A group of aeronautical engineering students is therefore investigating the added value of drones in detecting problems with plants in greenhouses. First, they developed a drone that could fly through greenhouses. While drones usually work with GPS, this is not possible in a greenhouse. The development of special software for digital agriculture has made it possible to locate and geographically position the greenhouse.

Benefits of digitisation: recognising disease with drones

The students eventually managed to use drones to create images that exposed spots and anomalies in an orchid greenhouse. This information alone saves the grower a lot of time removing sick crops. In the next step, digital software is being written that analyses the photos and automatically detects diseases: a step forward for farming.

The number of drones in Dutch agriculture

Digital agriculture with drones

The number of farmers who use drones

  • 2018: 1.8%
  • 2019: 4.7%
    (more than double)

The number of farmers who say they are interested in the use of drones

  • 2018: 13.4%
  • 2019: 19.2%

Major operations compared to smaller ones

  • 12.3% of larger operations (farmers with a usable area of over 100 ha) use drones.
  • 1.8% of smaller operations (farmers with a usable area of 10–20 ha) use drones.
  • 31.2% of larger operations (with a usable area of over 100 ha) are interested in using drones.
  • 11.7% of smaller operations (with a usable area of 10–20 ha) are interested in using drones.



Improved sustainability through precision farming

The cultivation of ornamental plants is not exactly known as the most sustainable sector in agriculture. Although the use of plant protection and pest control products in the flower bulb sector has already drastically decreased since the 1990s, Dutch entrepreneurs are aware of the need for sustainability to continue to improve and dependence on crop protection products to be reduced. Technological developments such as precision agriculture, big data and smart farming are being explored as potential solutions.

Precision weed treatment

Thanks to digital agriculture, it is easy to discover hedge bindweed among crops of lilies using images from drones. Hedge bindweed is a weed that can be very well handled chemically when it grows out of the top of the lily. If the farmer has drones fly over the lily fields, they receive a lot of data about the presence of hedge bindweed. If this information is processed into a task map, machines will be able to take location-dependent action against weeds. That means spraying only takes place where it is absolutely necessary. In this way, less chemicals are used.

The precision techniques are not only intended as ‘plug and play’ for agriculture. In terms of ease of use, all options are open. Moreover, not all farmers and farms are convinced of profitability. In order to promote greater acceptance of precision farming, the ‘National Proeftuin Precisielandbouw’ (NPPL) (National Experimental Garden for Precision Farming) project has been launched in the Netherlands. In this project, experts from Wageningen University support farmers and gardeners in the application of various methods, such as location-dependent weed control and precision fertilisation. The objectives are better harvests and a lower environmental impact from agriculture.

10–20% water saving

The project started in 2018 with six farmers. In 2019, ten other farmers joined, including a number of bulb growers. One of the participants, Huetink Bloembollen, grows onions and strawberry crops as well as lilies. Those are all plants that need a lot of water. The grower’s plots of land are also in unusual shapes and often border built-up or paved areas, making them difficult to irrigate efficiently. In order to save water, Huetink is testing digital methods for measured irrigation in the NPPL project.

To irrigate the flower bulbs at the right time, in the right place and with the right amount of water, the grower is testing a digital system in which irrigation reels are fitted with technology. This allows the farmer to control, calculate and coordinate the water supply. The first results are promising. It is possible to irrigate within the boundaries of the property, and the irrigation machines are able to irrigate over obstacles such as dwellings. With this method, the grower expects a water saving of about 10-20%.

Digital farming: sensors in the ground

However, the search for optimal water savings is not yet over. With the help of moisture sensors in the soil, the water content in the various soil layers can be documented very precisely. In the future, the grower wants to create digital task maps on the basis of these soil samples, which should be decisive for irrigation. Ideally they would like to go one step further: by connecting the soil moisture sensors to a consulting system for automatic irrigation, they could further optimise their work and farming. By saving water in this way, they are working on a solution to future long-lasting droughts, which can be catastrophic for the harvest.


The future of precision farming

Another initiative that contributes to the digitisation of agriculture and farming is well known in the Netherlands: the ‘Bollenrevolutie 4.0’ (Bulb Revolution 4.0) programme was launched at the beginning of 2019. Various entrepreneurs from the flower bulb sector are working with Wageningen University & Research in experimental gardens to develop methods for growing bulbs using such technologies as precision agriculture, smart farming, robotics, artificial intelligence and big data.

Through both the NPPL project and Bollenrevolutie, the Netherlands is building up a lot of experience with precision farming and smart farming. GPS on tractors, sensors in the soil, drones flying over the fields – all this has been made reality by advancing digitisation. The challenge now is to achieve ever-increasing accuracy in machines and robotic systems, so that the data can be used optimally and costs reduced. In addition, the systems need to become more user-friendly so that farmers can use them more quickly and easily. Only then will the technology pay off for the environment, agriculture and their wallets.

For the time being, let us not forget that drones are not only useful in the context of digital agriculture for the detection of weeds and diseases. It is also thanks to this innovation that we can enjoy magnificent images of Dutch tulip fields.

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