South African farmer Cobus van Coller scans the flashing computer screen in the cab of his harvester. As the machine mows down corn stalks, numbers instantly update, giving the precise yield and moisture levels on each part of his field.
“This shows you if you’re going to make money,” he said in a demonstration of “precision” farming — the use of technology to target farm inputs precisely to maximize profit.
As precision farmers go hi tech to boost yields, some are also adopting a “conservation” approach to land management, which involves limiting soil disturbance to build up nutrients in the ground and increase production.
As a result of these two new methods, which are revolutionizing agriculture globally, South Africa is growing more food with less manpower — a trend with profound social and political consequences in the country.
Rising yields are welcome but jobs are being shed as farmers use more technology, while automation will lead to bigger farms.
Technology is threatening to uproot such efforts.
Precision agriculture taps Global Positioning System (GPS) technology so farmers can gather precise soil data to target exactly what inputs they need and where.
Van Coller also uses the technology for planting. “The GPS tells the computer where you are, and the computer tells the seeder which product to apply and how much.”The other method — conservation farming — involves trying to preserve South Africa’s erosion-prone soils.
“We need to build up our soils again because they have been so degraded,” said Hendrik Smith of industry group GrainSA.South African agriculture is becoming more capital intensive and high-tech.