Chilli peppers in a greenhouse.

Working together in field research

Interview with Viola Süss, Chair of Information Management, Leipzig University.

EXPRESS, an interdisciplinary research association that brings together the expertise of different institutes, focuses on the added value digitalization brings in wine and fruit cultivation. Viola Süss, research associate at the Information Systems Institute and professor of Information Management at Leipzig University, talks about the focus of her research in close collaboration with farms. 

Which projects on wine and fruit cultivation are you currently researching?

We work with small and medium-sized agricultural businesses, researching the challenges associated with constant increases in efficiency, product improvements, conservation of resources, and sustainability, which can be supported with innovative technologies. Often, conventional methods that are already established offer no further potential for improvement. This is precisely where Express comes in. We put this to the test through the direct use of new technologies and by working with our agricultural partner companies. 

We have the following research focus areas: 

  • Water stress: The multi-scale monitoring of climate and water ratios in the fields by means of a sensor net. In other words, how do we treat plants in different locations, such as on a hillside, precipice, or at ground level with too much or too little water, and what does optimum irrigation look like? 

  • Abiotic factors: Automated monitoring of environmental factors using sensor technology and their influence on growth and plant health. This data allows meaningful information to be gathered and forecasts to be made. 

  • Transparency and tracking value chains: Regionality through blockchain as a technological trust anchor.

  • Virtual reality: Using AR and VR to create a digital twin, which will allow farmers to assess the health of their plants in the field from their office, and to enhance the visual display with useful information.  

  • Data integration: Data collection from many different heterogeneous data sources, such as sensor technology, IT systems, and agricultural equipment, and creation of a useful format for farmers. 

Please briefly describe your partnership with Obstland Dürrweitzschen AG; what did you focus on? 

We conduct our research on test areas provided by Obstland Dürrweitzschen AG, Schloss Proschwitz vineyard, and the Global Change Experimental Facility (GCEF). 

At Obstland Dürrweitzschen AG, which has around 3,700 acres of cultivable land, our focus is on fruit cultivation, and specifically apples. We’re concentrating on transparency and traceability using blockchain technology. 

How do you support growth and production? What can digitalization contribute to this? 

We support growth and production at all levels. For example, we offer our technological expertise to our partner companies. EXPRESS works with its partners to help the development of feasibility calculations, innovative business models, and prototype implementation, and demonstrate potential areas for improvement. 

What are the specific benefits of blockchain? 

These lie in the technology itself, as it combines various information technology features, creating a trustworthy overall system based on decentralization, transparency, and tamper protection. 

This creates trust (which is often lacking) in the regional supply chain:  

  • In arable farms through certification of pesticides, for example organic certifications 

  • With logistics companies through on-time delivery, undamaged goods, and a flowing cold chain 

  • With consumers by means of digital transparency and fast traceability of food 

What added value can be achieved? Is it possible to increase quality and quantity, or reduce waste?

A drone flying above a field in the direction of the rising sun.

A lot of value can be realized from remote monitoring of crops.

Firstly, we strive for a sustainable, ecological symbiosis of farm and digital technologies. What we have achieved and strive for so far: 

  • Plant monitoring allows diseases to be detected and treated in good time, which creates a better crop in terms of both quality and quantity.  

  • We gained a great deal of experience with regard to water stress, particularly in Saxony, where we are currently seeing the most severe groundwater drought in 100 years. Sustainable irrigation is extremely important here, in order to increase yields. 

  • With regard to pesticide application, multiple rows of crops can be sprayed with automated, specific on-and-off functions, which saves time, for example, by means of a spray drone in viticulture over precipices and terraces.  

  • A trailer spray device with a three-row spray can cover three rows at the same time within a matter of minutes, which reduces the workload significantly. 

  • However, aside from spray equipment, we can treat pest infestations, such as those caused by codling moth, with beneficial organisms in a natural way. Moreover, the plan is also to use sensors and AR/VR to detect pests.   

  • Additionally, AI leaf-condition detection is used to predict crop yields, while data is collected for forecasts and the expected water requirements determined. 

  • Weather phenomena and vegetation-related variances can be identified more precisely.   

Can the technology be used on a large scale? 

Using the sensors across larger spaces is currently difficult for us to achieve due to interruptions in the technology supply chains. But it is feasible. However, we're usually just covering a small area and then interpreting it as an example. For example, we are analyzing one field with multiple stock units, and taking account of different geographical properties, in order to obtain an extensive database, and gather and analyze it. Ultimately, the findings will enhance the new technologies, such as AR/VR or AI detection. 

More than a future vision: Decentralized, transparent, and sustainable food supply 

The new digitalization technology has further fanned the flames of the change in thinking within the agriculture industry. “From farm to table” has become an important buying incentive for consumers. Decentralized company alliances are playing an ever-more important role in food supply. The carbon footprint is traceable thanks to the use of trustworthy blockchain technology and the monitoring of IoT devices, which extends fully and continuously to include transportation.  

Growers, producers, logistics companies, and consumers benefit from the flexibility and consistency of the solutions used. Thanks to vertical farming and greenhouses in extremely small spaces, as well as large, sensor-based monitoring of crop growing, there are now options to ensure food supply for a growing population. Geopolitical conflicts and local events mean that we are currently discovering just how susceptible we are to disruptions in supply chains. This is a good reason to think outside the box when it comes to food production and to utilize the possibilities of blockchain and IoT technologies. 

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