The Future of Farming

Susan MacVittie

YaraZIM probe on leafSimon Ruger offers the Yara ZIM Plant Technology probe, the Norwegian company’s latest water saving innovation, for inspection to our group sitting around the table at the Yara ZIM office in Berlin. The device is two small magnets that resemble fat button cell batteries, with a red cable attached to the end of one of them. It is used to measure relative changes in leaf turgor pressure – a measuring parameter for water stress in a plant. Small and simple looking, Ruger explains it is one solution towards agriculture water-management and food security for the future.

“The world will be populated by nine billion people by 2050. This means we need to grow 60 per cent more food to feed everyone – sustainably. Agriculture represents 71 per cent of freshwater use. We cannot solve the climate crisis without securing global food supply. The future of crop production has to involve less use of water and more efficient nutrient use.”

The ZIM probe is clamped onto a leaf of a plant and encoded data about the turgor pressure is transmitted wirelessly via the Internet to a database. Turgor pressure is the pressure of water pushing the plasma membrane against the cell wall of a plant cell and is lost during the day due to water loss by transpiration, and recovered during the night. If there is no water available, the plants cannot recover their turgidity and their water status decreases. The Yara ZIM-probe detects these changes.

The equipment of the ZIM probe consists of three magnetic pressure probes (ZIM-probes), one ZIM-transmitter which collects the data from up to three ZIM-probes plugged into it, and one ZIM-radio controller which receives the signals wirelessly from the ZIM-transmitters and sends them in real time, or in user defined time intervals into a database using a mobile network. The cost of this equipment is 6.5 thousand Euros, ($9800 CAN) plus 100 Euros for an annual service fee. The number of probes needed depends on the field conditions, but Ruger says that ten probes should be sufficient for use on 5-15 hectares.

The devices are resistant to direct sun, rain, as well as common fertilizers and pesticides. They typically last two-three months on a leaf without having to be reclamped, or may stay on up to a year – as has been the case with olive leaves where the device is being used on olive crops in Spain. The ZIM probe is also being used by citrus farmers  in Florida, California and Brazil and on almond, pome and stone-fruits.

The ZIM probe was initially invented by Professor Ulrich Zimmermann and students, (Ruger was one of those students), at the University of Würzburg in Germany in 2010 and sold to Yara in 2014. Founded in 1905 to solve emerging famine in Ethiopa, Yara is the world’s largest producer of fertilizer and has been an active proponent of precision farming. The company is still researching and developing how to improve upon the ZIM probe, such as the addition of a weather forecast as an indicator in the system.

“Ten per cent of the agriculture worldwide uses some type of sensor to assist with crops,” says Ruger, who is now Yara ZIM’s Managing Director. “We can use technology to our advantage and save water, save energy, and sustain a maximum yield. We can water plants on demand. This is the future of farming.”

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Susan MacVittie is Managing Editor of the Watershed Sentinel

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