Colombian agriculture is making a comeback. Farmers are shifting into production of more diverse and exportable crops as they reclaim land in the war-torn country, including desirable fruits and vegetables, coffee and cocoa for international buyers. And, now with U.S. technology supporting its unique information system, ag officials are hopeful that success will expand.
"Right now, Colombia imports about 80% of its agricultural goods and only exports 50%. We can do so much more," says Laura Gil, DTN value-added reseller in Colombia and columnist for El Tiempo newspaper. "Colombia has the potential for a vibrant agriculture industry, but farmers need new technology and services to overcome the obstacles they face."
Colombia already exports the global lion's share of bananas, pineapple, passion fruit and avocados. But, Gil says bringing land into production and growing crops best suited for that land will increase output of other crops. Gross domestic product (GDP) for agriculture is only 6.3%, she notes. That's low given the vast amount of the country's land suited for farming. Most farmers work less than 2 hectares each.
"Only 19% of possible agriculture land in Colombia is currently cultivated," says Felipe Fonseca Fino, director general of UPRA (Unidad de Planificación Rural Agropecuaria). UPRA is a Colombian government organization under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development charged with gathering statistics about the country's agriculture and using the data to guide land management. "We work with the ag community in Colombia and with others to develop tools established farmers
and new farmers will need to make better business decisions."
UPRA officials face an uphill climb to increase ag production. Fonseca Fino says UPRA is addressing five challenges to improve land use and rural development:
1. Inefficient market competitiveness. Eighty percent of ag exports come from four commodities: coffee, flowers, bananas and sugar. Diversification would spread risk.
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2. Productivity lag. Farmers are not making the most of every hectare. For example, 46% of farmland would benefit from irrigation. Infrastructure is critical, as approximately three-quarters of rural areas are more than three hours from consumers in major cities.
3. Land tenure and property rights issues. Half of rural properties face legal issues that limit access to public ag resources like UPRA. Tax income distribution is inequitable.
4. Inefficient agricultural land use. Soil and water use are not maximized, leading to suppressed productivity. Farmers' crop choices are not always best suited for their areas.
5. Land-use conflicts with natural, protected areas with environmental restrictions. A good portion of potentially productive hectarage is protected forest and conservation areas.
To address these challenges, UPRA created a public information collection and distribution system known as SIPRA. The website contains interactive, multilayer maps that include such information as soil types and conditions, crop potential, infrastructure availability, irrigation, geography and more data helpful to farming (https://www.upra.gov.co/…). UPRA's goal is to make SIPRA the main decision-making data source for farmers and their suppliers.
"The information system platform is the first stage of our effort. We continue to increase the amount of data available to make it an even more robust system," Fonseca Fino says.
For example, farmers can click on the interactive map to find their farms. Producers can explore the available information to steer management decisions, often in conjunction with ag input suppliers and creditors. Bankers often confirm feasibility of a chosen crop prior to loan approval.
"It is innovative and still fairly new," Fonseca Fino explains. "As we expand the platform, we plan to increase access for farmers to use their phone or computer to buy fuel, rent tractors, look at crop insurance and more. It will be the most comprehensive system in the Latin American region."
UPRA PARTNERS WITH DTN
To accomplish its expansion goals, UPRA has partnered with DTN's proven technology (DTN is Progressive Farmer's parent company).Andres Moreno, business development director for DTN in Latin America, says use of DTN weather stations as part of the initiative provides greater direction for planting and harvest timing, as well as pest control. Weather stations deliver real-time wind, precipitation and temperature information.
"DTN weather stations have been supplying information for several years in Colombian airports," Moreno says. "Now, we are expanding that to individual farmers for use throughout the growing season. With more than 26,000 total weather observations globally, DTN knows how to manage this microclimate data for such operations as irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide use."
The partnership with UPRA is part of DTN's Project Climate Smart, a worldwide cloud-based effort to expand field-level weather technology to improve food production. The project addresses Goal 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, "to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for a sustainable economy."
"Sustainable farming leads to more economic stability. When farmers have a better understanding of weather patterns and their potential effects, they can produce more food for the world," says Peter Jones, vice president for international sales for DTN. "Projects like this one in Colombia allow us to see what works and what we can use in other parts of the world."
DTN is similarly working with officials in Kazakhstan on a precision-farming project. Jones says Kazakhstan's goal is to increase food production and exports by 40% by 2020, and become Asia's breadbasket.Kazakhstan has an information portal for its farmers, as well.
Within the portal, DTN WeatherSentry is used by more than 100,000 Kazakhstan farmers to gather information about weather, crop insurance, fuel, farming-equipment rental and seed and fertilizer purchases.DTN's Moreno says the system has become a model for Colombia to connect sectors and services, including insurance, credit, weather, scouting and equipment. With success, he believes other Latin American countries will be able to easily replicate it.
"SIPRA is on its way to becoming the base of information for all of Colombian agriculture," DTN's Gil says. "As farmers make better decisions, agriculture will be more profitable and successful."
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