Da Lat’s farms turn modern in Industry 4.0

Wednesday, 2019-04-10 18:13:42
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The hydroponics vegetable production model at Duc Tien farm in Ward 8, Da Lat city, Lam Dong province. (Photo: NDO/MAI VAN BAO)
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NDO – Da Lat city in Lam Dong province has become well-known for its modern agricultural techniques. Many of Vietnam’s wealthy farmers are situated in the Central Highlands city, thanks to their investment and application of scientific and technological advances in production. Nhan Dan Newspaper correspondent Mai Van Bao reports.

In the early morning, Master Nguyen Duc Huy, Director of Viet Hydroponics Cooperative (Ward 9, Da Lat city) picked us up to visit his family's farm. After a few operations on his smartphone mounted in the car, he said: "Actually, it is not necessary to go to the farm for inspection, because all of the parameters are fine."

"Lazy” farmers

The 1 ha farm run by Huy's family lies on the hillside of the Mimosa route, the gateway leading to the city. In the modern greenhouse, multiple beds of tomatoes are bearing fruit. We can’t see the soil, because the entire area of the land is covered with plastic film. Each tomato tree is grown in a pot. No troughs are found also, as water and nutrients are dripped into each tomato base through tiny plastic tubes.

Seeing our surprise because the farm was quite deserted, Huy pointed to his phone screen and the sensors and signalling devices in the garden, laughing: "They are my agricultural workers.” "When I was young, farmers in Da Lat were like in every other place. Before going to school, my cousins had to carry water to irrigate the whole garden. Then we had water pumps and showers, and now the machines do it all, from fertilising and watering to caring for the garden. Farmers only have to pick up leaves and take care of the plants after the machines warning to use appropriate biological medicine, for example, as well as harvesting and cleaning the garden. I think that only in Da Lat can we find such a scene."

In 2013, Huy, born in 1984, graduated with a master's degree in plant biology in Ho Chi Minh City, but he decided to return to his hometown to begin his startup project. After a year of working in a public agency, making contact with partners from nations with developed agriculture, he realised that Da Lat agriculture was an opportunity for young people to engage and he decided to turn to a new direction. However, the startup road is full of difficulties. After failures because production depended too much on natural conditions, he invested in synchronous production equipment, but the results still were not as expected. After analysing and identifying errors in the production chain, Huy decided to write his own control software for his garden, connected to smartphones, computers and "read and understand" tools to record what was happening in the garden and then giving recommendation for the farm owner to make correct orders to handle the situation.

Huy’s treasure now is his over three-year data building and such data is constantly being updated. In its first stage, the system was still operating in a remote-controlled manner, but now it is able to read and make its own decisions accurately. "The IoT system is only a part, and the most important aspect is that my current system is based on the database related to weather, humidity, temperature and plant growth. The software will evaluate and compare with existing data to make a decision. In particular, the system can make predictions about the occurrence of pests and diseases, thereby providing the ability to prevent diseases from the beginning," Huy said.

At noon, on the plastic plate supporting the tomato beds, the droplets start rolling towards the end of the garden. The system "understands" the state of plants and operates by itself. Lifting a small pipe out of the tomato base, with drops of water pouring down, Huy said: "There is no need to be in the garden, just have to look at the smartphone to know the state of the plants. The system is decentralised into specific levels, including farm owners, investors and workers. Each role is controlled and provided with necessary specific information. Now I have become a “lazy” farmer."

Incidentally, at the Green Box cafe, on Xo Viet Nghe Tinh street, Ward 7, Da Lat city, at a romantic coffee space surrounded by high-tech vegetable gardens, we met Tran Huy Duong, the café’s owner who also runs the Langbiang Farm covering 30 ha. Duong used to work in the IT industry and soon gained access to advanced technologies. Recognising the huge potential of high-tech agriculture, he quit IT and returned to the mountainous town to join the local agriculture. "In fact, building meteorological observation stations or controlling irrigation water, fertiliser, nutrition and moisture, we have been doing it for decades, but just at “Industry 2.0” level, because it still required manual control at the gardens. Now it’s different. We are approaching “Agriculture 4.0”, making the garden visits no longer barred by geographical distance. All the important parameters are displayed on cell phones and I just press the command button under the actual condition of plants in the garden," Duong said.

Duong is among of the pioneers in Vietnam to implement aeroponics cultivation on a farm scale. There are more than 10 types of vegetables grown in the greenhouse of Langbiang Farm for harvesting every week. At first, he also encountered obstacles with the new farming method, because aeroponics vegetables need specific standards related to providing nutrition in the form of steam, just a small deviation can ruin the whole garden. "Now, I have no worries, as I can schedule watering in the right frequency. When there is a problem, the software installed on the phone will tell me to deploy a treatment plan. The good part of the software is each time it operates, the data is recorded for analysis, before making recommendations for the following operation," Duong said.

Like many other farmers on the Langbiang Plateau, senior peasant Vuong Dinh Phi has been attached to vegetables and strawberries for decades, but for the first time in his agricultural career, he feels the care of the garden is so free. By now, he can travel all over the country, even to the other side of the hemisphere, and only with a phone connected to the Internet, it is possible to capture the parameters of his family’s garden, such as soil moisture, temperature and pH. He can use his phone to turn on the irrigation and quantify the irrigation time. "Along with the sensor system, I also installed surveillance cameras to better monitor and control the garden. Instead of being busy with watering or fertilising like before, now I can do it all while drinking coffee with friends," Phi said.

Now, farmers like Phi, Duong and dozens of farm owners and peasants in Da Lat have applied IoT in production. They can be assured while trading during coffee, or going abroad to seek partners and expand markets, as just opening their smartphones they can get full information about their farms, thereby making decisions and transmitting messages to farm equipment right on their phones at any time anywhere with an internet connection. Simply said, it is a solution to help farmers, wherever they are, to be able to "understand" the plants, so that they can immediately solve the arising issues. That’s why they are called "lazy farmers"!

Accessing Industry 4.0

In recent years, many businesses and farms in Da Lat have approached and applied IoT in production, mainly at vegetable, flower and strawberry farms, bringing high annual revenue at VND5-8 billion (US$215,000-345,000) per ha.

According to Dr. Pham S, Vice Chairman of Lam Dong provincial People's Committee, many farms in Lam Dong have been equipped synchronously, meeting technical requirements, with modern facilities and surveillance cameras to supervise the plant caring and development process. The automated systems also analyse environmental data, thus giving warnings and processes for better growing crops and improving productivity. "Application of sensors connected to the Internet is the core technology. In Lam Dong, the technical infrastructure for IoT supply and enterprise administration has been developed initially. It is important for us to become one of the successful countries in smart Agriculture 4.0 in the coming years,” affirmed Dr. Pham S.

According to Lam Dong Agricultural Extension Centre, there are eight households in the province that have been granted funding to support the setup of intelligent automatic irrigation systems, not mention to dozens of businesses and farms that have invested and applied the model by themselves. The locality received 50 smart irrigation systems funded by a Japanese company and transferred to local businesses, cooperatives and farmers meeting the required conditions. Actual results show that the application of accurate watering technology helps farmers save 30-50% of water compared to the conventional farming method, thereby reducing energy consumption with corresponding rates in operating irrigation systems, freeing the labour cost in operating manual irrigation models and also reducing fertiliser costs. More importantly, with the intelligent irrigation control algorithm, the root of the plant is always kept in the most optimal condition, helping to increase productivity remarkably. "Science and technology has helped farmers in Da Lat and the surrounding areas to work more leisurely than other locales, while significantly reducing direct labour costs," Deputy Head of the Lam Dong Agricultural Extension Centre, Nguyen Minh Truong, confided.

Now, the management of gardens and farms can be encapsulated on farmers' mobile devices. According to Nguyen Duc Huy, Director of Viet Hydroponics Cooperative, the stage of watering and nutrition filling is no longer dependent on humans. The system calculates all accurately, with sufficient and correct volume. The application helps increase annual productivity by about 10%. The important thing now is to transfer and replicate the model in cooperative members to have equal product quality.

Bui Ngoc Cung inspects a signalling device obtaining measurements from the garden to transfer to cell phones. (Photo: NDO/MAI VAN BAO)

Bui Ngoc Cung, with more than 30-years of experience in farming in the Don Duong vegetable area (Lam Dong province), now feels leisurely when applying IoT on his 2 ha farm. Sometimes he feels inadequate for not catching up with new applications in production. He said: "Over two years ago, I was given the opportunity to go abroad from the province’s authorities to learn about modern agriculture. After that trip, I was obsessed with intelligent agriculture and decided to make huge investment to change". And economic efficiency is now very obvious, as all kinds of his farm’s vegetables and tubers have entered supermarkets and safe greengrocers' shops across the country, generating annual revenue at about VND2 billion.

The leisure helps Nguyen Duc Huy have favourable conditions to visit famous farms in Europe, learning how to run a modern farm for a few months. So does Langbiang farm owner Tran Huy Duong, who has been spending his free time to visit and approach advanced technology from many foreign modern farms, and also welcoming trainees to learn high-tech agricultural production. Currently, Langbiang Farm is implementing software on farm management, from production planning and crop monitoring, to measuring customer satisfaction and traceability. "We are decentralised so that each person can access and know the related information. As with farm labourers, after a day of working, they can press the button to know what they have done and how much they will be paid. That's interaction, but the foremost is effectiveness," Duong shared.

Currently Lam Dong has nearly 52,000 ha of high-tech agricultural production, accounting for 20% of its agricultural land and making up 30% of the province's agricultural production value and 80% of export value. Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Nguyen Xuan Cuong has said: "Lam Dong has paid attention to selecting units with good technology and suitable to the orientation of local agricultural development. In particular, local farmers have actively participated in and mastered science and technology research and application. That is why Lam Dong has the largest number of billionaire farmers of the nation."