Sectoral cross-pollination and new frontiers for business in Hungary – Report from the Farminar

Precision agriculture can offer solutions to the challenges posed by climate change. How can individual farmers utilize them? How can family farms in Hungary adapt? These questions, and more, were explored at the Farminar.

Drops of water on a plant
©GLady
Water scarcity will be a central issue in farming in the future. Precision technologies can offer new methods for smart water management.

Climate change is such a common phrase that society can be very unfazed by the distant threats attached to it. And yet we have reached the era when our climate actually has started to change and this presents new challenges to farming, to plant cultivation and the production of our everyday food. Precision agriculture can offer new solutions to deal with these effects – Droughts, the erosion of waterways, soil degradation, production losses. However, we often associate large estates and overarching development programs with the implementation of precision agriculture – And yet it actually has a lot to offer to small holds, to individual farmers and family farms.

These topics were discussed at length at the online event Farminar 2: Precision agriculture in Hungary, organized by the Netherlands Embassy in Hungary and the Hungarian Society for Precision Agriculture on Tuesday, January 12. The event, which was held over Zoom with simultaneous translations in English and Hungarian, was followed by an international audience of over a hundred participants from the governmental, private, NGO and academic spheres from Hungary, the Netherlands, Germany and Slovakia, through Serbia and Ukraine, to Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia. The conference featured Dutch and Hungarian researchers, experts, practitioners from the fields of research, business and production as well as representatives of farmers’ associations with the aim of providing a useful “knowledge starter kit” for individual producers – And for dissemination among stakeholders and professional networks.

The conference was opened by Ambassador of the Netherlands to Hungary H. E. René van Hell, who highlighted that precision methods are, on the one hand, sustainable and on the other, very pragmatic and profitable for farmers. This new paradigm is a good opportunity for the cross-pollination of knowledge and experience among sectors. Ambassador van Hell also mentioned that Hungary and the Netherlands both have strong traditions in agriculture as well and that precision methods can lead to new frontiers for fruitful business cooperation. He also stressed the importance of family farms, the backbone of the rural agricultural scene and that the success of the Dutch model has been dependent on two important things, agricultural research and development, and Dutch family farmers.

Dr. Márton Vona of the Hungarian company Csernozjom talked about the role of family farms in Hungarian agriculture, the current trends in Hungarian irrigation development and the precision methods for improving the soil’s ability to retain water. 61% of the total arable land in Hungary is used by family farms, which make up 98% of agricultural production companies. Dr. Vona also talked about the importance of water management and the ways vegetation covers can be used to loosen up compacted layers in the soil.

Dr. László Hayde of the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education explained the latest global trends in irrigation. While 2.8 billion people on Earth are affected by at least one month of water scarcity every year, and agriculture today constantly has to compete for the world’s precious water supply, precision irrigation can provide solutions to many problems connected to droughts. Employing these solutions on a smaller scale is possible and can have a huge effect. These implementations can include storage facilities based on rainwater infiltration through the soil and water-storing greenhouse roofs. Other solutions, like water retainers can help reduce water loss through evaporation. While a lot of improvement depends on smart design and management style, the reliance on new methods and training can be a smart economic choice.

Slide from a presentation
©Jan Kamp, Wageningen University
The Dutch example teaches us that after the first year of adoption and sorting out transitional questions, farms report smooth operations using precision methods.

Jan Kamp of the Wageningen University talked about Dutch experience in the role family farms can play in precision agriculture. In entrepreneurial decision-making, the implementation of new technologies are usually driven by financial benefit and the need to fix perceived problems. The Netherlands used the public NPPL (Nationale Proeftuin Precisie Landbouw) program to foster the adoption of precision technologies through sharing experiences, learning, and problem solving. The Dutch experience is that on a three-year-timescale, in the first year of precision tech implementation, there might be issues to solve – For example, high investments or the availability of labor. However, from the second year onwards, adoption efforts start running smoothly and farmers are quick to adapt to the new methods.

István Borsoczky of Tomelila Kft. talked about the practical possibilities of introducing precision agriculture in family farming. An important aspect is the agricultural policy framework of the EU, and the Green Deal, which defines new goals. The adoption of new precision methods can be crucial in reaching these goals on the EU member state implementation level.

Dr. Tibor András Cseh of the Association of Hungarian Farmers' Clubs and Farmers' Cooperatives presented the importance of family farms in Hungary’s agricultural industry and the challenges that these producers face today. A positive change is that the legal framework around farming has been changed so that new legal business forms, and concessions are now available to small family farmers. However, these producers also have challenges to tackle. In 2020, farmers had to deal with the third warmest winter and the third driest spring within the same year. Based on the latest figures, in April 2020, the total precipitation was 8.8 mm, which is less than 20% of the aggregate multi-annual mean for the period. Based on current calculations, the average temperature of Hungary’s neighborhood, the Carpathian Basin, can increase by 3.5°C by the end of the century. Droughts can decrease farmers’ profits in Hungary by several hundred million euros every year. According to Dr. Cseh, aside from the current developments in the legal framework of irrigation regulation, it would also be very important to improve water retaining, catchment basins and the maintenance of water channels. User-driven irrigation development would also be key.

István Tresó of K&H Bank talked about financing precision agriculture in family farms. According to the figures, the gross share of agriculture in the production of added value has decreased from 5.8% in 2000 to 4.1% in 2019, however, Hungarian agriculture’s total output value has been steadily rising, from around €4.2 billion in 2010 to around €7 billion in 2019. What could be improved however is productivity, which is below the EU-28 average. Mr. Tresó also explained the importance of investment loan strategies in precision agriculture transitioning, and the designing policies of subsidy planning.

The presentation slides from the conference can be accessed here.