Sharing knowledge – And facing together the challenges of tomorrow

Knowledge exchange was the goal of the Hungarian-Dutch precision irrigation workshop featuring professionals from both countries.

An automated measuring device is seen stationed among rows of green crops in a field.

Climate change has been here for years. The compound effect of incremental annual changes has already built up to the point where devastating weather-related catastrophes have swept through Europe in the past years, shocking the continent and rocking our sense of security – From widespread wildfires through flash floods to historic droughts.

The need for increased climate resilience was a central topic of the Hungarian-Dutch irrigation workshop co-organized by the Hungarian National Chamber of Agriculture (NAK) and the Agricultural Department of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Hungary on Tuesday, October 25. The workshop focused on exchanging experience and knowledge and best practices between agriculture professionals in Hungary and the Netherlands since both countries face similar climate challenges.

The panelists of the workshop included researchers, practitioners and various experts from both Hungary and the Netherlands. The event was attended by members of NAK’s extension service.

In his opening remarks, Dutch Agricultural Counsellor Koen van Ginneken highlighted how the agriculture industry in Europe is facing “heavy weather” – Both figuratively and literally since aside from climate change, rising inflation, input costs and other issues are also chipping away at the margins of farmers. Mr. van Ginneken also commented that despite the differences between the agriculture industries of Hungary and the Netherlands, the two countries are facing similar challenges – Which makes it logical to exchange experience, best practices, knowledge and face together what lies ahead.

Director Erika Székely of the National Chamber of Agriculture indicated she was pleased with the opportunity to hear about international experience in these topics in a practical way – And how it is important to focus on practical knowledge. Ms. Székely also highlighted that some participants traveled hundreds of kilometers to be able to attend the workshop.

The legal, technical and scientific background of irrigation

In her presentation, Gabriella Tasnádi, from NAK’s Extension Service, talked about the regulatory framework around irrigation. According to Ms. Tasnádi, the Hungarian regulation of irrigation is primarily based on the usage of surface waters – And in the case of local water scarcity, the usage of groundwater can be justified. (In the Hungarian system, groundwater is water resource gained from the ground from no deeper than 50 meters.)

However, the drilling of wells is subject to a complex process with multiple steps, involving the local water directorates, which also consult with other authorities.

Ms. Tasnádi also explained that 80% of Hungary’s area is agricultural land, which is roughly 7.5 million hectares. Out of this, 2 million hectares is covered by forests, while 5.5 million hectares are farmland. The particularly devastating drought of this summer has caused damages in Hungary’s agriculture industry worth more than €2.43 billion. In the future, investment and irrigation subsidies, as well as the purification and reuse of wastewater will be needed. In fact, the current investment subsidies’ application period has been extended until June 2023.

In his presentation István Láng, General Director of the National Water Directorate, talked about drought monitoring – And the methodology of the Hungarian Drought Index (HDI), a complex drought forecasting measurement. While most drought indexes are based on atmospheric data, and are rarely used for projections but rather, for analysis in retrospect, the HDI was created to track and forecast developing drought situations. This also includes a new drought monitoring system under the National Water Directorate, which divides the country up into more than eighty drought districts and monitors them seperately.

Gábor Kolossváry, engineer and hydrology professor at the Gödöllő campus of the Hungarian University of Agriculture and Life Sciences (MATE), also talked about weather patterns, and the effects of the changing climate on the water networks of the Carpathian Basin region. Mr. Kolossváry explained that the climate of Hungary’s neighborhood is complicated, as the Carpathian Basin lies at the overlapping edges of three climate regions – Eurasian continental, atlantic oceanic and mediterranean.

According to the professor, climate change is accelerating the hydrological [GKv1]  cycle of the region. Better management would be needed to stop the compression of the soil. However, irrigation is not a magical solution to every problem. Mr. Kolossváry highlighted that in Hungary there is about 500 thousand hectares of farmland for which irrigation is economically and logically feasible. Until the beginning of the 1990s, around 400 thousand hectares of land had access to irrigation infrastructure, and 368 thousand hectares were irrigated. Currently, 62% of the available water is used and 42.5% of the suitable land is irrigated, which is why holding back floodwater is an important goal for future water infrastructure development.

Dutch experience

Idse Hoving, senior researcher at the Wageningen University [GKv2] talked about the importance of approaching irrigation strategically, finding the ideal windows to invest and prioritize the right crops. On the operational level of irrigation investment, the most crucial thing is to find the critical moment for irrigation. For this, both good irrigation management but also good modelling are needed.

In the Netherlands, there is ample information on the soils and hydrology, and the extensively monitored soil map and water tables are the basis for measuring and calculating models for irrigation.

Irrigation can be precisely calculated for the root zones of various crops, also taking into account the soil, the groundwater tables, soil texture, and a number of other variables. The point is to find the best crop to irrigate and the ideal window for the utilization of water resources – So that yields can be optimized.

After the break, Johan Booij, also a researcher from Wageningen University, talked about soil sensors and precision techniques that can be introduced into irrigation. Mr. Booij talked about the technical details of sensor network connectivity as well as various systems that can serve various purposes in different settings, including Irriwatch, Dacom [GKv3] , and their own development, Irrigation Advice Farmmaps [GKv4] . This system is especially good at handling various data streams on environments like the root zone and the available soil water level, soil moisture, etc.

Presenters sit at a table and talk into microphones.
Beeld: ©Netherlands Embassy Hungary

Precision irrigation in Hungary

Emese Szabó, team leader at the development department of KITE Zrt., a leading agriculture industry integrator in Hungary, talked about the precision agriculture program at KITE, which is based on three legs: Technologies, data background and partnership/advisory programs.

Ms. Szabó has highlighted that decades ago, in the era of telephones and analogue measuring devices, with monthly sampling, agronomers still reached good results with their measurements for agricultural forecasting and advising. Current technologies and digital systems that can take samples every ten minutes provide professionals four orders of magnitude more data.

With these, complex models on evaporation and transpiration can be created, as well as the capacity of the atmosphere for drying the soil can be exactly measured. With digital measuring, their digital systems create multipoligon zones, which resemble soil maps. These are able to replace lots of analogue measurement with digital solutions. However, one particular challenge is to train professionals who can catch up with the pace of digitalization.

Another speaker from KITE Zrt. was Dr. Péter Riczu, digital agriculture project manager, who talked about the research that extension services are based upon.

With various measuring systems, precision irrigation methods can be honed in on lower performing areas of parcels which very often have mixed soils. Without irrigation, average yields in the case of maize would be 9 tons per hectare, while with irrigation this can surpass 15 tons. Interestingly, it is not the well-performing parts that showed the most improvement with the introduction of irrigation but saline soils which were previously thought to be largely not worth of irrigation.

In the closing remarks, Tamás Harangozó, agricultural advisor at the Netherlands Embassy and moderator of the event, talked about the importance of distributing accumulated knowledge in Dutch and Hungarian professional circles so that farmers can be better equiped to face the challenges of the future.

Z. Sz.