Brazilian family farming wants to be high tech

Being awake suddenly by geese screaming at my door was not how I imagined starting my day. The 6am milking session, when the temperature reached close to 0ºC, seemed a daunting task in my 12-hour internship as a family farmer in Santa Catarina, Brazil.

Fortunately, after wearing several layers of clothing, I was greeted with a hot mate served by Zenaide Meyer. Along with her husband, Osni, and her son, Cleyton, Zenaide runs a farm in Anitápolis, a rural municipality more than 100km west of Florianópolis, the state capital.

I was there to try to understand how a family farmer makes decisions about adopting new technologies. Milk production is the main activity of the Meyers, but they also raise tilapia in artificial ponds, as well as chickens, pigs, fruit trees and corn to feed cows.

In 20 minutes, all 40 cows were milked with new equipment that the family acquired two months earlier, with the support of the SC Rural program. Before that, they had to go through the lengthy and laborious process of milking cows by hand. “We decided to adopt this automated system not only to improve milk productivity and quality, but because Zenaide and I were having back problems,” said Osni.

At the cow feeding station, the family also invested in improvements, but this time it was Cleyton who introduced a new technology that better controls cow nutrition and helps prevent diseases that threaten them after the milking process.

At the age of 20, Cleyton participated in a training program for young farmers that was also supported by the SC Rural program. “After the course, I saw that with a relatively small investment in new equipment, I could save food for cows and also reduce the number of cows sick with infections,” explained Cleyton.

Many other family farms in Anitápolis have adopted new technologies in recent years. As a partial result, milk production has more than tripled in the past 10 years; the city is now one of the main milk production centers in Santa Catarina.

Until recently, however, Osni and Zenaide still depended on traditional communication channels to learn about new opportunities. As they do not use the internet, they still received most of the news and advice from the local rural extension agent.

But that has also changed. Unlike his parents, Cleyton surfs the internet frequently and constantly exchanges information through Whatsapp and other social networks. In fact, the wifi signal on the farm was very good, as a result of the rural digital inclusion program also promoted by SC Rural. The initiative provides Cleyton with valuable information and connections that he can use to improve the performance of activities on the farm.

Osni’s mother, who bought the farm 50 years ago, still cannot believe how much the farm has improved. “My husband (now deceased) and I would never have imagined that the farm could produce so much milk and food products. I see how this increase in production has improved everyone’s life, ”she said.

While I worked the rest of the day with Osni and Cleyton in the fields, rotating the cows at different points in the pasture, I investigated a little more to understand why and how they made technological improvements on the farm.

Although the results are impressive now, making these initial investments was a difficult decision. “My father lost a quarter of that property because he was unable to repay a loan he made to buy a tractor,” said Osni. He added: “I was not ready to see my family go through a similar experience.”

“However, after Cleyton and I did some training, we became convinced that the investment would significantly improve the results and that the risk was worth it. These skills are rare, so now we take every opportunity to learn about the future of agriculture, ”said Osni.

I asked: how about having access to cutting-edge tools, such as automated irrigation systems or drone technology for decision making? Osni replied: “We have seen some news about this on TV, but no one has really explained how it works. We receive visits from companies trying to sell us different products to improve the grazing and feeding of our cows, and we can immediately say whether it is worth buying or not. New technologies that use computers and phones are more difficult to understand. ”

In Florianópolis, the day before I met the Meyer family, I had the opportunity to meet 20 entrepreneurs who were starting their own businesses selling new technologies to family farmers. Osni was the type of farmer who formed his target audience. Bringing precision agriculture to Osni and his family will require not only a major marketing effort, but also an adaptation of existing technologies, since most were designed for medium to large farmers.

“We know that we have a technology that can be used by family farmers in Santa Catarina, but we do not yet have the necessary knowledge to adapt the technology and service to the particular needs of each farm,” said Igor Silva of Bauer Aerosystems, a startup that produces high-capacity drones for spraying (pesticides, fertilizers) more precisely, when it is not possible to use a tractor.

Other companies and startups presented intelligent irrigation systems, low-cost agrometeorological monitoring, electric tractors and biofactories (nurseries that use high technology in the production of seedlings), all of this in only one Brazilian state and focusing exclusively on maintaining the family farming segment. Clearly, there is a potential untapped market.

Large farmers already have access to these green technologies, such as precision farming, but when the scale is small, most of these products and services are not viable. For example, the Brazilian government has implemented the largest green technology program (in English, climate smart agriculture Technologies / CSA) in the world, the ABC Plan, but the program does not reach small farmers. Green technologies (CSA) need to be adapted and customized for this segment.

How can emerging entrepreneurs be supported to develop their business goals? How to reach the more than 4 million family farmers in Brazil, like Osni, with such technological improvements? How can we convey the message that these advances raise rural income and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture?

In Brazil, 87% of the farms are small and run by families. In 32% of Brazil’s cultivated land, they produce 40% of agricultural GDP. During my 12-hour internship as a family farmer, I could see in Osni and his family a clear motivation to introduce new and green technologies to their farm, as well as the effort and passion that entrepreneurs like Igor have to reach these remote farms with new ones. technologies. A new market for green technology for family farming is about to be launched in Brazil. It’s time to wake up, drink our chimarrão, ignore the bad weather and help them meet.