Learning & Development Monthly

On an early spring day, our taxi rushed through stretching farmland along the expressway to Wufeng District of Taichung City. Before long, we reached the Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute with over 100 years of history. There, many farmers were busy working in the vast field. They were not aged farm workers with weathered faces and dark skin, but more like scholarly researchers. Here gathered most farm workers with Ph.D. degrees in Taiwan. They represent the decades of agricultural development in Taiwan, from breeding to maturity, with new plants and new technologies, to serve as a basis for the growth of other industries.

However, the global competition, extreme climate, population aging all have impact on the harvest and profit of farming, and the recent food safety issue also brings challenges to the sustainable development of agriculture in Taiwan where the agricultural style is mainly that of small-holder farming. In the face of the predicament, Director General Chen of Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute made the frank statement that, in the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan's industry was supported by agriculture, but now that the industry is mature, it should in turn support agricultural development. That is, technologies in industry 4.0 such as cloud technology, big data analysis, Internet of Things, intelligent machinery and sensors are all applied in agriculture, helping small farmers resist the impact of the aging workforce, labor shortage, and extreme climate, thereby improving the overall production efficiency and quantity.

Resources, People, and Industries: Challenges to Agricultural Upgrading

"Taiwan's agriculture is very competitive on the micro level, but from the perspective of overall resources, labor, industrial structure and other aspects, it is not sustainable to international competition," Director General Chen said. In terms of resources, the typhoon season from July to September each year, coupled with extreme weather effects, often lead to heavy agricultural losses. In the case of water shortages, water resources for agricultural uses are limited as the industrial sector usually enjoys the priority in distribution. As for manpower, according to the survey of "Taiwan's agricultural population and age distribution", nearly 110,000 agricultural workers will retire in the next 10 years. At the same time, however, the proportion of young people joining agriculture is still low. The problem is evident, particularly in the harvest season.

In terms of industrial structure, Taiwan's agricultural style is mainly that of small-holder farming, with limited land and unstable supply capacity. Even with the assistance received from marketing alliances or through contract farming, farmers’ income is still not stable because they are of conflict interest with the buyers.

With Industry 4.0 Introduced, Smart Agriculture Realized

"The future of Taiwan's agriculture is definitely not just an extension of the past, but requires more innovation and creativity," said Director General Chen. Innovation and creativity come from the concept of Industry 4.0 and the related technologies. Chen points that the first three phases of agricultural development 1.0 to 3.0 in Taiwan are (1) from labor intensive to knowledge intensive, (2) from experience intensive to automation, and (3) from open cultivation to sophisticated facilities cultivation. In all of these phases, human labor has been used extensively, like machines. In the phase of Agriculture 4.0, however, intelligent and digital technologies, like sensing technology, intelligent robot (IR), Internet of Things (IoT), and Big Data analysis are widely used so that machines are used and controlled by humans. In retrospect, the domestic supply chain of agricultural products should be examined thoroughly, from farmland to the dining table. Farmers face the difficulties of production and risk management. The logistics industry faces the problem of short-term storage and urgent management. The consumers are concerned about pesticide residues and food safety. An overall management system is required to meet the needs of all the stakeholders in the process so that intelligent and digitized technologies are used to facilitate the agricultural production and marketing and help smart agriculture realized in Taiwan.

Two Major Features: Smart Production & Digital Services

The idea of smart agriculture often misleads people to think of young farmers using smart phones or iPads but not hoes in the field. Director General Chen said with a smile: "You still need to pick up the hoe when you have to." Smart agriculture means "smart production" and "digital service." To deal with aging workforce and labor shortage, machine-assisted equipment is introduced to save time and strength. To deal with the risk of extreme weather, historical meteorological disaster records are nested to construct GIS big data analysis decision-making modules to avoid growing crops in risky areas or to utilize stronger agricultural facilities. As for the low efficiency and imbalanced quality and quantity of supply, the intelligent group cultivation model is introduced so that farmers enter into partnerships with agribusinesses.

In the long run, smart agriculture is essential to turn the rule of thumbs into systematic principles, so that knowledge and experience accumulated in experts’ head are translated into digital data and stored in the computer for more effective utilization.

Director General Chen illustrated with the example of pest identification. "An experienced farmer can tell the pests at a glance, but it is quite difficult for a young farmer who is new to the field."

Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute has the largest insect herbarium in Southeast Asia. The comparison system is being developed, so that the pest control methods in the lab are passed over for preliminary pests identification in the field for the efficient implementation of disease control and the integration of management technologies. The advance in communication technology and the popularity of mobile devices are a great help to young farmers to attract them to the field work.

In addition to effort made on the aspects of production technology, logistics, and consumption, the facility (greenhouse) design is another major focus. In the future, agricultural practitioners are not only concerned about efficiency, safety and risk control, but also pursue stability of supply, high quality, and convenience. Therefore, the COA has promoted the upgrading of simple greenhouses, to provide the optimal cultivation environment for crops, which is essential for the production of high-quality agricultural products, and develop a standardized and efficient agricultural facility industry.

Director General Chen said: "We very much hope to upgrade the design and technical level of agricultural facilities so that it becomes an industry itself for package plant export"

Contract Farming and Big Data for Reference

In the GIS Center of Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute, researchers are monitoring Taiwan's overall agricultural information displays, including underground, surface and aerial data, on the computer system. The collection of these data took them more than 10 years. Through big data analysis technology, the growth status of each farmland can be spotted, and the production volume of each farm can be predicted, which is a great help to achieve the balance of production and demand.

With the small area and high population density in Taiwan, the average size of farms in Taiwan is 1.02 hectares per farming household, a typical small-holder farming mode, and most of them operate in the form of contract farming. Besides, the production and marketing are often out of tune due to frequent natural disasters, which have both the buyers and farmers exposed to the risk of sales. Some contracts require plants meet certain standards for collection, and the framers must take care of the rest on their own. This is the cause of a very delicate conflict relationship between the two sides.  

With the introduction of smart agriculture, however, the buyer clearly understands the situation of production and can offer in-time assistance to solve problems. This helps foster a positive cycle of relationship based on mutual benefits. As the farmers make profit, so do the buyers.

Director General Chen further explained this: "To turn the conflict of interest between the two sides into a relationship of mutual interest, the first thing is to help the buyers understand the production process. In addition to setting up production-marketing groups and agribusinesses among the farmers, the management system needs to be established to maintain stable quality."

For example, for the demand of some bananas in Japan, the buyer will place the order with the banana farmers and monitor the whole process of growth and harvest of the bananas through the management system. This certainly helps the logistics scheduling of the order and on-time delivery of bananas to Japan. Discerning the importance of smart management, COA has made a lot of efforts to help build the system, from production to logistics, and even to the consumption.

Many small groups in Taiwan have invested in smart agriculture. "Shoufeng Impression" of Hualien is an e-commerce platform with its own website and logistics system to market products from small-holder farmers. Director General Chen is pleased to say: "Farmers themselves may be too busy to set up their own e-commerce platforms to handle all the details of sales, shipping, and customer service. Farmers can just concentrate on the production when the work is well distributed.”

The high production cost of agriculture in Taiwan has made it necessary to not only improve the quality of products but also enhance the value of agriculture itself. Through intelligent production and digital services made possible by smart agriculture, breakthrough can be achieved on small-holder farming to raise the efficiency and quantity of production. And by analyzing the supply and demand through big data, a comprehensive agricultural consumption and service platform is formed. The initial promotion measures selected 10 industries to focus on: mushrooms, moth orchid, seedlings, agricultural facilities, rice industry, traceable agricultural products, aquaculture fisheries, marine fisheries, poultry (waterfowl) industry, and dairy industry with the hope to boost the annual total product value from the current 247.4 billion NT Dollars (approximately 8 billion US Dollars ).

The Traceable Agricultural Products (TAP) System provides worry-Free shopping experience.

A single spark may start a prairie fire. Some food safety problems may lead consumers to distrust of the overall agricultural products. At this stage, there are four TAP labels and one QR Code, including "Safe Agricultural Products: Gi-Am-Pu Label 2.0", "Traceable Agricultural Products Labels", "CAS Taiwan Excellent Agricultural Products Label", "CAS Organic Agricultural Products Label", and the most remarkable “Traceable Agricultural Products (TAP)” System.

TAP is like a dining table manager. Director General Chen said: "A transparent process from production to sales will give consumers confidence in food safety and TAP is the monitor of the whole process.” Now TAP counters can be found in many supermarkets. By scanning the QR Code on the product label, consumers can immediately find all the stages of the production process, including land preparation, sowing, fertilization, harvesting, etc.

In Taiwan, group meal supply to companies and schools is an important business. TAP is widely used to ensure food safety, but the cost incurred on the supplier is high and discourages consumption. However, healthy and safe food for children at school is still a prior consideration for parents. Therefore, the COA is developing an integrated segment platform for the traceable agricultural products to facilitate the communication between the suppliers and the consumers in the group meal business.

Director General Chen explained: "The traceable agricultural products (TAP) are higher in price because of the many levels of control, but we hope to reduce the cost through various ICT integration solutions, such as in logistics, warehousing, marketing channels, and information flow. That would encourage group meal suppliers to purchase and use TAPs."

When the diners can simply scan the QR Code on the table to check the overall information of the food used in meals, including the production history, the nutrients contained, and recommended portions, there is more confidence in the products. This is a bridge between the producer and the consumer built by smart agriculture. Funcom Supermarket is now introducing this system.

With the system, the consumer and the producer can receive more information about each other. The feedback to the producers provides guidelines for further breeding and production through consumer behavior analysis. For instance, fruits of high sweetness are popular in Taiwan, but not always so in other countries. Successful fruit export then depends on the research in the breeding units. This is what the Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute has been doing for a hundred years, serving the farmers with new breeds and technologies to keep continued growth of rural economy.

As Director General Chen says, the future of Taiwan's agriculture is definitely not just an extension of the past, with the status quo maintained. Nowadays, all countries are committed to industrial upgrading and transformation and enhancing competitiveness by cross-domain integration. Taiwan's agriculture now faces global challenges, and creativity and innovation are needed in all aspects of production, distribution, and marketing. With the support of COA, Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute, by using new technologies, has successfully transformed Taiwan’s agriculture into smart agriculture. In the new era of agriculture, farmers no longer need to suffer natural uncertainties and they can pursue more efficient large-scale production. (Adopted from Learning & Development Monthly, April 2017)