Smart farmers

Background

Pixel farming: "plots" of 10 by 10 centimeters

The Almkerk Campus in the Netherlands applies pixel farming. Each “plot” measures 100 square centimeters. Different crops are grown together. The consumer determines which crops are grown.

Monoculture in modern agriculture affects biodiversity, crops are more vulnerable to disease and growers must in some cases apply a lot of crop protection agents. There must be a better way, Simone and Arend Koekkoek thought in 2016. They bought a farm with 10 hectares of land in Almkerk, the Netherlands, where they founded the Campus Almkerk. Here various companies are exploring ways to grow crops in a sustainable way.

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Pixel farming

On one part of the farm pixel farming is applied. Soil is divided into ‘mini plots’ of 10 by 10 centimeters. One plant is placed on each plot, or a plant covers several plots. All types of crops are mixed together.

Robot technology

Robot technology makes pixel farming possible, says Simone Koekkoek. “A robot plants the crops using a needle that sucks up 1 seed or tuber and puts it in a certain place in the ground. The robot has various containers with different seeds or tubers. The GPS system determines which plant grows where. This is how all the plants get mixed up.”

No pesticides or fertilisers

The system has several advantages, says Simone. “Because of the variety of plants you see a lot more insects. Biodiversity is increasing enormously. We do not use pesticides or fertilisers. The soil remains healthy, and the crops also stay healthy.”

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Robot technology makes pixel farming possible. - Photo: Screenshot Campus Almerk video
Robot technology makes pixel farming possible. - Photo: Screenshot Campus Almerk video

The crops are currently grown for 50 consumers, a restaurant and the St. Antonius hospital in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Simone: “Every consumer, the restaurant and the hospital decide for themselves which crops they want. We then grow them together on a field according to the pixel principle. We constantly take photos of the crops. The buyers can see online how the crops grow in their plot. They are very enthusiastic about this.”

Consumer demands changing

Simone says pixel farming is a modern way of producing food. “After World War II the main concern in Europe was to produce as much food as possible, in order to prevent people from starving. Today, consumer demands have changed. Sustainability is becoming ever more important. Pixel farming enables us to produce food in a sustainable way.”

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Robot One

Right now, the proper technology is not yet available to apply pixel farming on a much larger scale, says Arend Koekkoek. “Our first robot, the Pixel Farming Robot Zero, had 1 arm and could handle 2,000 square meters per year. That robot was further developed into the Robot One, which is equipped with 10 arms and can weed independently, around 5 to 10 hectares per day.”

You could theoretically harvest € 100,000 worth of crops per hectare this way

Koekkoek is looking for organic arable farmers who want to rent the robot for weeding this year. “We want to test the robot on around 1,000 hectares. Then we will further develop the robot, so that it can not only plant and weed, but also harvest. You could theoretically harvest € 100,000 worth of crops per hectare this way.”

More research required

Wageningen UR is currently researching pixel farming, says Talis Bosma, Farming Systems Ecology student. “Just like we do research into strip cropping, block cropping and mixed cropping. Pixel farming goes a step further. When strip cropping is applied, we notice that diseases spread less as strips are narrower. Also, biodiversity increases as a larger variety of crops is grown. However, it still requires a lot of research to determine which plants can best be put together.”

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