Inside View: January 2013

December 17, 2012
Written by Gary Jones
One of the things I have noticed during my sabbatical in Uganda is that mechanization and automation are not areas that are typically at the top of agendas in agriculture.
One of the things I have noticed during my sabbatical in Uganda is that mechanization and automation are not areas that are typically at the top of agendas in agriculture. There is a basic assumption that labour is very plentiful and cheap, and that not mechanizing is a good thing because it provides gainful employment.

One of the areas that this is most evident is in water management. It’s pretty normal to see people (all ages and genders) carrying heavy 50-pound jerry cans of water to irrigate crops. Quite often, you’ll see someone carrying a can in each hand! Furthermore, it is commonly viewed that this is the normal way to fetch water, and there is not much thought put into the value of the work or the effect on the person carrying such weight on a regular basis.

So, I was intrigued to see an online article about a new trickle irrigation system. The product has been developed by Peter Frykman and his company, Driptech.

DRIP IRRIGATION HAS PROVEN ITSELF TIME AND TIME AGAIN TO BOOST YIELDS
■ Drip irrigation is known to be one of the most efficient ways of providing crop irrigation. Compared to non-irrigated crops, it can increase yields by up to 90 per cent. This provides a significant boost to small-scale farmers who are generally only able to produce enough vegetables to meet their family needs. Increased yields means they are now able to grow higher value crops, even during the dry season, so they have more crops, and can often also command a higher price. And of course, they can do this with limited inputs.

For me, the interesting aspect of this type of mechanization – which is what it is if it reduces the manpower required to complete a certain task – is that it was not developed to increase the number of widgets so that a large company can make more money faster; instead, its main development accelerator was to make the technology more affordable to the rural poor. These are farmers who cannot usually afford to mechanize or automate.

AN EXAMPLE OF AN INVESTMENT THAT QUICKLY PAYS FOR ITSELF
■ Apparently, “the installation of a Driptech system allows these farmers to grow crops year-round while conserving water, labour and time,” and “the cost of a system is usually repaid within six months through yield increase and water and labour savings.”1

So, it was designed to conserve inputs (water), labour and time. At the same time it was also meant to be accessible to the very sector of industry that is generally least able to afford such a revolution to their business. How often do you come across a piece of machinery designed to be made available as cheaply as possible for the end user, rather than be built cheaply to save the manufacturer money?

That got me thinking about pieces of machinery I have been involved in buying in the past. These include large automatic bedding plant transplanters, sophisticated irrigation and fertilizer dosing equipment, and greenhouse climate control computers. This is expensive, highly developed technology that not every grower feels they can afford right away.

But, at the other extreme, there are some very useful pieces of machinery that have probably returned as much benefit for each dollar input, but have relatively little cost outlay. Included would be such things as proportional dosing equipment, compost block makers (remember those?), or automated rollup poly-house side vents.

Please, I’m not saying such items are made cheaply and will break or not be durable. What I’m saying is that they were designed to be easily accessible to a wide customer base, provide opportunity for significant labour or input savings, probably with higher output, and therefore can provide a fabulous return on investment.

We sometimes forget this, because such equipment is often taken for granted. We see it all the time and it’s easy to underestimate the benefits. But the next time you’re considering machinery or automation investment, think about how you can perhaps save some inputs on the small things first. You might be nicely surprised.

  1. www.csmonitor.com/World/Making-a-difference/Change-Agent/2011/1020/Cheap-drip-irrigation-could-transform-small-farms/(page)/2

Gary Jones is a faculty member in the School of Horticulture at Kwantlen University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees and would welcome comments at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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