Automating agriculture

  • The inefficiency of Nepal's agriculture sector can be attributed to a failure to properly mechanise and implement new technologies
Automating agriculture

Jul 28, 2014-

The government has taken a positive step by declaring the next ten years as a ‘Decade of Agricultural Revolution’. By prioritising farm mechanisation, the country can go a long way in increasing its agricultural production and can pursue necessary steps toward  this promised ‘agricultural revolution’.

Reasons to mechanise

Nepal’s  diversity of crops, soil, climate, and agricultural practices requires improved equipment for product cultivation. It is important to acquire improved hand tools, animal-drawn implements, power tillers and tractors, depending on the terrain conditions. While doing so, we need to ensure that the equipment is cost-effective and energy-efficient and reduces drudgery. This requires carefully chosen, tested, designed and refined equipment based on site-specific feedback. On-farm trials also have to be conducted for regional adaptation and to enhance crop production and productivity by ensuring the timeliness of farm operations and the efficient use of inputs.

Power availability per hectare in Nepal is quite low, compared to other South Asian countries. This could be a problem if Nepal seeks to attain sustainable growth in agriculture through farm mechanisation. According to the 2012 Nepal Economic Growth Agenda report, “Only 1 percent  of farmers own a tractor or power tiller; 52 percent  of them own basic equipment like ploughs or improved types of ploughs; and merely 7 percent of farmer households own a pumping set...The agriculture sector, which employs more than 66 percent of the workforce, contributed only 35 percent of the GDP.  The average growth rate of the agriculture sector has been 3.18 percent between 2002 and 2011.” This situation clearly highlights the inefficiency of the technology used in Nepal’s agricultural sector.

Setbacks for growth

According to Shreemat Shrestha, Division Chief of Agricultural Engineering at the Nepal Agricultural Research Council, “Mechanical power contributes only 23 percent to agriculture activities, mainly in cultivation and threshing, out of which 92 percent is solely utilised in the Tarai. Animal power as a primary source of farm power contributes 41 percent and human power contributes 36 percent. Women alone constitute 64 percent of the total human workforce.” Tractors are imported with low custom duties and taxes in the name of agricultural mechanisation. But nowadays, these are more often seen carrying construction materials rather than being used in agriculture.

Additionally, food security is a serious challenge for the government as millions of youths are compelled to leave the nation to meet their basic needs. The 2011 census shows a population growth rate of 1.35 per annum, which nearly doubled in three decades. The agricultural growth rate, however, is 3.18 percent, which needs to increase steadily in order to address food security issues and contribute more to the GDP. To that end, the government must use farm modernisation as a strategy to deter Nepal’s youths from leaving the country.

The Agricultural Mechanisation Division under the Agricultural Engineering Division could directly assess the current status and impact of agricultural mechanisation. Similarly, farm mechanisation-related projects can be conducted in collaboration with the Institute of Engineering. The Purwanchal Campus in Dharan has the capability to conduct research-oriented programmes and farm-based machinery studies. Gradually, we can set up a testing centre for farm equipment, thus providing students with exposure to the status of farm machinery.

This could also help the government maintain a proper standardisation of farm machinery as required at the national level. Initiating research programmes would improve the existing agricultural practices and technologies. When the government establishes an innovative and competitive environment with rewards, aspiring personnel will seek opportunities to participate. Eventually, this could provide an extra boost to researchers as well as the mechanisation process.

Equipment for farms

However, despite promoting farm mechanisation, the Agriculture Ministry sometimes publishes controversial policies which dissuade farmers from using advanced technologies. A recent decision to ban the combine harvester has had a negative impact on farms. On the other hand, developed countries are fully mechanised, equipped with leading technologies such as precision agriculture and automation of machineries for optimum profitability, sustainability and protection of the land resources.

Nepal is a land-scarce country in terms of cultivable land; only 29.7 percent of the land is used for agriculture, according to current World Bank data, with land availability per household decreasing from 0.8 hectares in 2001 to 0.6 hectares in 2008, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Land fragmentation is one of the primary drawbacks to mechanisation.

So more attention should be paid to selectively introducing mechanisation technology with a powerful mixed approach of having an organic base to harness more productivity and profitability while addressing soil and environmental issues. Light-weight knapsack-type power tools may be more appropriate for cultivation on terraces and hill slopes. Light-weight power tillers with matching equipment can be recommended for cultivation in the valleys and terraces. And even animal farming systems can be made efficient by introducing improved harnessing systems and matching equipment packages such as rotary-mode applications for work animals.

Furthermore, as women are currently the primary sources of human power in farms, women-friendly tools and equipment should be introduced to increase output and reduce drudgery. Skill-oriented training could be organised by I/NGOs, agricultural institutes and government research centres to benefit farmers. Relaxing custom duties and exempting tax for agricultural tool imports would also encourage advanced mechanisation  of the agriculture sector.

- KSHITIJ ADHIKARI & SAGAR KAFLE

Adhikari is a graduate in Farm Power and Machinery Engineering, Central Agricultural University, India and Kafle is a graduate in Horticulture and Biosystems Engineering, Kangwon National University, South Korea

Published: 29-07-2014 09:11

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