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José Palha: Farming for the Future

Portuguese farmer José Palha is the antithesis of a technophobe. While one eye is sharply focused on the future and protecting his farmland for his sons, the other eye is trained on the bottom-line. José runs a farm outside Lisbon, and is the sixth generation to farm his family’s land. And he is using all of the agriculture technologies at his disposal to maximise the output.

Precision farming is at the core of his operations. He uses a variety of ag techniques, to increase both the yield and the quality of the crops. Conductivity maps, NDVI satellite images, and soil moisture probes are part of his mix. He said: “There are so many technologies available today, far more than the generations before me had. Thanks to these modern techniques, we can make decisions about how to treat the plants knowing perfectly what is needed.

“We only irrigate the crop if the soil moisture probe tells us to. And after reading the results of a soil analysis, and checking the electric conductivity, we can adjust and reduce the fertiliser. There’s no more guessing,” José said.

He explained that the farm produces peas; corn; sunflower for edible oils; and durum wheat for bread and pasta. Across all the crops, he has installed humidity sensors that are connected to a modem. Every 15 minutes the sensor provides readings on the humidity content of the soil.

“This way we only water the plants that really need the water. That’s the value of the sensor. For years in our region farmers have irrigated by sight, but when you irrigate this way you can use too much water. Water is a scarce resource that has to be saved.”

He explained that not only does water cost a lot, but a great deal of energy is used to irrigate.

“So with the sensors, we reduce use of water and the use of energy.”

He explained that they use a lot of technology to monitor because “technology is increasingly easy to use and increasingly simple – and not expensive.”

Thanks to the use of satellite images, José can track the vegetative strength of plants. “With this we can detect problems. In some areas where we’ve had flooding, for example, with the georeference on the GPS we can go in and resolve a problem in a specific crop area. This might mean putting in a drainage ditch, or remedying a deficiency of some nutrient.”

And as for protecting plants from pests? “We only apply pesticides where and when our crop review shows that they are really necessary. Pesticides are very important in my farm,” he said. “We apply them properly, and only when needed.”

Today’s farmers are constantly looking at cost/benefit ratios. “Our margins are smaller and smaller every year, so I have to find ways to be more and more efficient.”

He said that without pesticides, his farm would produce a much lower yield. “I’ll give you a very real example. In Portugal, we have a problem with a disease on wheat. It’s called yellow rust. If we don’t treat the wheat with fungicide at the right time, we would lose about one-third of our crops. And the product, which is applied in very specific and correct doses before the yellow rust appears, leaves no trace on the wheat.

“But I only apply plant protection when I know I need to. I don’t go out and apply pesticides without a direct requirement.

“I need to make a living – but my real objective, and the factor that is always on my mind, is how can I protect the environment. The soil is my capital. I want to leave something for future generations, so I have to protect the land, the trees, the water and the wildlife surrounding us. Biodiversity and the health of the soil is paramount to me.”

The farm is just 30 km from Lisbon, inside the Tagus estuary, a protected area. “It’s beautiful here, and many animal species – namely birds – visit us, even flamingos and ducks.”

And José feels he has a real responsibility to preserve this biodiversity. It’s about the past and the future.

“I don’t want to let down my family history. And if I want my children, and the children of my children to continue to farm this land, I have to be certain that what I leave them, is something that has value.”