Big Data speeds up farm subsidy payments

Technological innovation for agricultural advancement

Digital technology can make farmers’ lives easier and at the same time give a clearer picture of their environmental performance. Photo: Shutterstock

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

From satellites to mobile phones, technology can make life much easier for farmers and the public authorities they deal with. In Wageningen University & Research’s European NIVA project, nine countries test data innovations for their agricultural policies, ranging from sophisticated camera apps to smart contracts.

NIVA? What’s that?

The idea behind NIVA (New Vision on Integrated Monitoring and Application System) sounds like a lottery without losers. You use digital technology such as Earth observations and Big Data to make life easier for farmers and get a better understanding of their sustainability performance. The project, which runs from June 2019 to November 2022, is trialling technology for making it easier to monitor the implementation of European agricultural policy. Ideally, that would make it quicker and more straightforward for farmers to obtain subsidies while public authorities would have a better picture of nature and environment on farmland.

How does the subsidy system work?

Farmers get subisies from the European Union if they grow certain crops. There are also subsidies available for measures that improve the environment, such as creating a strip of land to attract birds. Farmers have to submit a plan at the start of the growing season (March-April in the Netherlands) showing what they will be cultivating: wheat in this field, sugar beet there, grass in that plot. They submit the plan to the national ‘paying agency’ (in the Netherlands, that is the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO)). Government officials do random checks in the summer to inspect the crops. If they match the plans that were sent, the farmers get the associated subsidies.

What role can NIVA play

Inspectors checking up on farmland, farmers who have to keep complicated administrative records: the subsidy system is hardly a shining example of simplicity. Fortunately, NIVA can help because technology lets the checks be carried out more efficiently. In future, inspectors would for example be able to use satellite images combined with photos the farmer takes of their own field.

Farmers will be able to apply for subsidies more easily

Farmers benefit from a modern administration process that saves time and money. Photo: Shutterstock

The data supplied by the technology can be imported into the paying agency’s systems. This means a large proportion of the paperwork for farmers is completed in advance, comparable to how the Dutch tax authority fills a lot of the data in for you in the annual tax return. Such technology can also help to give a better picture of the state of nature on and around farms, and consequently whether the environmental measures taken by the farmer are having the desired impact.

Why does that have to be implemented at the European level?

Theoretically, each country could reinvent its own technology wheel for the administration and inspection in the agricultural sector. But why not collaborate on a single wheel and get a better result more quickly thanks to the combined contributions of all the countries? “The European Commission had seen that many new technologies are now available, such as satellites, mobile apps and machine learning”, says project coordinator Sander Janssen – Earth Informatics team leader at Wageningen University & Research – reflecting on why NIVA was set up. At the same time, new EU agricultural policies were being formulated, both for the payments and for nature. Could all this cutting-edge technology play a role there? “NIVA is a collaborative venture between countries and their paying agencies that is coordinated by Wageningen Research. We jointly test new technologies with the new agricultural policies in mind.”

How keen are farmers to get on board?

You might think farmers would want to just get on with their farming, but Janssen says there is a lot of interest in using the technology to improve the way in which farming processes are documented. “The old system was very complex for farmers and NIVA aims to simplify it. What is more, there are subsidies for nature friendly land use, so that is a motivating factor too.”

The Dutch pilot looks mainly at the use and reuse of data generated by farm machinery. Photo: Lynxs Photography / Shutterstock

How is Wageningen University & Research involved?

Janssen and his team are coordinating the project, which comprises nine countries (the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Estonia, Lithuania, Greece, Spain, Italy and France). “Each paying agency has its own pilot for testing out the technology. We are the general coordinator because of our experience with project management and knowledge of the subject matter. TRAGSA in Spain is coordinating the technology pilots and IGN in France is responsible for the standardization of all the applications.”

Janssen describes his own role as like that of a plumber. “I hear if anything is up, then I come along to fix it. But my team and I are mainly focused on making sure the project as a whole goes smoothly and that we get the most out of it.”

What are the most important technologies being used?

First and foremost are Galileo and Copernicus, the GPS and Earth observation satellites. They have various sensors such as cameras and radar. “This technology is key because it lets you see which plots are being used for which crops”, concludes Janssen. “About 95 per cent of the farmland can be inspected in this way.” Mobile phones also play an important role in NIVA (for example, when farmers submit photos), while planes take detailed photos twice a year of the land in Europe (for images with a higher resolution than the satellite images). The project team is also looking at whether NIVA can utilize the data that the farmers themselves generate anyway, such as from farm machinery (often fitted with numerous sensors) and farm management systems (with data on day-to-day farm operations). The technology you decide to use depends on which measures you want to monitor. For example, you can’t use satellite images to check whether less fertilizer has been applied; you need sensors in the ground for that. Janssen: “If your policy becomes more ambitious or more targeted, that will have consequences for the technology you need.”

So is NIVA a success?

Absolutely, says Janssen without hesitation. “The countries have already tested quite a few innovations and some have implemented them.” He cites the example of Ireland, where an app has been developed that allows farmers to send photos of their plots. “The app gives instructions on which four lines of sight they should use to cover the entire plot. Ireland will now use this to check whether farmers are keeping to their plans for grassland, instead of sending an inspector to the farm. After the photos have been submitted, someone in Dublin can check them and pay out the appropriate subsidy.”

NIVA shows the state of the nature on and around farms
When countries join forces to innovate, you save a lot of taxpayers’ money

The Galileo and Copernicus satellites can be used to collect a lot of data about plots and crops, for example in the Rotterdam region. Photo: Shutterstock

The Dutch pilot looks at the use and reuse of data generated by farm machinery. Checks (for example of which fields the farmer ploughed and when) can be carried out much more quickly and easily if this data is sent automatically to the farmer’s management system and then to the paying agency. It sounds simple but is trickier in practice, as Janssen has found out. “Each country has its own agency and methods, and the machinery manufacturers all churn out different kinds of data.” The most important innovation to result from this is the compilation of a Europe-wide protocol that farm machinery manufacturers will need to satisfy if they want their data to be read in automatically. The case study in France focuses on whether the paying agency can use a simple approach to track farmers’ environmental performance. “Satellite images show whether the farmland is becoming greener and you can use the plant growth curves to estimate how much carbon dioxide is being absorbed by those plants. But carbon dioxide can also be left behind if the farmer leaves their straw on the land. So we need extra data points for that.” The pilot revealed that whether or not the farmer removes their straw is almost never recorded. Based on this pilot, the paying agency can now decide that is information it wants from now on. “That is also something we want to find out in NIVA: what important data is not recorded anywhere at present?” The Italian pilot is about smart contracts. The idea is that NIVA takes over the task of recording what a farmer grows and where. The satellite data should show what crops the farmer has on his land, and that information can be entered automatically in the subsidy application. All the farmer has to do is confirm whether the data is correct. Here too, it sounds simple but is not in practice. “This is incredibly complex because so many factors are involved. The satellite needs to be functioning properly, the data pipeline needs to work for all that information, and the government isn’t used to having the burden of proof reversed like this.”

What next?

Janssen thinks his team is on the right track with NIVA. “Public authorities always need to get used to one another first; they are all used to tackling the same issues on their own. We are a kind of broker mediating to make this joint plan a success. It means this project is essentially facilitating relations between countries.” The paying agencies at any rate have said they really appreciate the cross-border collaboration. “Everyone wants to maintain that. The European Commission is also looking at the collaboration with interest.” Janssen too hopes for a follow-up. “It would be good if NIVA is kept. When various countries join forces to innovate, you save a lot of taxpayers’ money.”

European research context

New Vision on Integrated Monitoring and Application System (NIVA) addresses the European policy challenge: Achieving a common agricultural policy Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Environmental Research Countries involved in Europe: Denmark, Estonia, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Spain Duration: 2019 – 2022

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