Orgánicos Delos: The benefits of drone technology in sustainable rice production

The digital age provides a range of new opportunities for advancing sustainability best practices in agriculture, including for small agriculture producers.  Better data for decision-making is one of the opportunities enabled by new technologies such as remote sensing, Internet of Things devices, and drones, to name a few.

For example, remote sensing technology and drones enable precision agriculture using data as a tool to drive more informed decision-making about fertilizer application and other interventions. These technologies can augment crop productivity and reduce operational costs, and they offer other positive community-building benefits.

I recently heard more about the benefits provided by drones in agriculture from my good friend Nicole whose family manages a 300-hectare rice farm in Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. Hearing her story illustrated to me how the benefits of technology are far reaching since they not only address immediate improvements in operations but also open new possibilities for sustainability horizons within small communities.

My friend Nicole’s husband Alberto inherited the family farm La Cueva, and since she joined him to manage the farm in 2010, I have been following their work with interest in light of my work in sustainability. As surfers with a strong connection to nature, they naturally forged ways to explore sustainability practices on the farm.

A firm step in this direction came through the founding of Orgánicos Delos, a biological pest control company created in light of a clear need to improve the profitability and sustainability of the farm which serves as an economic engine in their community. The set of conditions they are addressing in their sustainability efforts illustrate the tensions between operational efficiency, community-building, and economic sustainability.

Their story also shows the potential and interest in technology investments to improve conditions for regional farmers.

Through InsightsFuture, I have a desire to showcase local sustainability efforts in Costa Rica. My friend Nicole agreed to share more details through an interview about their sustainability ambitions and realities through the use of drone technology.

IF: What are the mission and objectives of Orgánicos Delos?

After living on the farm for several years, we became more aware of the increase in deforestation in our local region as a result of the effects of aerial pesticide fumigation which harms wildlife and water sources. This motivated us to explore new technology that could set us on a journey to influence these detrimental effects to the environment and also support the profitability of the farm.

In addition to deforestation, we also felt the burden of alarmingly high production costs. We did not want to focus on reducing labor costs since one of the primary values of La Cueva has always been to generate employment in our rural region where there are few opportunities for employment.

At first, we developed Laboratorio Delos with the aim of reducing agrochemical costs for the farm. We began producing biological pest control products such as mushrooms and bacteria, among other biological products. This work was carried out with the goal of reducing costs but ultimately to improve soil quality and begin a path towards more sustainable rice production practices.

Biological pest control products have provided positive results since the first year we applied them. When we began exploring how to improve soil quality on the farm, which had been managed using agrochemicals for over 20 years, we were able to eliminate more than 70% of pesticide volumes applied by using biological pest control products instead.

 In 2018, we decided to invest in drones since we knew these would allow us to address our mission and key goals which were to care for the environment and reduce costs. Fumigating with drones achieves both goals since the drones allow for less fumigation at lower heights, improving the overall efficiency of fertilizer use. The drones also allow us to apply less product in areas where we do not want to apply product due to environmental concerns.

Today, our objectives are to continue investing in new biological pest control products and offer our drone fumigation services to nearby farms. We want to support a reduction in the excessive use of agrochemicals, which is still the norm in rice production. We would also like to generate more employment in the use of drone technology within our farm. The creation of economic opportunities is a goal that will always go hand in hand with anything we develop.

IF: In addition to fumigation with drones, is there a possibility to use drone technology to capture information about the characteristics of the farm and the conditions of the crop or the soil?

The drones that we currently use can only be used for fertilizer application and seed planting.  If we want more data and information about which areas of the farm need more fertilizer, or which area needs more water, or where there are more pests and weeds, we would need to invest in a different kind of drone.

However, we have captured useful data and information about our input costs in the use of the technology already, which is motivating our objectives to promote the use of drones. We are currently using an ultra low-volume drone technology to enable a significant reduction in the use of fertilizer application.

To give you an idea, we used to apply 56 liters of fertilizer per plane per hectare. Now with only 15 liters of fertilizer we can cover one hectare. That is more than a 75% reduction. The dose of fertilizer needed in any one area has also been reduced by 20%.

What has been the response and reaction from local rice farmers regarding the use of drones? 

An additional benefit in the use of drone technology has also been the interest and response it has generated from other local farmers. They have responded positively and are all interested in using drone technology to achieve similar benefits for their farms. They are both excited and in disbelief about the efficiencies gained in farm product applications.

Some are interested in outsourcing fumigation services to us for fast and easy access to the technology, and to avoid the fixed costs of purchasing and handling the drones. Others want to purchase drones and receive training to use them effectively. 

Given the positive response from local farmers, which conditions or activities do you think are needed to scale the use of drones in your farming community?

If we had resources to encourage the use of drones by other producers, we would begin with training courses about how drone equipment functions, as well as share the benefits and disadvantages of their use (e.g. required careful handling and investment costs).

We would also encourage farms to set aside a portion of the farm to try biological pest control and use the drones to reduce pesticide application overall.

Finally, we would offer purchase of the drones, potentially at a discount for those that would not otherwise be able to purchase drone equipment. 

For those who prefer to purchase our fumigation services, we could offer drone fumigation at a more accessible cost than they would otherwise pay for aerial fumigation by plane or helicopter.

What I found interesting about Finca La Cueva’s story is the potential impact from the direct and indirect benefits that the use of drones by a single farm can provide for the local agriculture landscape.

Drone technology results in improved farm productivity on measurable and critical topics such as cost reduction and chemical use. But technology use by just two sustainably-minded farmers also offers wide-reaching motivation for neighboring farmers to implement better farming practices and contribute to sustainability benefits at the landscape level.

Similar to other technologies and the use of data made available from them, using drones at scale requires investments in capacity building. Upskilling is needed on the use of the technology equipment, and indirectly to build digital culture and skills, and sustainability awareness among farmers.

Costa Rica is already using commercial drones for commodity crop production such as in pineapple plantations. The drone technology used supports topography mapping, plant species inventories, crop density analysis, and crop production estimates.

If you would like to contact Organicos Delos and support their efforts to promote sustainability through technology use at Finca La Cueva, contact me.

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