Farmers in one of China’s main strawberry production areas are expecting increased output after deploying precision technology developed through a smart agriculture competition organized by domestic tech firm Pinduoduo.
Jiu Jiu Farm, a strawberry-growing cooperative based in Dandong in China’s northeastern Liaoning province, brought in AI technology developed by Zhiduomei, one of the winners of last year’s competition.
The AI-powered system can determine the optimal growing conditions for strawberries and automate processes like irrigation, applying fertilizer and temperature control.
Li Yufeng, who helps oversee production at Jiu Jiu Farm, estimates that she can manage seven to eight greenhouses using the hi-tech system. By comparison, a husband-and-wife team can manage at most two greenhouses using traditional growing methods.
By taking the guesswork out of cultivation, precision agriculture can give farmers more certainty and help boost their incomes. This is crucial, as a bad harvests or poor market conditions can result in a significant financial setback.
Ma Yandong, head of Dandong’s strawberry association, knows this from first-hand experience.
Back in 2008, with five years of strawberry-growing experience, Ma had yet to turn a consistent profit. He had lost money in consecutive years due to poor agricultural knowledge and unfavorable weather, then made a profit in subsequent years, only to lose out again with poor demand due to bumper harvests in other strawberry-producing countries.
Such fluctuating fortunes have understandably made farmers reluctant to invest in upgrading their farms for fear of incurring losses. Ma’s experience with precision agriculture came when he took part in an agriculture challenge organized by Pinduoduo and the China Agricultural University.
As part of one of four expert growing teams, Ma represented the traditional way of cultivating strawberries. They competed with four teams made up of computer scientists, who devised AI algorithms and deployed sensor technology to measure and control growing conditions. The result: the technology teams produced on average 196% more strawberries by weight than the traditional growers.
Ma became an instant convert.
“By using AI to control temperature and nutrients, you can control the growth rate and timing of strawberries going to market,” said Ma. “That’s our ultimate goal.”
Dandong is one of China’s main strawberry production areas with an annual production volume of more than 200,000 tons. With widespread adoption of precision agricultural methods, farmers will have more control over production and quality.
This year’s edition of the Smart Agriculture Competition is underway at Pinduoduo’s smart greenhouse base in Yunnan. Instead of strawberries, the challenge this year involves teams from top agricultural institutes devising technologically solutions to increase the productivity of cherry tomatoes while ensuring nutrition levels and environmental sustainability.
“With the Smart Agriculture Competition and examples like Dandong, we hope to demonstrate the real-life value of precision technology,” said Andre Zhu, Senior Vice President at Pinduoduo. “We hope to encourage more young scientific and technology talent to go into agriculture and make a difference. For the farmers, embracing technology can help them improve their productivity and livelihoods.”