New Tech Helps Farmers Optimize Fertilizer Application

Almost two decades ago, Lake Victoria was contaminated with a type of algae known as cyanobacteria, which caused it to turn green. The lake, which borders Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, is said to be the biggest lake in Africa. The contamination wasn’t an isolated incident, however, as data shows that roughly 40% of lakes and reservoirs globally have been impacted by this contamination.

Fertilizers are said to be the main cause, with irrigation and rainfall eventually causing the nutrients in fertilizers to run off into rivers and lakes or sink into groundwater. The algae in the water then rapidly reproduces and grows, killing fish and other living organisms by consuming all the oxygen.

Dr. Elad Yeshno has spent almost a decade developing a solution for this problem. In collaboration with DOTS CEO Rafi Levi, he founded Data of the Soil (DOTS), a startup that provides data on nitrate levels in the soil to farmers. Farmers play their part by installing a tiny system in their soil that allows the computer to sync to DOTS’ cloud and produce graphs showing whether fertilizer needs to be added to the soil.

The solution works by extracting water from the soil and measuring its UV light absorbency, then once the algorithms have differentiated between the different components in the solution, the current level of nitrates in the soil is determined. Levi stated that up until recently, farmers could only measure fertilizer they were adding and not the fertilizer that was already there. He adds that with no way to monitor fertilizers, over-application was common, given that fertilizers are needed for good yields.

Yeshno explained that his main mission was to determine how nitrates could be measured through spectral analysis and find a way to deal with the interference of the dissolved organic carbons. He added that soil nitrates were dynamic and continuous data produced in real time was needed if one was to optimize fertilizer application.

The system developed uses patented sensors installed at varying depths, depending on the type of crop. It needs to be replaced every five years and is powered by a solar panel. DOTS estimates that for every hectare of agricultural land, two systems will be needed.

The company is focused on implementing its system in pilots across European and U.S. farms by the summer. It has already been adopted by a pair of farms in Israel, one of which is a pepper farm and the other a tomato farm.

As more farmers adopt these technologies aimed at optimizing how much fertilizer they apply, the farmers will see a lot more value from the money they spend buying plant nutrients from manufacturers such as Compass Minerals International Inc. (NYSE: CMP).

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