From technology to farm management – how smart is Swiss agriculture, part 1

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Apps and digital business models have also long been used in agriculture. Although not everything is running smoothly, Switzerland is still in a promising position. In Part 1 of an interview, Societybyte author and digitalisation expert Reinhard Riedl talks to Michael Buser, Head of IT and Logistics at Fenaco, about why central IT departments are needed at the agricultural cooperative Fenaco and the level of digitalisation in Swiss agriculture.

What excites you most about your job?

Fenaco is a very diverse company. We are central to the functioning supply of food, everyday goods and energy in Switzerland. Being responsible for IT and logistics at our company is enormously challenging. It motivates me every day to help ensure that our 40 or so subsidiaries can operate successfully in their respective markets.

What role does central IT play for these subsidiaries?

An increasingly important one. We are very busy optimising and automating processes with the help of digitalisation. And there are new business models that need to be implemented: For example, e-commerce solutions that didn’t exist in this form in the past. At the same time, reliable, secure operation is very important. We are systemically relevant in Switzerland. Our task is to enable both: Innovations and secure operations.

Michael Buser leitet das Departement Informatik / Logistik bei Fenaco.

Michael Buser heads the IT / Logistics department at Fenaco.

What are the current main challenges for IT at Fenaco?

The topics I mentioned earlier: Process digitalisation, new business models and protection against cyber risks. These three challenges arise in all areas of the company and are becoming increasingly complex. That’s why, firstly, it doesn’t make sense and, secondly, it would be far too costly if our subsidiaries were to build all the solutions themselves. For example, the protection of IT systems is similar for everyone and the identity and access management solution is the same for everyone.

How do you get the specialists for these tasks?

Building up decentralised specialists is challenging for our subsidiaries. As a centralised IT department, we are an attractive employer for IT specialists, for example in the areas of cyber security, smart farming and SAP. Protecting Fenaco’s IT is challenging and exciting. Accordingly, we find good people and can build up a high level of expertise. The same applies to building SAP systems, where we will be carrying out S4 migrations in many different areas: for example, at meat processor Ernst Sutter, at beverage manufacturer Ramseier, in retail at Volg, in central finance and accounting, in master data management and in HR. There are few companies in Switzerland that offer such a wide range of tasks.

There is a cliché that agriculture is lagging behind when it comes to digitalisation, because it is agriculture. How do you experience this?

Quite the opposite. On the contrary, agriculture has already come a long way and we want to take it even further. It should become more sustainable and remain productive at the same time. Digitalisation plays a decisive role in this. This is one of Fenaco’s key initiatives. Today, Switzerland is 57 per cent self-sufficient in gross terms. The representative Fenaco Urban-Rural Monitor shows that the majority of the population would like to see a level of self-sufficiency of around 70 per cent. We do not consider this to be realistic in view of limited agricultural land and population growth. However, we are convinced that ecological intensification is possible with the help of technological progress.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

Example one: We enter into partnerships with manufacturers of innovative agricultural technology and make their new, often very expensive machines available to farmers via LANDI through a rental model. One of these machines is Ecorobotix. This is a camera-controlled precision sprayer that uses artificial intelligence to differentiate between crops and weeds and then only sprays where necessary. This has been proven to reduce the use of pesticides by 90 per cent. Example two: We support digital administration. Keeping paper records of the purchase and application of pesticides and fertilisers is much more time-consuming than digital records with automated data entries. Example three: Barto, the smart farming platform that we launched together with nine other industry players, is up and running and growing.

Barto is a farm management information system. It helps farmers to get a 360-degree view of their farm, for all branches of the business from crop cultivation to animal husbandry.

For our readers: What exactly is Barto?

Barto is a farm management information system. It helps the farmer to obtain a 360-degree view of his farm for all branches of the business, from crop cultivation to animal husbandry. Barto provides basic functionalities. Third-party apps can build on this and use the data provided where this is desired by the farmer. The advantage for app developers is, on the one hand, that they do not have to develop many functionalities themselves. On the other hand, they have access to many customers via Barto – just like with other digital platforms such as Apple.

And for the farmer?

He only has to enter the basic data for his farm, such as parcels and livestock, once and can then use it for several applications. They can make entries quickly and conveniently in the barn and in the field, network the data and thus gain completely new insights. Our primary motivation is to create benefits for farmers. On the one hand by simplifying administration, and on the other by providing decision-making aids for more sustainable, productive production. We are completely open to co-operations – explicitly including those with downstream sectors such as trade or related areas such as insurance. There are still many creative ideas on how Barto could be developed further.

Everyone is talking about smart farming. Where does smart farming stand in Switzerland today?

We conducted surveys with our farmers to find out what they expect from the digitalisation of agriculture. Their top priority is to simplify administration. Precision and smart farming only come second. This has to do with the fact that the authorities are imposing increasingly complicated requirements on agriculture and are focusing more on controlling these requirements in digitalisation than on supporting more sustainable, smart production. One of the federal government’s largest digitalisation programmes in agriculture is currently digiFLUX. It brings little added value to Swiss agriculture for the actual work in the field. It controls the purchase and application of fertilisers and pesticides. This monitoring is certainly important in order to see whether the corresponding reduction targets of the federal government are being achieved, but it would also be valuable if public money were invested in more sustainable and efficient production, as is also happening on a large scale in the EU, for example.

What does this mean in the medium term?

In Switzerland, we will unfortunately have to spend most of the next five years looking at how we can simplify administration. As a result, we will not be able to place enough emphasis on the development of smart decision-making tools for the time being. For example, on questions such as: “How can you grow a certain crop on plot X with soil Y and exposure Z and reduce the amount of fertiliser without losing yield?

Is small-scale diversification in Switzerland a disadvantage for digitalisation?

A little bit. If you grow maize in the USA and can then save 3 per cent on fertiliser, that’s a lot of money. In Switzerland, on the other hand, the economies of scale are much smaller. Nonetheless, if you can detect pest infestations earlier and use pesticides in a more targeted manner or only use fertiliser where it is really needed, this will also be beneficial in Switzerland.

Are you collaborating with university research?

Yes, the development of smart decision-making aids requires smart algorithms. Developing these is complex and takes years. We have therefore entered into research partnerships with ETH Zurich, Agroscope, FiBL and other institutions. At ETH Zurich’s World Food System Centre, for example, we are specifically supporting projects at the interface between agronomy and big data, artificial intelligence and robotics. The first project is concerned with the optical recognition of wheat growth. In future, farmers will be able to use their smartphones to compare the growth in their wheat field with other wheat fields. After that, however, further development steps are needed: If a farmer realises that her wheat is growing worse than the benchmark, she should also be able to find out why. Is it because of the microclimate, is it the soil quality, have I not applied the wrong fertiliser, etc.?

From Landi to Ramseier Most

Fenaco is an agricultural co-operative based in Bern. Its members are 153 agricultural organisations, most of which operate under the Landi brand. Indirectly, Fenaco is therefore largely owned by around 41,000 members of the Landi co-operatives, of which around 23,000 are active farmers. Well-known Fenaco companies and brands include the beverage manufacturer Ramseier Suisse, the meat processor Ernst Sutter AG, the retail companies Volg and Landi, the fertiliser brand Landor, the animal feed manufacturer UFA and the mineral oil company Agrola.

The Fenaco cooperative employs around 11,500 people and generated a turnover of around CHF 8.06 billion in 2022.

Partnership with BFH

Fenaco is a partner of the Digital Technology Management Institute. In addition, BFH Wirtschaft offers customised management training in IT for Fenaco managers.

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AUTHOR: Anne-Careen Stoltze

Anne-Careen Stoltze is Editor in Chief of the science magazine SocietyByte and Host of the podcast "Let's Talk Business". She works in communications at BFH Business School, she is a journalist and geologist.

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