The Ministry of Agriculture has unexpectedly suspended a subsidy for precision farming, which was supposed to bring up to CZK 200 million this year alone to support variable fertilisation and thus help to start using beneficial zonation of crops and fields on a larger area of arable land in the Czech Republic. The ambition to gradually start using variable applications in a comprehensive way, starting with fertilisation, the application of plant protection products and, of course, sowing and planting, is thus postponed indefinitely. Isn't that a pity?

The unexpected decision, which came at the last minute, has brought difficulties to Czech farmers, who have invested a large amount of money, time and other resources over the last year to purchase equipment and technology to manage the transition to precision farming. While this may seem like a marginal problem affecting 'a few farmers', the opposite is true. Indeed, more efficient fertiliser management also has a significant impact on food prices and, according to European and global studies, has a positive impact on the environment and is closely linked to human health.

In the last 2 years at least, we have all been assured that the promotion of digitalization and modern approaches in agriculture is a priority and the path that the Czech state wants to follow. That is why I do not understand, and I am certainly not alone in this, why the Ministry has decided to stop this programme, which was supported and approved by the European Commission and, until recently, by the Ministry itself.

Nor do I understand the reasoning behind this decision, and especially not the timing, which came at a time when everything was ready for the launch of the programme and the Government's paragraph-by-paragraph regulation was being finalised. This is all the more so when the Ministry communicated in advance that the subsidy would be evaluated after the first year and could be adjusted to reflect as much as possible the environmental approach and the economics of the farm. All of this has happened in a situation where Czech farmers perceive the benefits in the use of modern technologies in the form of greater efficiency and better economy. Such is the case with variable rate fertilisation, which brings savings on fertiliser costs in the tens or hundreds of thousands while increasing or at least maintaining the same long-term yield.

Among the arguments for suspending the programme was the view that most Czech farmers have been using variable rate fertilisation for a long time. I fundamentally disagree with this statement, and I can base this on my experience of running the largest service digitising Czech agriculture. According to our data and experience, we know that today only around 5% of farms use technology that enables variable fertiliser application in a comprehensive way. This saves not only the cost of fertiliser, but also the environment, which the Ministry is also committed to protecting. At the same time, it must be remembered that precise variable application is not just about collecting data, it is primarily about evaluating it and creating appropriate application maps. The correct application in the field, which is already closely related to modern technology and, above all, its control, is also important.

According to an unexpected press release from the Ministry of Agriculture on Tuesday 31 January, the funds from the programme will be used to purchase agricultural machinery and navigation systems. The ministry argues that it wants to enable farmers to purchase modern equipment and increase interest in agriculture. However, these technologies and techniques were already supported in the outgoing Rural Development Programme, so this is not a change. Farmers will be able to continue to modernise their equipment, but will not be given the means to use it in the way the subsidy envisaged, even though it has been well prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture for a long time. Thus, 95% of the arable land in the Czech Republic will be covered by modern machinery, but most of it will treat nature in the same way as it did 5 years ago - because farmers will not have the financial and human resources to prepare and evaluate data, and so variable applications will often not be used to their full extent. Naturally, they will focus more on subsidised farming techniques as before.

New tractors, navigation and RTK signals alone will not make nature any easier. Only by combining great technology and modern systems working with large amounts of heterogeneous data will targeted applications be achieved. It will also allow us to look at the field from a long-term yield potential perspective, thus focusing on highly productive areas and choosing appropriate measures for those with lower potential. I view the promotion of robotics positively, but at the moment it has only real practical application on a fraction of agricultural land, and mainly in greenhouses or indoor spaces.

In my opinion, the state is thus showing that, despite many declarations, digitalisation is not its priority, and is abandoning the efforts of farmers at a time when they have devoted an enormous amount of time and money to digitalisation and were determined to bring about a change for the better, not only for themselves but also for the countryside. Agdata has been involved in variable rate fertilisation for over 5 years and it is safe to say that the last year has been by far the most intense in terms of interest. However, we know from experience that the transition to precision agriculture is a necessity for Czech farmers, and the good news is that the farmers themselves are aware of this. The much-needed digitalisation will therefore come, but it will take place in a more complicated way and over a much longer period of time. And, according to the latest reports, unfortunately in 2023, without any incentive support from the state. We can only hope, therefore, that the discussion in the ministry will continue in this area and that we will have further opportunities to explain the benefits on the basis of arguments and not assumptions.

The author of the commentary is Lukáš Musil, Agdata's Sales Director.