In spring 2021, a massive citizen science project called ‘CurieuzeNeuzen in de Tuin’ (“Curious Noses in the Garden”) was kicked off in Belgium, monitoring and mapping heat and drought in great detail all over Flanders between April and October. At the beginning, the initiators of the project, the University of Antwerp and Flemish daily newspaper De Standaard, were expecting another dry and hot summer season. However, the summer of 2021 will be remembered as the wettest summer ever in Belgium. In this weather context, parts of the project also proof to be very insightful for studying the effect of extreme weather on potato cultivation.
Smart sensors in potato fields
An agricultural side experiment of the project, coordinated by Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) Remote Sensing, investigates the impact of extreme weather on the cultivation of potatoes. Some 500 smart sensors were installed in 295 potato fields spread over Flanders. In a recent blog, VITO Programme manager & Team lead Bart Deronde discusses meteorological observations, measurements by the sensors installed on the potato fields and the impact of the extreme weather on the cultivation of potatoes.
Impact of extreme weather on potato cultivation
The combination of persistent high humidity and moderate temperatures this summer were a major threat for the potato cultivation. Late blight, Phytophthora and Alternaria were widely observed, VITO reports. The regular precipitation and moderate temperatures however caused favourable growing conditions. After a cold start in the spring, a period of rapid growth followed. The expected potato yields are therefore still more or less at the level of the multi-year average for storage varieties like Fontane and Challenger. But, VITO forecasts that the tuber quality on many fields will be inferior, due for example to the large amount of precipitation, often in combination with the presence of a lot of nitrogen in the soil.
Precise and accurate measurements
The measurements from the potato fields are stored in WatchITgrow, an online platform supporting growers to monitor their crops in view of increasing yields in a sustainable way. The platform allows to combine remote sensing data with data from the field, using big data analytics and machine learning to provide growers with more timely and personalized advice. Looking at the sensor measurements, VITO has noticed that the low-cost devices used have captured very precise and accurate measurements. Growers can easily access the soil moisture and soil temperature data, next to available satellite images, greenness derived from Sentinel data, rainfall and temperature data.
Assessing crop development and performance
VITO will collect all sensors once harvesting has been completed, and start a detailed analysis of the measurements. The properties measured in the field will be combined with other data. The temperature and soil moisture data captured by the sensors for example will be combined with satellite data, meteorological observations and soil analyses. The data analysis will provide insight in the crop development and crop quality during the extreme weather conditions as experienced. The first results of this analysis are expected to be shared in December 2021.
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