Higher yields on way? Innovative testing service Croptimal brings lab to field


Photo courtesy of Croptimal

Israeli company Croptimal is aiming to steer its mobile crop testing service of the same name to the forefront of precision agriculture by giving agronomists and growers accurate analysis results within as little as 10 minutes to allow for a real-time field response. Having been nominated for this year's Fruit Logistica Innovation Award, PBUK finds out more about the latest ag-tech solution available to the produce industry.

Croptimal, which is owned by Canadian company Eurocontrol Technics Group, was founded as recently as last year. Its overarching aim is to increase crop yields, lower costs and improve sustainability by providing test results in minutes, rather than days.

“Croptimal is unique,” claims the firm’s marketing manager, Sivan Fridner. “No other company in the world has combined several technologies together to optimise the fertilisation process.

“With Croptimal, we can test the [nutrients in the] soil, water and plant tissue, and all through a mobile device that gives you a quick response to customers’ mobile phones or smart devices. It reduces the time analysis from 10-14 days with traditional laboratories to 10 minutes in the field. It’s really exciting!” 

Although unfamiliar with the company, Dr. Jim Monaghan, director of the Fresh Produce Research Centre at Harper Adams University in the UK, believes the service pushes the boundaries of current technologies available.

“Although the overall approach is not unique, the integration of the techniques is ahead of the game, and it will certainly give valuable additional information to growers,” he tells PBUK.

Fridner says the service helps growers to produce better yields and to minimise costs by providing real-time recommendations on which fertilisers to use, in which quantity and when to apply.

“An experienced grower may save 10-15 per cent on fertilisation costs and increase yields by 5-10 per cent, while an inexperienced grower can expect to save up to 25 per cent  on fertilisation costs and increase yields by up to 25 per cent ,” she explains.

“In the long run, maybe it can help with world hunger by optimising the growing (fertilisation) methods that, in turn, will increase yields. 

“Precise fertilisation at the right time and in the right quantity will have quantitative and qualitative benefits for the fruits and/or vegetables under production, and will help the grower to overcome difficulties and bumps along the road.” 

What it facilitates 

The Croptimal service will “change everything”, according to Shabtai Cohen, an independent agronomist and senior researcher at three Israeli agricultural research facilities: Ramat Negev Research and Development, MOP Darom (R&D South) and R&D Arava.

“It looks very promising,” he explains to PBUK. “I’ve been working in agriculture for more than 40 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen a system that can give very fast and very accurate results for a wide spectrum of crops. It can give growers better yields and quality.”

Cohen says those set to benefit in particular from the speedy results are growers of short-production-cycle crops, such as lettuce, cucumbers, potatoes and greenhouse tomatoes that are harvested from seed in a matter of months, compared with a fruit orchard which takes years to develop.

“Usually, when you send samples to a laboratory in Israel the results take two weeks,” Cohen remarks. “This is a problem when your crop grows very fast and you need results in a continuous way and in a very short space of time. With Croptimal, you can see the first signs of something happening.

“The service also gives growers [fertilisation] recommendations in a very comprehensive way,” Cohen continues. “And all the data accumulates from when the crop was planted, when the grower started to harvest, etc., so you can see all the changes in the plant from the beginning. Growers are viewing Croptimal in a very holistic way.”

Thanks to Croptimal, Israeli grower Itay Rubin says he is already experiencing “huge changes” in his approach to producing cherry tomatoes in a 12ha greenhouse on the Rubin Levi Farm in Israel’s Negev region, which lies about 500m from the border with Egypt.

“It’s a game changer,” states Rubin, who supplies both domestically and to Asia. “It’s still a start-up, but it’s a promising one. It’s changed something that hasn’t changed in about 100 years.”

The major benefit for Rubin is that production problems can be solved very quickly.

“After taking a sample from my greenhouse I can understand what’s happening within 24 hours so I can fix the problem,” he points out. “I can apply the right fertiliser, fix the shortage of microelements or whatever. That is the big difference – the time, and the accuracy.”

Rubin says that previously he waited two weeks for lab results, which did help him to understand what was happening to his crops but left him unable to react fast enough. He also claims that the instruments used to sample the soil or extract plant tissue from the leaves were not sufficiently accurate.

“Before, you could be shooting in the dark,” he states. “But the accuracy of Croptimal is very high, and if you do get weird results they can re-run the tests, which in the past you couldn’t do [with traditional testing services].”

Rubin has been using the Croptimal service for six months. Already, he says it is making his life easier in an age when growers need to be skilled in multiple areas of the business. 

“With Croptimal everything is brighter,” he suggests. “I see a big difference in how I react to shortages in the plants, and I see things I didn’t understand before with the tools that I had.

“The plants look healthier, and I’m sure I will produce more yields as a result. My farm produces about 1,500 tonnes per year, and even if yields increase by a few per cent, that will be a large number.”

Rubin also believes he will save on using excess fertiliser, which he claims is expensive in Israel. “Fertiliser and water make up about 20 per cent of the cost of my product,” he notes. “So, if I can earn more per hectare and save money that’s a profit at the end of the day.”

How it works

The Croptimal service works via either a mobile or stationary laboratory unit that is used to collect samples of soil, water and plant tissue in the field. Those samples are prepared and can be analysed on the spot by a hybrid of technologies housed within the compact unit. 

The results are transmitted to a Cloud database with a unique ID, time and location signature. The results analysis and approval are then provided back to the grower or agronomist for the revision and implementation of the fertilisation recommendations provided.

According to the system’s developers, the precise and fast delivery of these results, coupled with the fertilisation recommendations, are what allows the grower to optimise their crop’s potential by enabling them to implement real-time corrective and/or required action.

And to ensure its recommendations are accurate, Croptimal has developed unique machine learning algorithms that allow for correlation analysis between the environmental data collected (e.g. temperature, UV radiation, humidity etc.) and the measurement of nutrient data collected. 

“The [fertilisation] recommendations are based on a combination of agricultural literature, grower experience, agronomist knowledge and the results of the analysis testing,” says Fridner from Croptimal. 

“The algorithms allow Croptimal to create Dynamic Growth Protocols to enable accurate fertilisation recommendations based on past events and future events, for example, a weather forecast,” says Fridner. “Taking all this into consideration, there is very little, if any, room for error.”

Where it hails from

The development of the Croptimal solution was assisted by Xenemetrix, an Israeli company founded in 2008 that specialises in energy-dispersive X-ray fluorescence technology or ED-XRF. Xenemetrix, like Croptimal, is a subsidiary of Eurocontrol Technics Group.

“Xenemetrix builds spectrometers for laboratories,” explains Fridner. “The idea came from there in terms of using XRF to reduce the time of analysis.”

The Croptimal system combines both spectroscopic and electrochemical technologies in a single integrated solution. Its unique hardware and software enables continuous measurement of macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) in soil, water and plant tissue, as well as other microelements and macroelements.

“The technology of XRF hasn’t changed but we use it in a different way in Croptimal,” Fridner notes. “It’s how the [spectroscopic and electrochemical] technologies are combined and how they all work together that is unique. We’ve done a lot of testing to get to this point.” 

Where it’s headed

With just a year under its belt, now Croptimal is focusing its efforts on spreading the word about its innovative solution, while seeking global partners who can deliver the service to further markets.

“The system can be used for any crop,” points out Fridner. “We’re promoting the product, and this year we hope to begin offering the service to Europe. The wine industry in Italy is interested already.

“We have also started looking for worldwide franchisees and distributors in order to provide the service globally. By the end of 2018 we hope to expand to Asia and Africa.”

The cost of the Croptimal service depends on a number of parameters, such as the target market, the crop, the area and accessibility, among others. However, all taken into account, Fridner claims it is not more expensive than standard laboratory service costs. 

“Croptimal has the ability to provide both a mobile and stationary laboratory, almost without the need for any early infrastructure,” she adds.

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