Javier Fernández - Parla Innovation Center

You were recently appointed head of the Parla Innovation Center. How are you coping with this new challenge, and why did you decide to accept it?

It's exciting to have the opportunity to lead a global project such as the Parla Innovation Center. A space that continues our commitment providing agricultural professionals with solutions that enable them to work more efficiently, more productively and more sustainably. In this case, we're talking about high-value crops such as olives, vines, apples, pistachios and almonds, for which Spain is a global benchmark.

Likewise, it's a great source of satisfaction to be in charge of coordinating projects involving major agricultural companies, and to see how they bring their experience and knowledge to bear on the disruptive proposals of emerging businesses. Always with the common aim of formulating solutions that enable farmers to do more with less, and make the challenge of food security and sustainability compatible.

What are your goals for the future of the center?

In the short term, the common goal is to take forward the 9 initiatives that have taken shape since the inauguration, by strengthening the links between collaborating companies in order to achieve results in each of the projects so that they become real solutions for industry professionals. Above all, by focusing on better water and input management, where we concentrate our efforts on formulating technologies that will enable the sector to be more efficient and sustainable.

In short, we will strengthen the synergies and actions emanating from the Parla Innovation Center so that they contribute to generating knowledge about high-value crops, to approaching the rural world in a more competitive way and, as I mentioned earlier, to making sustainability and food security compatible, which is the major challenge that is facing the sector in the medium and long term.

How many entities are currently collaborating with the Parla Innovation Center to move forward on the road to the agricultural industry of the future?

The differentiating value of the Innovation Center lies in the fact that it is a public-private collaboration hub, unique in the world, which brings together all types of companies to find innovative solutions. In the first category, we are surrounded by driving companies, leaders in their respective fields. They include AGQ Labs, Agromillora, Azud, BASF, ID David, Metos, Teyme Group and Yara.

Added to this is the participation of startups, who bring a touch of innovation and fresh air to the formulation of these innovative solutions. To this end, we work with emerging companies such as Abastores, Auravant, Biome Makers, Eden Library, FarmLabs, Graniot, SpherAG and Smart Apply.

On the public administration side, we benefit from the support of the Parla City Council, a key player in encouraging entrepreneurial initiatives and obtaining public funding for project development. Added to this is the collaboration of the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM) through the John Deere Presidency of Precision Agriculture, which provides us with the academic and research vision with which we can approach the whole project from a 360º business perspective.

On which projects are you working at the moment?

In our first year of existence, we have made great achievements and progress in 9 initiatives focused on increasing the profitability and sustainability of high-value crops. In this sense, we have a wide range of projects focusing on five areas related to precision agriculture: automation, connectivity, electrification, AI and Integrated Farming Systems.

These include flagship initiatives such as those by SpherAg, an Aragon-based startup that, together with Azud and Metos, is seeking to achieve significant savings on water consumption in vineyards in order to make farming more efficient and sustainable. To achieve this, the project uses the Internet of Things (IoT) to collect real-time data and control and optimize irrigation based on weather and crop water requirements.

Another interesting project is being developed by Graniot, which has created an algorithm for counting and estimating tree canopy volume using satellite remote sensing technology. It is collaborating with fertilizer specialist Yara to develop an advanced fertilization system for olive groves, which offers a more precise and comprehensive approach, and for which very high resolution (Ultra HD) satellite imagery is particularly relevant.

As a third example, John Deere supports the Abastores project, which aims to solve the problem of selling agricultural products more quickly and at more competitive prices. To this end, it is developing an application that provides up-to-date prices for products such as corn, wheat, barley and oats.

What are the selection criteria for inclusion in this innovation focus, and are only national companies eligible, or can international projects be included?

The Innovation Center is a unique global hub for high-value crop solutions. We recently opened another center in Canada, but this one focuses on field crops such as wheat, barley and cotton. To achieve our goal of remaining a leader in agro-technological innovation, we need to surround ourselves with the best professionals in the world.

It has always been clear to us that innovation is not a one-sided process. It is true that it can arise from individual, isolated initiatives, but these are only enriched by collective knowledge. That's why we always speak of the Innovation Center as a collaborative innovation hub, combining the experience of major food companies with the innovative approach of young start-ups who are making a name for themselves in the sector.

Spain is a major player in the global production of high value-added crops, which explains the good representation of players on the platform: from tractor companies like Azud, Metos or Industrias David, among others, to young start-ups like Abastores, Graniot or SpherAG. But we also have a wide range of companies from other countries, including Germany, Argentina, the USA, Greece and Turkey. In conclusion, any company that can participate and share the goal of making the rural world more productive, more efficient and more sustainable will always have a place in this project.

Finally, what does the John Deere Corporate Chair agreement with the UPM consist of? What are the objectives of this collaboration?

As I have already mentioned, at the Innovation Center we are convinced of the contribution of the academic world as a place for research and, consequently, for the formulation of theories that we can then test and apply in the center. To this end, we collaborate with the School of Agricultural Engineering (ETSIAAB), which belongs to UPM, to channel training activities, doctoral and research scholarships, and scientific dissemination activities.

Among them, we already have a first PhD student who is analyzing the variable application of nutrients using high-resolution soil mapping in very high density olive trees. This research will study the over-fertilization of these crops through the innovation and development of new precision farming technologies. This is a significant breakthrough for the olive tree, a crop that has grown and become more technological in recent years due to the consolidation of existing oil markets and the emergence of new business opportunities.