Ch.Chadraabal: Smart farming is key to development

Ch.Chadraabal: Smart farming is key to development

  • By Misheel   -   Feb 14,2022
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The following interview is with Labor Hero of Mongolia and CEO of Arvin Khur Company Ch.Chadraabal. More than a decade ago, he introduced zero-tillage technology at his company and since, he has been developing irrigated and smart farming in Mongolia.

What do you think are the most pressing issues in the Mongolian agricultural sector?

Our country has implemented many projects and programs to develop agriculture. It is crucial to spend the state budget properly. The priority in this sector is human resources. No matter how hard we try to work, we will not develop this sector if we do not train our human resources. Today, for instance, the mining economy is profitable and workers in this sector are paid well. Therefore, talented young specialists want to and are working in this sector. They are less interested in doing agricultural work. Obviously, they don’t want to work in this “inefficient” sector with low wages.

It is necessary to prepare successors. Your son studied agronomy in Canada for six years. How should human resources for this sector be trained?

The backwardness of Mongolia’s agricultural sector is due to the fact that we cannot change our outdated mindset. The country’s agricultural sector is very large. However, almost 90 percent of doctors and professors at the Mongolian State University of Life Sciences, who train personnel in this important field, are graduates of the socialist era. It is doubtful whether they are teaching students modern techniques and technologies. That’s why we need to train our young people abroad. It costs 400,000 USD to 50,000 USD to train one person. It would cost 500 million USD to train 100 people.
Mongolia’s agricultural sector is poor and unable to educate its people. So it has to be done differently. The Mongolian National Crop Farmers Association has recently been organizing quality training. Lectures are given by highly educated professionals who graduated in Australia, the US and Canada. Only those who care about their own business should be trained. Otherwise, it is useless to retrain people who studied only for the sake of a diploma. Moreover, private companies need to use an e-agriculture.

How much did your company harvest last year? There were many complaints from farmers that they could not sell their wheat due to imported grain.

Last year, Mongolia invested in Russian agriculture, not in Mongolian agriculture. About 300,000 tons of wheat was imported from Russia for 1.5 million MNT per ton. Under such circumstances, Mongolian agriculture will not develop. Today, there are more than 100,000 tons of unsold wheat in the outdoor threshing floors of agricultural companies. In particular, our company has 8,000 tons of wheat in the field. Last year, the government pursued a policy of “destroying” Mongolian farmers. A one-year soft loan with an interest rate of 3 percent was provided to farmers. Farmers are not able to repay their loans because they are not able to sell their wheat. As a result, the loan grace period will expire and the interest will rise to 24 percent. I think there will be almost no one to plant crops this spring.

The government said that the quality of domestic wheat was poor. Did your company harvest quality crop?

This is a mistake made by the government itself. They imported wheat so they shouldn’t say domestic wheat is bad. The hard work of farmers should not be left uncompensated.

If we export flour, the government will be able to buy wheat that farmers aren’t selling, right?

China will not buy flour made with Russian wheat. They are not stupid. If the country wants to buy flour, they will buy it directly from Russia. They are giving permission to more than 10 factories in Mongolia just to buy ecologically fresh products grown on our soil. 

In general, there is no history of a country where the government does business. However, if non-governmental organizations, professional associations or public organizations take over this work, it will be more organized and controlled.

Your company has introduced high-yield, smart farming technology. Can you tell us about this technology?

We operate in Zuunburen soum of Selenge Province. About 80 to 90 centners of wheat are harvested from one hectare of irrigated land. Our company has reached world standards. The average yield per hectare of non-irrigated land is 30 to 32 centners. This is a record in Mongolia. This is the benefit of the new technology. Some companies are not able to get 30 centners per hectare even with irrigation. Modern technology is being used all over the world. We have introduced a technology used in Canada, the USA and the Netherlands to Mongolia. I didn’t invent it. Introducing technology, working hard and producing results is labor. We also do everything digitally nowadays. With the satellite, we can monitor everything from plants to the soil to pastures. I view that these changes will open up opportunities to fully use 750,000 hectares of Mongolian agricultural land with fewer personnel. In other words, the development of smart agriculture is the key to the development of our industry. In addition to Mongolian farmers, the best specialists in other fields are working hard to aid us in this area. They work in all areas, including soil analysis, meteorology, engineering and technology.

Are new smart farming technologies expensive? Will it cost a lot of money to localize?

One machine we use costs 300,000 to 500,000 USD. Not only us but other agricultural companies use such expensive equipment in their farmland. However, there are cases when people break expensive equipment because they have no knowledge of modern technology. Mongolians cannot manage it well. For example, if a combine harvester breaks down in Uvs Province, two professionals drag their computers from Ulaanbaatar to fix it. After diagnosing the damage, they return to Ulaanbaatar to buy spare parts. It takes a lot of work to repair it, so it requires a lot of money and manpower. It is really difficult in terms of personnel. Moreover, irrigated agriculture requires a large sum of money. For example, it will cost 10 million to 20 million USD to irrigate 1,000 hectares of land.

All this should be facilitated by the development of smart agriculture. Particularly, in Zuunburen soum, our machines work in the fields, while in Ulaanbaatar, IT engineers from technology companies such as MCM and Insada diagnose them.

Is Mongolia ready to develop smart technologies in the agricultural sector?

There is a shortage of human resources, equipment and spare parts, the price of everything is rising and the challenges are increasing. The way to overcome this is smart farming. There is no country in the world that has introduced 100 percent smart farming. Mongolians have high intellectual potential. Digital technology is used for everything such as spraying pesticides. After years of research and experimentation, we have started to introduce it to Mongolia. The Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry has ordered it. We are one of the contractors. This will turn into real work in the next three to five years. At the moment, we are only providing consulting services.

What were the advantages and opportunities of transitioning to e-technology for your company?

We used to employ more than 100 people. Now only 10 people are working. Digital technology makes the job much easier. We have already seen the results that prove that this is the future of agriculture. In order to make it available to the public, we have decided to implement a project under the order of the agriculture ministry, with the support of many organizations such as the World Bank and JICA.

It is essential to develop domestic production and exports. How do you see the exporting potential of the agricultural sector?

The mining sector is developing but it is a resource-depleting industry. Its reserves will run out in the next 10 to 20 years. Wheat can be exported every year. The Mongolian government has a “strange” policy of not exporting wheat “because it is a strategic product”. It mustn’t be limited to meeting domestic needs. Mongolia is the only country that bans wheat exports and allows its imports. If exports are supported, it will be possible to fully use 750,000 hectares of land. If we get 20 centers per hectare, we will harvest 1.45 million tons of wheat. Assuming that 1 million tons of wheat are exported, Mongolia can earn 300 million USD annually. It is the gold that grows.

Selenge Province is an agricultural region but is unable to resolve the problem of livestock and agriculture. What’s your position on this?

Long and medium-term plans are needed. It will take decades to intensify pastoralism as a whole. There should be a policy to develop intensive animal husbandry in Selenge, which produces most of Mongolia’s food, in several soums of Tuv Province, and in one or two soums of Bulgan, Khuvsgul and Khentii provinces each. The government has made its decisions, but they must be implemented.

Last year, low-quality wheat grew in some places. That was because farmers used uncertified seeds and planted them. We all know that. We need to educate the people first and then, we can talk about development. People with this level of morality cannot develop the country. We are about 200 years behind the world (in terms of agriculture). Digital and modern technologies have emerged to compensate for that development. We can use it to speed up our development a bit.

You are a painter. Why did you start working in agriculture?

I graduated from the Music and Dance College (now changed to the Mongolian State Conservatory) in painting and later, became a geological economist. I used to work at the Ministry of Agriculture and work as a sports presenter for a radio. This influenced me to work in agriculture. Radio electronics and computers are my hobbies. Hobbies can become one’s highest level of profession. Therefore, young people must develop their hobbies well. For instance, an agricultural worker can’t be just an agronomist. He or she must be knowledgeable in engineering, mechanics, electronics, land and soil analysis.

How do you see the development of the agricultural sector in the near future?

What we need to do is export agricultural products and bring 300 million USD to Mongolia. This is not a difficult task. It is possible to earn 300 million to 450 million USD annually by planting a variety of crops on 750,000 hectares of Mongolia using zero-tillage technology. I’m working to do that. Others must also work toward it. 

Recently, the erratic use of herbicides by farmers has become a matter of concern. Does your company use herbicides?

This is not a concern. Only people who don’t know anything about it say that. Those people have the right to be suspicious. Wheat will not grow without herbicides. People say very strange things about organic food. In our conditions, it is impossible to eat organic food. You can eat it only if you plow the land with cows and pull out weeds by hand every day. Everyone was given 0.07 hectares of land by the state. Only a handful of people want to grow organic vegetables on their land and meet their household needs. If the Japanese were given 0.07 hectares of land, they would all have become millionaires by now. Mongolians are becoming more and more like “beggars”. Land must be turned into wealth. I urge the people to enrich their 0.07 hectares of land.

Some farmers say that Russian technology is more suitable for our region. What do you think about it?

We need to buy technology. In particular, it is necessary to introduce planting technology without disturbing the soil. Our company has been planting without soil disturbance for more than 10 years. Modern Canadian and American techniques are used around the world. The Russians are also using it. I have traveled to more than 160 countries. Ninety percent of Russians use western technology. So we have to get rid of old ideas and adapt to new technologies and new times.

Misheel Lkhasuren