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On Site Soil, Plant, and Fertilizer Analysis to Improve Yields and Resources Utilization in Agriculture Using Hand Held XRF Technology

We can increase yields, reduce costs, and environmental impact with XRF technology providing results in minutes rather than days or weeks.

Photo of Aicardo Roa-Espinosa
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Soil Net LLC

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Soil Net - Lead Farmers - Producers Bruker - Scientists & Researchers Rockriver Consulting - Scientists & Researchers

Website of Legally Registered Entity


How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Belleville, Wisconsin, United States of America

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Dane County, Wisconsin, United States. Armenia, Quindio, Colombia.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United Stated of America and Colombia

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Quindío is a department of Colombia. It is in the western central region of the country, crossed by the Andes. Quindío is located in the foothills of the Central Andean mountain range. The region boasts deep soils of ash from successive volcanic eruptions providing a soil profile with a pH of 6 to 6.5 is ideal for coffee, and fruits.

My family has its roots in this area, and our ancestral farm is in the foothills just west of Quindío’s capital, Armenia. This area is remarkably quiet and peaceful population involved in agriculture and its related industries. The area is experiencing some growing pains as with the rest of the country and perhaps more so due to the conservative nature of the farming communities here.

The fertile valleys blow the peaks and between the steep hills have rich soil that has long been known for its soft Arabica coffee. The 1999 earthquake devastated the area, many coffee growers who chose to diversify during the rebuilding to include many different types of fruit such as: oranges, lemons, tangerines, grapefruit, avocados, passion fruit, and guava. They are also producing bananas, corn, cassava, beans, cacao, coffee, as well as tomatoes. The producers in this area have long paid attention to developments in techniques and technology to supplement the local expertise, though their resources are very limited. It was originally this diversification of knowledge that originally led me to the US to pursue my PhD in Biological Systems Engineering.

Over the years I have developed very good connections with the farmers of the region who have helped me to collect soil and plant samples for calibration of our technology based in soil and plant analysis.

Agriculturally important region of my homeland that could benefit tremendously from the development of my vision.

I also have colleagues in the region beloved by community, engaged with innovative practices, that believe in the vision and have the resources and will to help implement the vision.


Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The social dynamics, cultural traditions, language, and ethnic diversity

Most of the population is a mix of European, Indigenous and a low % of African descent. Locals are considered hardworking people, proud of their cultural heritage and region. The aesthetics is rooted in the Spanish tradition of mud bricks houses and tiles, wood and colorful buildings. The social dynamics is alive and well, the area has produced many entrepreneurs and businesses. The area has social mobility based on education and strong work ethics. The people is friendly, generous and open.

The food People eat 

Traditional foods include beans, corn tortillas, beef, pork, abundant fruits and vegetables. The area produces, some of the best coffee and cocoa beans of Colombia. The picture of a farmer holding a cup of coffee in the morning is stereotypical from here. The food is carefully prepared, well-seasoned and preferably made from fresh ingredients. Drinking fresh juice is very common as is drinking aguapanela, a warm drink made from molasses.

The urban/rural breakdown

The population in this area is 37% rural and 63% urban, the unemployment is 15%, in line with the national average, the urban areas and the rural areas have 100% access to electricity and water, 64% of the people have internet. The poverty level is 25%.

The role of agriculture, farming and dominant crops.

Agriculture is about 8% of the GDP of the region. However, there are some other important emerging industries that are tied to it such as ecotourism. Agriculture and the coffee culture are an important part of the identity of the region. Coffee farms, and the nationally known Coffee Park, a coffee themed park, are important tourist destinations.

The climate and topography

The area is a fertile land of valleys between the steep hills, the soils are deep and rich and have been the coffee arabica producing region. In this area the water supply comes from the glaciers in the Central mountain range. The topography and the nature of the soils make the region be very prone to soil erosion, run-off, and high sediment yields. The climate is mild, beautiful landscapes and picturesque scenery makes it a perfect destination for ecotourism.

What are the hopes of the people?

Quindío is referenced as the miracle city. When faced with disaster the people have pulled together and have worked as a team to rebuild the region. This was the case after a catastrophic earthquake in 1999 destroyed close to 60% of the capital.

The agricultural economy has to change after events such as the earthquake and the diminishing support of the National Coffee Federation to farmers due to the decrease in coffee prices. Other crops have made their way into the region, specially fruits.

There have been environmentally minded institutions such as Nespresso that have interest in the whole region and have started efforts to support the local growers. These efforts have originated a shift in the attitude of the people, filling them with new hope. 

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Quindío has suffered from high unemployment in the last two decades. Unfortunate events such as the earthquake and lower coffee prices have not helped the region recover faster. The crash of the coffee price has forced farmers to farm more profitable crops. This comes with some learning costs, which include non-competitive yields, and non-optimal optimization of resources. The suboptimal utilization of resources in farming poses a threat to the ecosystem, as it can have a detrimental effect on the bodies of water, and in turn on the fauna and flora. It should be noted that fauna and flora are the drivers of ecotourism, and that due to the topology of the region farm nutrient run-off and soil erosion are exacerbated increasing the effects of inappropriate farming practices.

During the coffee bonanza, farmers were able to access technical support that helped them improve their strategies and make a better use of their land. Some of these resources are not available for them anymore.

Some of the long-term challenges we foresee in the next 30 years are similar to those most places will face: population growth; need for more jobs, the need to protect water sources, climate change, and sustainability, just to name a few.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision revolves around technology in the farms. Farms are our intermediary between nature and us, their practices can have a deep impact in our ecosystems. It is paramount that farmers use the best tools at our disposition to make environmentally sustainable decisions that minimize the impact of their activities in our ecosystems while achieving high productivity.

There are various inputs(resources) that farmers can adjust to optimize their yields: water, fertilizers, plant types, biocides, etc. The adjustments, however, should be based on 1) quantitative measurements, and 2) accurate predictive models. As mentioned earlier these variables can have a profound effect not only on crop yields but also in the surrounding water sources and ecosystems that rely on them. Current practices used by farmers in the region are not based on precise quantitative methods, mainly because the expensive costs associated with making these measurements.

The technology we are developing consists of two parts:

  • Inexpensive and fast methods that can be accessible to farmers to quantify in detail all the relevant characteristics of their fields and plants,
  • An information technology system that will receive the characteristics measured on the field and plants and provide detailed directions to the farmer on how to adjust their inputs. The system will continuously improve its models based on the information it will gather from the farmer.

Utilizing successfully such a system can help farmers not only save costs by reducing resource utilization, but decrease the environmental impact caused by unutilized resources (fertilizers, biocides, etc…) making their farms more sustainable endeavors.

This technology will help farmers get up to speed when growing new crops outside their expertise, which they will have to resort to, based on market demands as was the case when the coffee price crashed.

Sustainability and optimization will bring competitivity and profitability to the farms, which in turn will boost the economy decreasing unemployment. This can support other industries that rely in the region’s ecosystems to thrive such ecotourism.

In the long term, sustainable farms will have a better chance at preserve resources, maintaining water sources clean and reducing eutrophication risks. With this technology, farmers will be better equipped when facing challenges caused by climate change, as it could help them decide what would be the appropriate crop to grow based on environmental conditions.

Within the next 3 years we will implement the first line of quantitative measurements: Macro, and micronutrients, nitrogen forms and moisture. The concept has been technically been proven, a multi season exercise will be carried at various farms. Methods to measure other characteristics such as soil microbiome will be developed later on. At the same time a database and an AI-based system will be developed to process and to handle the data.



High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

With the vision accomplished, after so many decades of struggle Quindío is now a prosperous place. They are able to produce for themselves most of their agricultural needs. People live in harmony with their environment, they understand the importance of taking care of the water, the soil, vegetation and animals from the region. Farming is a high-tech practice; respected and protected by all. Quindío has led a technological revolution in agriculture in Colombia. Prosperity strengthens the culture, there is no talent exodus anymore. The houses are more colorful than they had ever been.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision will be a technological tool that will help us produce abundant food, without over utilizing resources, which by-default represents a competitive advantage for the farmers of the region. Farmers and friends from the region have confided that they believe that is a tool they need; is a technology they feel can empower them. 

The vision of having permanently clean water today is a dream, but also reality. Clean water is the source of life. The water of this area come from millennial glaciers deposited and accumulated every year in the Central Mountain range, the release of the water in the streams that become rivers of clean cold water must be maintained free of sediment, fertilizer, heavy metals and organic waste with phosphorus and nitrogen that causes eutrophication in the rivers and wetlands. Reducing the inputs of the fertilizers, pesticides, and organic waste is one of the strategies that can be used to maintain the water clean for human use and for the creatures and wildlife that live in the rivers, lakes, wetlands.

Another negative effect caused by sediment present in water streams is their warming. The erosion contributes to the eutrophication of the wetland and their filling until became degraded wetlands. The soil loss predicted by the Universal Soil Loss equation (RUSLE) is that cropping in this steep farming accounted for a more than 80 t/ha/yr. (CENICAFE).

Vison Area Priority for the next 5 years: We propose to implement Cyber Physical System in the Armenia, Quindío area. We propose to install an integrated system that optimizes the use of water and nutrients in farming operations to benefit farmers and maximize their profits.

The technology exists to collect site-specific real-time data on water, soil and crops, these data streams have not been integrated. This project will be focused on building the data analysis capabilities as well as an integrated decision support tool (DST) that can effectively manage the influx of rich sub-field level data. The DST will provide plain-language directions to aid the farmer’s decisions surrounding the logistics of manure separation and field application/irrigation.

The sub-field characterizations will be obtained through a portable X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) device, which has been integrated with GPS and wireless capabilities. This device will be used to measure the elemental content of crop tissues. The measurements will be done in real-time on the field and transmitted to the decision support database where this data will be combined with other resource and economic parameters for processing and optimization. Soil nitrogen (NH4-N and NOx-N) will be measured directly with a newly developed method utilizing a microplate reader that does not require sample acid digestion. Moisture in fields will be characterized by in-situ electrical conductivity measurements that allow the DST to unlock water use efficiencies through variable rate irrigation.

Specific Objectives from Year zero to Five. 

1. Design, implement and validate the system for annual and perennial crops.

2. Test all the necessary field and laboratory measurements (soil, crop, environment, manure, water, etc.) to populate and maintain the database.

Overall Vision and Goal for year 2030: 

New technology provides the farmer with quick, affordable, in-situ measurements of available nutrients in both the soil and plants at any given moment. The goal is to install a system that compiles this vast amount of information and combines it with resource and economic data to produce actionable optimal advice for the farmer. Optimal application of resources requires the in-situ measurement of available nutrient sources. With the system we will partner with farmers in Tropical and temperate areas of the world to fully complete the field measurements and implementation of the system by year 2030.

Figure 1: Climate, Environment, Armenia Ecosystem, Cycle of farm operations. Green features will be supported through interaction with the HHXRF elemental analysis and decision support tool. The model within decision support tool will be able to support decisions that take place on sub-year time scale as well as decisions that occur on a crop cultivation are made.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email
  • Conference/event


Join the conversation:

Photo of Itika Gupta

Hi Aicardo Roa-Espinosa  Great to see you joining the Prize!

We noticed your submission is currently unpublished. Was this your intention? We'd love to have your submission included in the Prize. Even if you've not started populating your Vision just yet, by publishing your submission you can make it public for other teams in your region to see, get in touch and possibly even collaborate with you.

You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your post. You can also update your Vision at any time before 31 January 2020 by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top. If you need inspiration or guidance, take a look at the Food Vision Prize Toolkit.
Here is the link to the Prize Toolkit:

Look forward to seeing your Vision evolve through the coming weeks.

Photo of Aicardo Roa-Espinosa

I have joined the prize. I d believe that the characterization of soils, lats and food can be dome around the world with the same technology.
I would like t keep i contact with you.