Program of Brazil-FAO International Cooperation

Cotton picker prototype to benefit family farmers in Brazil and Latin America

The machine is an innovation developed in Brazil within the framework of the trilateral South-South + Cotton cooperation project.

Foto: Felipe Guimaraes/Embrapa

A single-row cotton picker prototype adapted for small production areas will benefit family farmers from Brazil and from +Cotton project partner countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Paraguay and Peru. The prototype developed by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), a techniccal institution cooperating in the project, had its first tests in 2019 in the town of São Desidério, Bahia, Brazil. It was also tested in research areas in the towns of Barbalha, Ceará, and Apodi, Rio Grande do Norte.

This year, the validation process will continue in other states, as the machine will be transported for tests in the town of Catuti, located in Northern Minas Gerais.

Developed by the Embrapa Cotton researchers Odilon Reny Ribeiro and Valdinei Sofiatti, the single-row cotton picker can harvest 1 hectare every 3.5 hours, the equivalent to 120 hectares in 30 days. With a yield of 389 kg of cotton fiber per hectare in the first validation run and costing 70% less than manual harvest, once this prototype is validated, it can become a highly viable option for cotton smallholders in Latin America, as well as their organizations and cooperative unions.

For the technology validation tests in Catuti, an agreement was signed in the scope of the +Cotton regional project by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Brazilian Cooperation Agency  (ABC/MRE), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and the Catuti Cotton Farmers Cooperative (Coopercat).

Coopercat will be responsible for transporting the mechanized picker from Campina Grande, Paraíba - Embrapa Cotton's headquarters - to Catuti, in Minas Gerais, covering a distance of approximately 1,500 kilometers. In Catuti, they will harvest 80 hectares in areas that belong to the family farmer members of Coopercat, a cooperative that integrates the Minas Gerais Cotton Farmers' Association (Amipa). According to Lício Augusto de Sairre, Amipa's executive director, the picker prototype will be of “fundamental importance for farmers in the North of Minas [Gerais]”.  

The director of the association explains that the mechanized harvest brings several benefits for smallholders, as manual harvest generates high production cost and due to the difficulty to obtain manpower that is qualified and available to work in the fields. Moreover, Lício de Sairre explains that the manual harvest creates a high risk of contaminating the wool, since when groups of workers hand pick the cotton, the wool can be contaminated by materials that they take to the farm, like plastic packaging, for instance. Amipa's director adds that the market prefers to buy cotton that is not manually harvested, that is, cotton that is harvested with the use of mechanized pickers to prevent this type of contamination.

Field test monitoring

The monitoring system for the machinery validation tests will provide biweekly reports with activity and photo records. Moreover, all the project partners will have monthly meetings to evaluate the results. Embrapa will technically oversee it through videocalls. According to Amipa's director, the association will also support the tests with the laboratorial analysis in Uberlândia of the quality of the cotton fiber that will be harvested in Catuti with the picker prototype.

After the field validation, the process of developing the machinery is expected to continue in the project partner countries jointly with Embrapa and respective local technical institutions. “We are very optimistic with the machine's operation and these stages are important to check possible problems that could appear and neet the needs of smallholders not only from Brazil, but all the farmers involved in the +Cotton project”, states Odilon Ribeiro, a researcher at Embrapa. The aim is to facilitate and promote access to new technologies and innovations for family farming, in the scope of the South-South trilateral cooperation project + Cotton.

About the machine

The Embrapa Cotton researcher Odilon Reny Ribeiro reports that the idea to propose a project to develop a small cotton picker with FAO stemmed from an old need expressed by cotton smallholders. “Cotton is an extremely important crop and it used to be cultivated in large areas of the Brazilian Northeast by smallholders. But today, activities in the field are very difficult because the labour force is increasingly scarce in rural areas. Therefore, cotton farming by smallholders is currently nearly insignificant in comparison with corporate cultivation”, explains.

The machine is an adaptation of the picker-type of harvesters, which harvests the cotton through spindles and does not make the cotton as dirty. “The machine has already been tested in large plantations in Bahia state, areas of high technology and productivity, with a good performance, which parallels 5 to 6-row machines”, he asserts.

In preliminary tests, the cotton harvested in the machine presented around 4.5% to 5.5% of impurities, “which is considered normal for picker-type harvester, and harvest losses were around 4% to 5%”.

After the tests in Minas Gerais, the machine will be moved to Alagoinha, PB, Barbalha, CE and Ibimirim, PE, where there will be the final tests and demonstrations with farmers before the launch planned for the end of the year.

For ABC/MRE and FAO, this innovation is considered a technological advance to the benefit of family farming in Latin America, for which cotton hand-picking represents a major challenge.

With regard to the prototype aimed at cotton-growing family farmers under development, Adriana Gregolin, coordinator of the +Cotton project, underscores that one of the project's lines of action is precisely “to connect initiatives by cotton-producing countries in Latin America, seeking innovations in terms of research, machinery, sustainable techniques of crop and production management, among others, contemplating different production models and segments of producers”.

For the prototype tests at farmers' parcels, Coopercat will follow all the safety recommendations in light of the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining social distancing and other necessary measures to safeguard health and prevent contagion among farmers and technicians.

More Cotton in Latin America

The + Cotton regional project, which started in 2013, is a trilateral South-South cooperation initiative conducted by the Brazilian government through ABC/MRE, FAO and seven partner countries, with the aim of contributing through the cotton-food system to overcoming rural poverty and ensuring food and nutritional security. Through diversified production systems and a holistic vision of the cotton value chain, it has been developing cooperation initiatives with the countries through the exchange of best practices, promotion of innovation and technologies, generation of knowledge, and other actions.

“The +Cotton project aims at the development of sustainable technologies and best practices in production; the establishment of strategic public-private alliances; strengthening the associativity among farmers; and the generation of new opportunities for access to markets, in an inclusive and sustainable way”, concludes Adriana Gregolin, the regional coordinator of the project.

Translation: Mariana Medeiros/Embrapa