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In the Philippines, technology is seeping into agriculture

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By Anna A. Mogato
Reporter

AGRICULTURE in the Philippines has always been associated with manual labor and backward traditional farming methods. For the Department of Agriculture (DA), the stigma of farming being a poor man’s job doesn’t make it easier to fulfill its mandate of reaching food security or attracting more people to join the sector. However, progress is already creeping into the sector slowly but surely.

In the past few years, both the government and the private sector made efforts to address self-sufficiency in important food staples through the introduction of hybrid seeds, innovative farming techniques and technology to the agriculture sector.

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol in May unveiled the department’s key strategies that was “designed in such a way that they will not be just answering the needs of the people in six years but beyond 10 years, 20 years and even 50 years.”




One of these was a revolutionary guide map (www.farmersguidemap.gov.ph) which plots which crops are best grown for each area in the Philippines and where there are shallow water tables. It also indicates fertilizers needed to make up for the nutrients lacking in the area’s soil and the poverty incidence of the community selected.

“We cannot use carabaos anymore. We cannot use primitive farming methods forever,” Mr. Piñol said in preamble to the use of solar-powered irrigation system, which costs less from the traditional irrigation systems.

“Today, NIA (National Irrigation Administration) computes that for every hectare of irrigated farm, the government must spend P450,000. With the solar-powered irrigation system, we are only able to spend P150,000 per hectare and we are able to construct the solar-powered irrigation system in just a matter of 60 days.”

With the first solar-powered irrigation already set in place, the DA is eyeing to set up 170 units nationwide.

In terms of smaller scale technology, the DA also began the use of drones, which were intended to be used in vegetable farms to spray fertilizers and pesticides on a strawberry farm in Benguet last April.

This is amid farmworkers opting out because of other job prospects such as construction work. Mr. Piñol also said that the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, more commonly known as “4Ps,” has made farmworkers “lazy.”

For farmers who stayed, however, the long-awaited use of drones and solar-powered irrigation systems to make their work easier are welcomed with open arms. The real challenge, however, is how to make these farmers pick up a smartphone and analyze the data to increase their farm yield.

APPS
This could be good news for the tech-savvy individuals who would want to get into farming but refuse to part with their phones as they tend over their fields, especially with the government’s campaign to achieve rice self-sufficiency to wean off from importing.

The Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), more known for its invention and promotion of hybrid rice seeds, has been tinkering with the computer to develop mobile and desktop applications for some time now.

PhilRice senior science research specialist Wilfredo B. Collado said that with DA’s policy to achieve food self-sufficiency for basic food staples, PhilRice is also eyeing to “have an impact” in making the country’s rice trade “more competitive” by 2022.

“[We are] generating cutting edge agricultural innovations, vigorously guided by science and supported by policies,” he added.

One of the earlier apps PhilRice has managed to churn out is the Rice Crop Manager (RCM), a desktop application launched in 2013 intended to be used by the agency’s extension workers who reach out to the farmers nationwide. The RCM recommends what farmers need to increase their crop yield. It has so far generated 1.46 million recommendations.

However, Mr. Collado said that this does not mean that PhilRice has managed to break through that much farmers, as the RCM can give out as only as much as three recommendations per farmer.

“The slow internet connectivity is the main problem right now [as well as] the promotion of this technology especially in the provinces,” he added.

“The recommendations given to them is also not just the problem. The issue is the financial capacity of the farmers to buy fertilizers, the prices are very high [or] not all the fertilizers recommended can be found in the area. Some other issues were also in receiving the RCM recommendations.”

Mr. Collado said that among the farmers covered by the RCM, about 20% were unable to receive the recommendation or did not understand the data. In some instances, the extension workers were unable to explain the results of the RCM to the farmers.

As for the issues in the unavailability of fertilizers and pesticides, Mr. Collado said that PhilRice is “trying to really partner” with other agencies in the DA and other private companies like chemical companies, pesticide companies. “Actually,” he added, “there are already requests coming in to partner with us.”

Another project the agency is working on is an app based on the decade-old Leaf Color Chart (LCC).

In the past, the LCC, was simply printed on paper and costs about P50. With the proliferation of cheaper Android smartphones, senior research specialist Ailon Oliver V. Capistrano, who is part of the new LCC project, saw an opportunity to enhance it.

The usual chart, he explained, has four green panels. Users would compare the leaves of the rice plant to the green panels. If it falls below the least green panel, there’s a recommendation on how much nitrogen fertilizer should be applied.

“We had the idea of making it an app since the original model was based on the user’s perception so there may be variations on how we see color,” Mr. Capistrano said. “Since the app is camera-aided, we minimize the variation.”

The LCC Android app is being tested until September and is set to be released for free on the Google Play store by January.

Another mobile app PhilRice has developed, the AgriDOC App, is expected to help farmers to rise in the value chain.

Nehemiah L. Caballong, an information and communications technology expert in the agency, said: “we also want farmers to become entrepreneurs. To move up the supply chain and not be just growers.”

The AgriDOC App is a farm management tool which can keep records on expenses and activities. It also allows farmers to view their farm area through Google Maps. There is also a calendar to remind users of farm-related tasks.

Since it was made available on the Google Play store last January, around 604 farmers have already been using the offline app.

Given its functions, Mr. Caballong said that they have received feedback from the users to also expand the app’s monitoring to other crops, not just rice.

“Well, now our main focus is to improve the system and simplifying interface before we can add the other crops. We’d have to collaborate with other agencies for this like BPI (Bureau of Plant Industries) for this.”

With all the programs PhilRice has set in the pipeline, Mr. Collado said that they “envision a resilient rice farming community, benefiting from a sustainable environment and we also would like to improve rice trade.”

“It’s a problem (rice trade),” he said. “We want to improve the efficiency of rice production, product quality and rice supply so with these, we really would want to improve our post production processes.”

MOVING UP THE VALUE CHAIN
Where PhilRice is left stumped, an international company can step in. On a larger trading scale, Dutch solutions and service provider company Peterson Projects and Solutions (Thailand) Co. Ltd. is eyeing to marry blockchain technology and agriculture in Asia, specifically in rice trade.

Its program manager Chrissa Marey A. Borja, who has overseen a few projects for agricultural supply chain for the company, said that the end-goal is to help smallholder farmers get ahead by increasing their financial capability.

A financial and accounting system, she said, can allow smallholder farmers to apply for a loan or become entrepreneurial — eventually eliminating the need for third-party lenders that lend at high interest rates.

The establishment of the blockchain, she added, can make it easier for farmers to trace where the agricultural produce came from and to ensure if it was grown within a proper set of standards set by a certification board or cooperative.

But given that the blockchain can only work for countries that have reached self-sufficiency in the product being traded, Ms. Borja said the rice blockchain system will not be seen in the Philippines any time soon. The system could be used, however, to ensure food safety purposes in rice importation, one of the issues the government is seeking to address given the annual importation of rice from Thailand and Vietnam.

“We can talk about tech all day,” Ms. Borja said. “But the heart of farming is still the farmer and land.”