Rice farmers in the Philippines will be able to dial a specialised service on their mobile phones to obtain tailored advice on fertiliser use when they plant their crops in September.
Scientists at the Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), officials of the Philippine Department of Agriculture, and local private telecommunications firm Globe, have joined together to create the service that will enable poor farmers to tap into sophisticated 'precision agriculture' techniques commonly used in developed countries. These include technologies such as remote sensing, not often available to Asian farmers.
Precision agriculture is recognised as being important for maximising yields while reducing environmental damage. Under the IRRI scheme, the farmer becomes the 'sensor'. After calling a toll free number, the farmer answers a menu of questions, such as whether the farm is upland or lowland, the variety of rice they plant, and the previous season's yield, simply by pressing the appropriate number on the phone keypad.
Their responses determine the advice they receive on fertiliser amounts, timing and sourcing, provided within minutes from a computer-based calculation developed by IRRI called Site Specific Nutrient Management.
Roland Buresh, principal scientist at IRRI, told SciDev.Net they have chosen to address fertiliser use because it is the second largest expense in rice farming after labour, and proper application is critical in determining yield.
Insufficient fertiliser can result in low yields, while excess reduces profit and pollutes the environment. Filipino farmers generally fail to optimise fertiliser use, applying it at the wrong times or amounts, he said.
Higher yields could earn farmers an extra $100 to $150 per hectare in each planting season, he added.
The system has been trialled in farmers' fields and the response has been positive, said Buresh. If successful when rolled out in September, the system will also be applied in other countries such as Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and even on the African continent. IRRI is also working on similar tools for other cereal crops.
Rolando Dy, executive director of the Centre for Food and Agri Business at the University of Asia and the Pacific, in Pasig City, Philippines, said the scheme could be enhanced by ensuring mobile phone signals reach farmers in upland areas and by extending it to coconut farmers, who are among the poorest farmers in the Philippines.