Bringing Technology and Techniques to Thailand's Farmers

January 3, 2015 Leave Bangkok and you may find yourself transported back in time. Some farmers still pull their plows with buffalo but while most do not, beyond gas powered tractors and a torrent of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, technology and modern techniques are absent across rural Thailand.

Simple Solutions

Processes as simple as spreading fertilizer can be made more efficient, cutting costs and improving both the quality and quantity of harvests. Plants, like humans, don't do well with too little or too much. Finding the "just right" amount can be tricky and is mostly guess work for Thailand's farmers.

A simple soil test can tell farmers beforehand what kind of soil their farms have and the right mixture of fertilizer to use. Soil may or may not already contain the nutrients needed. They may have nutrients but not the right proportion of essential nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK). Farmers generally use a "one-size-fits-all" solution where they dump fertilizer on their fields hoping it does the trick. If they notice yellow leaves, they dump more.

Dr. Prateep Verapattananirund discussed with us taking composite soil samples from fields, bringing them to a "soil clinic" (in English) to be tested, and using that information to determine the best ratio and amount of fertilizer to use during the next growing season. This is a first step toward greater awareness for farmers and part of what is known as "precision agriculture."

Bringing Solutions to Rural Farmers

The problem so far, however, is a lack of awareness and a lack of access to technology. Dr. Prateep's soil clinics are relatively low-tech and simple. Soil samples are collected with a shovel and mixed by hand. The samples are then brought to a lab to be tested. Despite the effectiveness of soil testing in reducing fertilizer use most farmers have neither heard of this technique, nor have the ability to try it even if they did.

Agricultural drones are another groundbreaking technology empowering farmers around the world. Advances in automation, monitoring, and analysis are helping farmers do more with less, reaping profits and useful knowledge at the same time. But if something as simple as a soil test can't make its way out to the rural provinces of Thailand, how will drones, sensors, and other forms of automation?

Part of the solution may be instead of handing out this technology to farmers, integrate it into a business model. Just as farmers pay fees to owners of harvesting equipment during harvest season today, farmers may pay a local "soil clinic" to test their soil and prescribe proper recommendations for fertilizer application.

A multispectrual image of a farm via an aerial drone.
Likewise, drone operators may fly over your field and provide you data. A soil clinic might even include drones with mutlispectrual sensors and other technology for monitoring soil and crop health. Such services can be included as part of a subscription.

Other forms of technology such as permanent soil sensors might end up designed, tested, and distributed from Bangkok, but on the shelf alongside agricultural equipment already on Thai farmers' shopping lists.

As for the soil clinics, it is reported that between 2014-2015, the Department of Agricultural Extension will help create and support over 800 establishments (one for every district) across the country. In addition to analyzing soil and making recommendations, reliable fertilizer will also be available for sale to address concerns of substandard or "fake" fertilizer.

Could these soil clinics end up being nodes in a nation-wide network of agricultural information to disseminate technology, techniques, and general knowledge? We hope so. The only way to make sure such innovations are a success is to get involved directly.

Here at Progress Thailand, we have already collected samples and are bringing them to one of these soil clinics to try out this technology. By trying it out, we will validate it and help spread it to other farmers. It will also give us a good idea as to what direction we should go in making the next step forward. We look forward to working on projects like this with Dr. Prateep, and not just "hand out" technology, but make it a sustainable cornerstone of Thailand's agricultural industry.

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