Soil Testing Reduces Farmers' Costs and Dependency

January 26, 2015 -- The Chao Phraya & Pa Sak River Network, an agricultural network specializing in the use of fertilizer techniques and technology, has been conducting "soil clinic" events throughout Thailand. The latest event, held in the city district of Saraburi province, provided testing and consultation services for over 200 farmers.

Scenes from the soil clinic event in Saraburi's city district. Over 200 farmers had soil tests carried out by the network's volunteers.

Held inside a large event hall, over a dozen tables were set up, each with a test kit capable of determining the pH (alkalinity or acidity) of soil samples, as well as nutrient contents. Crops use nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) along with other trace minerals. Agricultural fertilizer is sold at varying ratios to meet the needs of different varieties of soil, but if farmers are unaware of what kind of soil they have, the general tendency is to over-apply an even mix of NPK.

The results of this practice include over-fertilizing crops which can be as detrimental to a good harvest as under-fertilizing them. Over-fertilizing fields also costs money, hurting a farmer's already vulnerable and meager bottom line.

The Chao Phraya & Pa Sak River Network, by testing soil and giving fertilizer recommendations to farmers, aims at cutting fertilizer use (and costs) by as much as half.

Precision Agriculture Brightens Farmers' Futures Around the World

Farmers around the world face a vicious cycle of investing heavily in growing crops and failing to recuperate these investments after harvesting due to many factors. The very narrow gap between profits and overhead ensures that anything from market instability, political turmoil, or weather can induce heavy losses leaving farmers not just unable to turn a profit, but deeply in debt.

Dr. Prateep V. promotes agricultural education & technology.
A variety of measures are generally used to help farmers, but also to keep them investing heavily in fertilizers, expensive machinery, and other gimmicks claimed as necessary for a successful harvest. Such solutions include subsidies and price fixing. Usually these solutions work only in the short-term, and in the long-term may do even more damage than doing nothing at all.

Another approach, however, is to actually cut costs during the growing season, and empower farmers with both knowledge and technology they themselves control. From America to Europe and now, all across Asia, there are a multitude of programs seeking to do this.

In Thailand, the Chao Phraya & Pa Sak River Network is focusing on cutting costs and dependency in terms of fertilizer use. They also spend a great deal of time educating farmers about the science of soil nutrients. They hope to establish a successful model, particularly in Saraburi, that other groups in other provinces can copy. This way, successful techniques and networks can grow in parallel rather than a single group tackling the colossal task of building a single network nationwide.

Testing nutrient content and determining specific ratios of fertilizer is part of a larger discipline called precision agriculture. By providing only precisely what crops need, and using technology to monitor and measure various metrics, farmers can have a precise understanding of their crops and make decisions that save time and money. This leads to a more profitable livelihood for farmers, and healthier crops for consumers. 

Toward Smarter, Cleaner Agriculture 

While the Chao Phraya & Pa Sak River Network are merely reducing the amount of chemical fertilizers farmers depend on, this is in fact the first crucial step toward empowering farmers to first understand their fields while reducing their dependency on chemical fertilizers, and then taking the next step toward greater self-sufficiency which includes locally produced organic fertilizers, and other now proven-superior organic techniques

Modern precision agriculture includes many types of tools and techniques, including soil testing, the monitoring of crops using aerial drones, sensors, and various forms of automation and on-site energy production. Organic agriculture has caught up to industrial agriculture specifically through better technology and understanding of plant and soil health.
And while fertilizer in general is a crucial component of agriculture, the inclusion of other "smart" technologies and techniques will be necessary to further lift up farmers and their ability to make the most out of their land. Through the efforts of networks like the Chao Phraya & Pa Sak River network, or the work of smart farm advocates like Dr. Teerakiat Kerdchaoen at Mahidol University, and alternative energy projects like the one previously reported on from Phetchaburi province, farmers will slowly move away from the path of precarious dependency and toward that of self-sufficient prosperity.

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