Texting for bigger rice harvest

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By Ike Suarez A simple technology is now enabling Filipino farmers to adopt an innovative method to greatly boost their rice harvest yields. The technology: SMS messages via cellular phones. The agricultural method: SRI or System of Rice Intensification, a practice first developed in the African island-nation of Madascagasar in the early 1980s and which has now spread to over 50 countries, the Philippines included. A World Bank Institute video uploaded to YouTube points out that farmers who adopt SEI obtain yields that are on the average 25- to 50-percent greater than methods previously used. Indeed, today?s world record for rice harvest yields is held by an Indian farmer, Sumant Kumar, who in November 2011, obtained a yield of 22.4 tons tons or 448 cavans per hectare. He is an SRI practitioner. Bihar State agricultural officials did a verification visit to his farm and confirmed the tonnage of his yield. His harvest surpassed the 19 tons per hectare — the former world record — of Yuan Long-ping of China, a non-SRI practitioner. Kumar is a simple farmer who adopted SRI only in 2008. On the other hand, Yuan Long-ping is a renowned agricultural scientist in China who has been growing for 40 years a particular strain of hybrid rice he himself developed. As an agricultural practice, SRI requires less water to grow rice. It also encourages greater use of organic farming methods, the application of compost and natural pesticides as well as herbicides. Fewer seeds are needed. It is applicable to any rice variety. Because it requires less water, rice planted by this method emit less methane while growing. Thus, SRI lessens the contribution of rice planting culture to global warming. SRI Pilipinas is the main advocate of this method in the country. Its national coordinator is Roberto Verzola even as it is a consortium of farmers, groups, civil society organizations, academics, and concerned government workers. It works in tandem with the Sustainable Agriculture Center of the Jesuit-run Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro. Since 2009, a team of 50 trainors from SRI has been conducting one-day seminars for interested farmers belonging to farmers organizations. This it does when sufficient funds are available. Verzola designed and installed the system to deliver text messages to farmers interested to learn the SRI method. He is both an ICT professional and an advocate for better ecological practices in the Philippines. As ICT professional, he has specialized since 1980 in the design and installation of low-cost systems for NGOs. Such systems support the social, political, and economic advocacy thrusts of these non-government organizations. As ecological advocate, he is convenor and founding member of the Philippine Greens. Established in 1991, this NGO advocates the use of cost-effective and environmentally-friendly practices in the country. Among these is the greater use by farmers of agricultural compost as well as natural herbicides and pesticides. Verzola says he designed the texting delivery system to go around SRI Pilipinas? disappointment with the Philippine Postal Corporation, whose mail delivery service he described as very inefficient. ?Roughly ? to ? of the primers we send interested farmers never reach their destinations,? he said. This even after three or four repeated attempts at such. ?They lose interest in learning SRI as a result,? he added. Efforts to remedy this problem by way of private courier service firms proved expensive, according to him. ?To do so costs P90 to P120 for each delivered primer,? he said. Thus, the resort finally in 2005 to the use of text messages via cellular phones. Verzola pointed out that most Filipino families today have OFW relatives. To communicate with their loved ones abroad, members of these families invest in inexpensive cellular phones. ?It?s one of the first things they invest in,? Verzola noted in reference to their initial purchases once they start receiving remittances. Verzola added that even Filipinos without cellular phones have friends, relatives, and neighbors who do. Thus, these devices are easily accessible to them and they make an effective medium for communications with the country?s farmers. SRI Pilipinas therefore has resorted to the use of this medium. In doing so, it only utilizes texting, the simplest and least expensive functionality available in even the lowest priced cellular phone brands. Verzola said initial hardware for the system was a second-hand PC, running on Ubuntu. Uploaded onto it was an application he had written on the Python language, a type of open-source developer?s tool. ?The desktop was a used HP I bought at HMR for P6,000,? said Verzola in an interview. He replied while on a bus en route to Tuguegarao, Cagayan from Ilagan, Isabela. He had just finished conducting an SRI seminar in the latter and was now on his way to do another in the former. Last May, Verzola finally disposed of this desktop to replace it with a second-hand Toshiba netbook, which he purchased for P9,000. Running on an Intel Atom processor, its operating system is also Ubuntu. This has enabled him to use the application he developed even while on the road even as it has larger storage capacity for data. Verzola described the application as a mail-user agent, a program for e-mail. He said other similar software lacked the functionalities he needed. Thus, he came out with his own. ?I have not yet given it a name,? he said. He admitted that this mail-user agent has yet to be tweaked to become more user friendly that more may use these for their e-mail management needs. ?My priority is the farmers, not the software,? he explained. An interested farmer can text his name and address to the SRI Hotline which Verzola operates. The hotline number is 63-939-117-899. Once done, Verzola then inputs the farmer?s message into the netbook by way of Bluetooth. As typical of mail-user agents, the application categorizes the text message and sorts it as part of a particular group of messages. With this, Verzola can now make his reply, usually canned. Once again, this is sent to the SRI Hotline via Bluetooth and texted from there to the farmer. ?Interested farmers are in various stages of finding out about SRI,? he said. He added he can text to one individual farmer or simultaneously to a group of farmers. SRI Pilipinas still sends a print version of the primer to an interested farmer by way of the Post Office. ?But we also send him the first batch of text messages consisting of 10 messages,? Verzola said. These messages consist of the primer?s first few paragraphs and are in complete but simple Filipino sentences. Both paragraphs and sentences are short, the words often not more than three syllables long. The last message requests the farmer to copy these messages into a notebook before deleting them. The last message also asks the farmer if he still wants to receive the next batch of messages. If he answers yes, he is asked to reply, ?Text please.? If not, he is asked to reply, ?Tama na.? The last messages in the next batches also make these requests. There presently are 17 batches with Verzola saying more modules would soon be added. The modules will consist of simple instructions on how to make different kinds of natural herbicides and pesticides. There will also be a module on how to make compost from the wastes of earthworms, the technique of vermiculture. Even now, there already have been a few such modules. These consist of how to make compost and how to make certain kinds of natural pesticides with some even able to serve as deodorizers for pig and poultry pens. In its final messages, the 17th batch?s differs from the rest. Its third to the last congratulates the farmer for having willingly received the series of instructions. The second to the last advises the farmer to first try out the SRI on a 100 to 500 square meters trial plot. The last message assures the farmer of continued advisories. At the same time, it asks, ?Pwede pong malaman kung anong buwan nyo planong subukan ang SRI?? Giving word to farmers about the existence of SRI and how they can learn the method is a process that has evolved over time, according to Verzola. Its basics include sending out press releases to radio stations in the provinces that air at dawn programs specifically targeted at farmers. It also entails putting out small ads in newspaper tabloids popular in rural towns. Verzola admitted SRI Pilipinas began monitoring the number of text message requests for the primer only last March. ?But since then, we have received over 2,200 such messages,? he said. ]]>

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