India Interior

‘Doctor Cotton’ is on call

Nitin Jugran Bahuguna | Updated on July 10, 2020 Published on July 10, 2020

Reaping tech benefits Chandrakant at his cotton field Nitin Jugran Bahuguna

Gujarat farmers now have a digital aid to boost production of the cash crop

Like many cotton farmers, Chandrakant Patel, 42, has had more than his share of pest attacks, a common malaise in cotton cultivation that can diminish yields, leading to heavy losses.

When the problem occurred again last year, Chandrakant swung into action, taking pictures of the affected saplings and uploading them on his phone to a special app.

“Within 24 hours, I got a solution. I was able to take timely action by spraying the recommended pesticide on the crops to save them,” he says.

Chandrakant from Vemar village, about 50 km from Vadodara, is among a new generation of farmers using digital aids to boost production. Decision Support System (DSS), dubbed ‘Cotton Doctor’ is an agri-tech tool that alerts farmers about weather vulnerabilities and assists them to make informed decisions on cotton cultivation. “There are 20 farmers in my village using the app. I started using it in August last year,” explains Chandrakant, who has devoted one acre of his 7.5 acres to cotton. “It is useful in forecasting weather up to seven days. I plan my schedule according to it. If rain is predicted, I do not water my fields and save water. I will also not apply pesticides on such days.”

The weather alerts include prediction of wind speed and temperature. In case of high wind speed, the farmer will refrain from applying pesticides as they get blown away. “Knowledge about temperature is also useful because pesticides are best applied during low temperatures. Cotton picking is also best done when temperature is in the range of 20-25 degrees Celsius or less,” he adds.

Dakshish Patel, 35, of nearby Kurali village, too finds the app useful. “Before this app, fertiliser and pesticide dealers were misguiding farmers into buying expensive brands, which may not be good for cotton. The technical knowledge helps farmers prevent pest infestation and diseases,” he points out.

Dakshish, who is cultivating cotton on ten acres of his 17-acre farm, has uploaded photos seeking advice. “In September last year, I sent a picture of a pest attack on my cotton leaf. Within two days I got a reply from a scientist advising me to apply a certain chemical which saved my sapling. Another time, I sent a photo of a leaf infected with white flies. Again, timely advice saved my plant,” he recalls.

In partnership with public enterprise Gujarat Green Revolution Company (GGRC), WWF–India and IKEA launched the DSS with registered cotton farmers in the State last year. The farmers can save their farm details in the Geographical Information System (GIS) of the DSS. The GIS enables accurate mapping and data analysis while in the field. Once received, the requisite information is generated through satellite images that are processed and subsequently broadcast in the form of agro advisories.

According to Sumit Roy, Associate Director of WWF–India’s Sustainable Agriculture Programme, the salient features of the DSS include forecast advisories on weather and pest infestation and early warnings on disease, along with irrigation and nutrition monitoring.

For the season 2019-20, GGRC has provided agro and weather forecasting services to 95,000 cotton farmers. The DSS is currently covering 18,000 villages in Gujarat and a total of 2,790 farmers have installed the app so far. “With regard to pest disease control, farmers can contact our experts through SMS, voice calling or video calling,” says PP Donga, head of GGRC. “It is encouraging that more and more farmers are uploading photos on the app, on pest damage.”

Donga says the app is constantly upgraded based on feedback from farmers to make it more farmer-friendly.

Regular interactions with farmers are held during pre-sowing in May-June and at the time of boll formation and the flowering stage in August-September.

Old-timers like Chandrakant’s father Nagin, 78, are responding positively to the idea of digitising agriculture. He suggests that the app incorporate notifications of fake and harmful pesticides in the market

“I get advisories in the app on neem-based fertilisers, which are not harmful for my plants,” his son interjects. “As a result, I am using less chemicals and saving money.” Chandrakant also attended two meetings and learnt how to geo-tag his own field, using the app. “A satellite image of my field allows me to determine if my crops are not growing well in a particular area. If the colour is not green, I know something is wrong.”

Kaushik Baraya, 23, of Bortalav village, geo-tagged his six-acre cotton field in June last year as well as the cotton fields of some friends after receiving training. “From the app I learnt that excess fertiliser is harmful for the land. I also learnt about zinc and boron deficiency in cotton, which damages the plant, and how to correct this deficiency.” Farmers like him regularly consult the DSS for market rates of cotton at different mandis so that they can get the best prices for their crop.

Connectivity issues

While the project has taken off well, poor internet connectivity in some villages has hampered the app’s effectiveness while lack of skills to understand the navigation and icons restrict its free use. Older farmers are harder to convince as they abide by traditional agricultural practices. According to agribusiness advisor Sujoy Ojha at Weather Risk Management Services (WRMS), which has customised ‘Cotton Doctor’, technology is the key enabler in addressing challenges related to sustainable agriculture and climate change. “Water, being a key resource, will benefit using technology-based interventions. Precision farming will be the norm.”

Going by the response from farmers, this is indeed true.

The writer is a freelancer based in New Delhi

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Published on July 10, 2020

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