At noon, a 60-year-old farmer ends his lunch and checks an app on his mobile phone. The next day, he spreads fertilizer on his crop.

That’s happening in Japan. And that could be the future in Colombia and beyond, where food producers make fast, smart, and precise decisions about their farms based on real-time data.

In this case, the data come from a white and green, roughly 8-by-8-inch square box.

The nifty approach goes by the name e-kakashi. In Japan, kakashi means scarecrow, which by tradition, is used to dissuade birds from disturbing growing plants.

This modern version of a scarecrow, however, works differently. E-kakashi involves connecting a “mother” device to dozens of “baby” terminals — up to 100 to be precise  — which collect without delay large volumes of agricultural data from hundreds of sensors placed around the field, including air temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation, carbon dioxide levels, and soil temperature and humidity. The information will feed into an online or smartphone app that farmers can access regardless where they are to help them decide what to do next and when.

E-kakashi

The device provides a concrete application of the “Internet of things” (IoT), or the ability of everyday gadgets to connect to the Internet and with each other.

Dr. Satoshi Ogawa of CIAT likens the way the gadget functions to how Facebook works.

“On Facebook, you can see what everyone is up to; it’s the same with e-kakashi, but only for farming: You can view instantly how your crops are doing, plot by plot, plant by plant,” said Ogawa, who is leading efforts to test the capability of the technology on CIAT fields.

So it’s like getting automatic status updates from your crops.

The e-kakashi trial at CIAT began two months ago. But the journey to bring the innovative solution to Colombia started in 2015.

At that time, Ogawa and team leader Dr. Manabu Ishitani were looking for a way to monitor in real time and simultaneously how different climate conditions influence crop performance, as part of a project to develop rice production methods that use fewer inputs and at lower costs. CIAT had been depending on a meteorological system that would record data at one point in time and for a single factor.

The CIAT scientists then searched and approached a handful of companies that manufacture devices meant to harness the potential of IoT. E-kakashi maker PS Solutions immediately took interest in Ogawa and Ishitani’s plan, having aspirations to spread its technology around the globe.

To make e-kakashi work in Colombia, PS Solutions tapped electronics giant Hitachi to alter the technology by translating the language of the device from Japanese to English and allowing the use of SIM cards available locally to connect to cellular networks.

“A year ago, e-kakashi could not be used outside Japan,” said Ogawa. “Now, it can be used not only in Colombia but everywhere in the Americas and Asia.”

CIAT and PS Solutions have so far installed four mini terminals for the current trial. The goal is to collect information on how rice crops are faring based on climate data, and then build a model that, for instance, can estimate when plants enter critical stages such as flowering, heading, and harvesting, so farmers can determine how much fertilizer to use, whether to increase irrigation, or if there’s a need for more labor. The resulting model will form the basis of an app that can alert users say, when water in the soil reaches dangerous levels.

Experts from both organizations will present preliminary results of the study next week at an international meeting of rice specialists from 17 Latin American countries. Once the findings become conclusive, knowledge and technology related to IoT in agriculture will be transferred to farmers in Colombia and Latin America, through the help of  the National Rice Growers Association (FEDEARROZ) in Colombia, the national federation of rice producers in Colombia, and the Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR).

Ogawa believes the benefits of IoT can go beyond boosting crop performance.

“The next step is to develop a recipe for estimating everything,” said Ogawa, who envisions the use of e-kakashi and similar solutions in measuring greenhouse gas emissions based on water levels and soil temperature.

***

Additional information

The e-kakashi verification study in CIAT is part of the “Development and Adoption of Latin American Low-Input Rice Production System through Genetic Improvement and Advanced Field-Management Technologies” project under the Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development (SATREPS), an international joint research project between Japan and Colombia. Inaugurated in 2014 and funded by Japan Science and Technology Agency and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, SATREPS seeks to introduce and embed cutting-edge field management technologies and resource-saving rice production systems in Colombia and other South American countries.

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