Grass always greener on model smart farm
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Grass always greener on model smart farm

'Digital Villagers' let no handicap prevent them from growing their organic dreams

Prasert Laitim, left, Khuen Supanyabut, centre, and another member of staff at the Association of the Physically Handicapped in Pathum Thani show their produce grown in a model digital village in the province. (Photo: FAO)
Prasert Laitim, left, Khuen Supanyabut, centre, and another member of staff at the Association of the Physically Handicapped in Pathum Thani show their produce grown in a model digital village in the province. (Photo: FAO)

It's 10 o'clock in the morning and Prasert Laitim has just finished watering salad greens at Samart Organic Vegetable Farm on a one-rai plot in Pathum Thani's Lam Luk Ka district.

All he had to do next is click a button on his smartphone to set the time on his mobile application that will result in the farm's water sprinkling and fogging system automatically turning on briefly three times a day.

Being physically handicapped has not obstructed him or the other farm workers from starting their own organic vegetable farm, as modern technology enables them to grow fresh produce that is safe for consumption and can be sold to people living nearby.

The farm has been handpicked as one of several pilot models of the "Digital Village Initiative" by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The FAO has partnered with the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives (MOAC) and the Digital Economy Promotion Agency (Depa) to implement digital innovations on the farm, which formerly belonged to the Association of the Physically Handicapped.

The pilot project is aimed at promoting digitalisation in rural areas and enabling the locals to apply, deploy or harness innovations and technologies, services and solutions, to improve their economic livelihoods and individual wellbeing through better connectivity, according to the FAO.

Members of the association in Pathum Thani have embraced the Internet of things (IoT) for watering, sprinkling and misting organic vegetables on its one-rai plot and received financial support for facility design and technology from Bangkok University and the Depa since 2020.

Raweewan Bokhuntod, a member of the association, was busy bedding lettuce seedlings in soil when the Bangkok Post visited, as the latest harvested produce had all sold out. Moreover, it would take another 45 days for the next crop in the greenhouse to fully grow.

With the mercury climbing to 35C in the monsoon season, all the proper steps of cultivation must be respected and observed to avoid disaster, he said.

However, Khuen Supanyabut, who leads the association, said his farm can still manage to grow seasonal vegetables like Chinese kale, bok choy, morning glory and coriander.

These sell like hot cakes at the weekly Farmers' Market at the provincial administration compound, he noted.

Vegetables need just the right amount of water, fresh air and light, he said, which means that skimping on even the smallest detail can prove a costly mistake.

Mr Khuen said the watering and misting system applied in the greenhouse can be controlled using mobile phone applications. This ensures the salad greens can receive their water drop by drop, while the temperature and humidity conditions are tightly controlled, and natural pests and predators are kept at bay.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the association members also shared what they grew to boost food security in the broader community, he said, adding that the farms would have to scale up considerably to provide their workers with a liveable income.

"We are proud of what we've done so far. We started out having zero knowledge of organic farming. Yet our farm has now become a learning centre that welcomes visitors from across the country to learn from us and adopt our best practices to meet their individual needs," he added.

Any extra income earned from selling organic produce is shared among all the members.

This can be a huge help for households that survive by selling lottery tickets and other subsistence-level jobs, Mr Khuen said.

But the best part is that organic farming serves as a platform for members in their 50s and 60s to meet, engage in shared activities and feel like useful members of the community, he said.

Rittirong Chutapruttikorn, dean of Bangkok University's faculty of architecture, said the greenhouse was designed specifically for the physically impaired, with the spaces between each elevated plot widened to facilitate wheelchair access.

Aziz Elbehri, the lead task force coordinator of the Digital Village Initiative, said the FAO worked with the Depa and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (MOAC) to develop three pilot models for digital village ecosystems in Thailand: Samart Farm in Pathum Thani, drone-controlled rice paddies in Nonthaburi, and durian planting areas in Chumphon.

The lessons learned were presented at a Digital Village Initiative webinar on knowledge sharing and policy dialogue last Monday. The webinar was joined by government officials from the MOAC and DEPA.

Further assessment and recommendations will be shared with the government to accelerate the development of digital innovations at the village and community level, as well as among entrepreneurs and other business entities in the long run, Mr Aziz said.

"Digital village innovations and technologies can help lead us all to a world of better production, better nutrition, better environment and a better life -- leaving no one behind," Mr Aziz added.

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