Seeing from Space: The Future of Philippine Agriculture

  • Written by  Heidi D. Mendoza
  • Published in Features

Farmers struggle with a myriad of problems in their farms. Their struggles can span from new pests, lack of water supply, lack of information about the soil they’re planting on, to running out of available laborers to help them with planting and harvesting. Other external factors like typhoons and prolonged droughts aren’t even included in the equation yet. When push comes to shove, a number of events can happen all at the same time.

What makes farming really hard is that the farmers take daily risks with the big hope of harvesting the returns at the end of the season. Aside from being labor intensive, farming is also heavily reliant on information. Farmers should have information readily available to make calculated risks.

This is where seeing from space can help our farmers. Since 2015, Project SARAI (Smarter Approaches to Reinvigorate Agriculture as an Industry in the Philippines) has been using real-time images taken by satellites to produce a monitoring and forecasting system for the agriculture sector.

Changing weather patterns and farmers’ feeling of helplessness

If you ask rice farmers how they deal with typhoons, many farmers will answer you with “Wala, nagdadasal lang kami na sana lumihis o mawala na lang yung bagyo.” In the case of rice farmers, the most that they can do is to monitor weather updates from the television or radio, and harvest their rice farms before the typhoon hits their area. If the typhoon hits at a crucial growth stage of rice, farmers suffer a major, or even worse, total loss in production.

Wala ka namang magagawa diyan sa panahon, ‘yan na ‘yan e,” a 61-year old rice farmer who has been farming for more than 20 years said when asked about how they cope with the changing weather patterns. “Dati, alam namin kung kailan iinit, o uulan, alam din namin kung kailan dapat magtanim. Ngayon, iba na ang panahon.”

The situation during dry season is even more difficult for rainfed farms where the farmers do not have sources of irrigation aside from rainfall. In some cases, the farmers install shallow tube wells in their farms; but the problem is that there is still not enough water from the ground.

SARAI-Enhanced Agricultural Monitoring System (SEAMS)

Project SARAI developed a near real-time agricultural monitoring system called SEAMS using free and open-source satellite images. The satellite images can be used to compute for the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). NDVI is a simple quantification of vegetation by measuring the difference between near-infrared and red light. The near-infrared is the spectral signal being reflected by agricultural areas while the red light is the light being absorbed by the crops. When processed using a Geographical Information System (GIS) software, the resulting spectral signatures can be mapped using different shades of green.

The different shades of green provide the NDVI values (from –1 to +1) which can be used to determine the specific growth stage of a given crop. Each crop has its own spectral signature at a specific growth stage.

For the past three years, Project SARAI has been profiling the spectral signatures of rice, corn, coconut, banana, coffee, and cacao. For the next three years, Project SARAI will include soybean, tomato, and sugarcane in the monitoring work.

From satellite images to enhancing farm protocols

While the monitoring scheme may seem distant, the results can be used to develop content for farming information that can be used on the ground. SEAMS has already been used to inform the Department of Agriculture (DA) Central Operations office on the extent of agricultural damage caused by typhoons Lando (2015), Lawin (2016), and Nina (2016).

The current damage assessment protocols entail the agricultural officers or technicians to visit the field and rely on farmers’ estimate of damage to crops. The process, while doable, is prone to error – either over or underestimation.

In many cases, farmers exaggerate their estimate of damage to their crops after typhoons because they don’t know the sizes of their farms.

As a result of using SEAMS for near real-time damage assessment, the DA was able to enhance their field validation protocols. DA officials were also able to produce more accurate figures and report highly damaged agricultural areas in a timelier manner.

The agricultural officers, technicians, and extension workers are now excited to complement their validation work with SEAMS. SEAMS provides them with a platform where they can easily input farm problems such as pest infestation and crop-water stress. They can also input in the system the exact dates when the farmers planted their crops so they can also closely monitor and advise farmers when they should fertilize.

Expanding network for collaborative monitoring

The monitoring work is now being applied for the whole country, hence Project SARAI has partnered with DA Central Office, DA Region 3, and DA Region 4B (MIMAROPA) to start the work on collaborative monitoring. The three DA offices have been oriented by the Project SARAI team on the possibilities presented by the monitoring system, and were trained to use the system. All the inputs and processing software are free and open-source so the number of people accessing and using the data wasn’t a problem during the training activities.

With the DA on board with using SEAMS, monitoring becomes collaborative and more accurate. DA representatives are able to visit the farms and validate the computed NDVI values and supply the field data in the monitoring system. Providing farmers with proactive measures has become easier because of this collaborative monitoring. Technicians and extension workers are able to provide farm-specific recommendations on issues such as pest infestation with the support of continuous monitoring using the satellite images.

The years to come for Project SARAI

The reality of externally-funded action research programs is that they are bound to end. Project SARAI worked to sustain the whole system by creating the National Program for Integrated Crop Monitoring and Forecasting (ICMF) under the University of the Philippines Los Baños. ICMF works together with SARAI, such that when the project ends in 2021, ICMF will continue all the research, development, and extension work started by SARAI. ICMF will become the central venue for the monitoring system, while DA and SUCs* nationwide will serve as the regional monitoring and research hubs.

One next big thing for Project SARAI is that it will establish community-level monitoring and information hubs where farmers can easily go to. During interviews, farmers usually say “Maganda nga yang mabigyan kami ng bagong impormasyon sa pagtatanim, at saka makagamit kami ng mga teknolohiya.

An agricultural officer from Occidental Mindoro who has been trained with SARAI technologies described Project SARAI as “magiging sandigan ito ng mga farmers.

The agricultural officers also saw Project SARAI as an efficient and accurate system that could help them better provide services to our Filipino farmers.

The Philippine agriculture sector, despite the perpetual challenges, continues to grow and to innovate. While the process may be long and pain-staking, the visions for it are rewarding for sure and very exciting to achieve. ■