Being a farmer is not easy. The work is not from 8 to 5, there are no weekends, and fixed holidays; planting dates are not fixed like the Christmas holiday. Every season brings its own problems. Rain comes too little or too much, temperature is too hot or too cold, insects are feeding on young seedlings, weeds grow faster than rice, diseases come unexpectedly, and, when rice is being made ready for harvest, birds come to feast on the filled grains.
Due to laborious work and uncertainty in income, we often read in news-papers or reports that the number of farmers is declining—young people abandon farms to seek stable jobs in cities and only the older generation is left in the farms. But, in recent years, people and companies coming from non-farming backgrounds are getting involved in rice farming.
New farmer generations bring novel ideas with them on how to farm. For example, Nurcholis Agi from Indonesia has decided to grow rice in pots so he can utilize abandoned land between shopping malls in Depok, a city near the capital, Jakarta1. Not only that, planting rice in pots is easier to manage than planting in the field. On a bigger scale, a human resources company in Japan grows rice for its employees in the basement of their office building, using regulated lighting, temperature, and irrigation2. Another farmer uses a drone to monitor his farm, checking whether the paddies get enough water and fertilizer or whether there is a disease outbreak in the middle of the field. Combined with predictions based on past weather and climate data, farmers will be able to decide on what type of varieties to be planted and when to sow the seeds, or to anticipate a disease outbreak.
Can these novel approaches be extended to “traditional” farmers? Yes. However, it is important to make sure that these tools are accessible and user-friendly. Currently, a drone can cost less than USD 100, but it may still be too ex-pensive for farmers in rural areas. A possible way around this is for one drone to be shared among several farmers in a community so the cost will be lower. An-other way to spread new ideas is to promote sharing information between farmers themselves, together with extension workers and researchers. Indeed, farmers are the ones who experience all the problems in field, and also the ones who find which solution is best for their field. Sharing information is already a common practice in farming communities, but, with access to the Internet, information-sharing can be also done through blogs, newspapers, or social networking sites.
Last but not the least, breeding and gene bank utilization
As a geneticist, I am very fascinated with the idea of using the rice genebank col-lections through a digital genebank3, although we need to think about how to regulate genetic material transfer and intellectual property rights. If done correctly, I hope there will be breeders from small ventures who can start breeding rice suitable for their specific regions. For example, Indonesians may need not-so-sticky rice with pandanus fragrance; has tolerance for drought, flood, salinity; and resistance to brown planthopper. On the other hand, the Japanese may need cold-tolerant, super-waxy rice or rice suitable for producing oil or bread, or rice with added value such as high-anthocyanin black and red rice.
Overall, I believe that new innovations in the global rice sector will bring about a modernized farming system, through which farmers can grow not only more and better rice, but also have a better life.
Note: The views and opinions on this essay are those of the author's and do not reflect those of the institute and its partners.
Maria Dwiyanti is a plant molecular biologist and geneticist, with interest in genetic diversity, and new technologies adopted in farming.