Satellite god to help India with crop planting

NEW DELHI, India (Reuters) — Sher Singh, a farmer from India’s desert state of Rajasthan, prays to Varuna, the Hindu god of water, for a bountiful harvest.

Now, he is also looking to the heavens for satellite imaging to boost his crop.

Prime minister Narendra Modi wants to promote a “per drop, more crop” approach to farming to make better use of scarce water, and aims to have a new satellite crop monitoring system working in time for the peak of this year’s monsoon in July.

Experts say remote analysis to assess soil moisture and crop development has the potential to reduce input costs and raise yields in a country of 1.25 billion where half of workers make a living from agriculture.

Farmers would be able to access advisories on their mobile phones to help them choose seed varieties, apply the right fertilizers or time irrigation, though some are skeptical about how effective the plan will be given natural and other obstacles.

“I hope to cut at least a tenth of input costs with the help of the ‘satellite god,’ “ said Singh, who farms an acre of rapeseed and hopes to use savings to educate his two grandchildren.

Singh said he doesn’t know how much to water his crops, how to apply the right fertilizer mix or even how to select the right crop given the land’s soil type.

Modi’s government rolled out a national Soil Health Card scheme last year modelled on an initiative he launched as chief minister of Gujarat to help farmers plant crops suited to their farmland.

Satellite analysis can also assess vegetation cover down to the field level, which helps determine how a crop is developing and whether it has been harmed by pests or needs more water.

“The idea is to integrate information under the Soil Health Card with satellite images to raise productivity,” said N. Chattopadhyay, a weather department official who is involved in the project.

The approach seeks to apply precision farming methods pioneered in North America that use geo-location technology to help farmers micro-manage exactly how much seed, fertilizer or pesticide they apply to their fields.

Drones are often used in the United States and Canada to fly over farms to accurately map soil and crops.

The next-best option is satellite analysis, which is more affordable for India. It uses Normalized Vegetation Difference Index to assess how well a crop is developing.

Chattopadhyay said the analysis can be provided to farmers on a near real-time basis and could also be used for impact assessment after natural hazards such as floods.

India can use its own geostationary satellites, but some see obstacles to its plans, including a need to check findings on the ground or the risk of clouds obscuring images.

“Don’t be under any illusion that the remote sensing based crop mapping technique will be a penance for all problems in the farm sector,” said B.C. Barah, a New Delhi-based agricultural economist.

Ajit Seth, India’s top bureaucrat, has urged wider use of remote sensing to benefit farmers, many of whom live a precarious existence on tiny plots of land.

Slightly more than half of India’s nearly 500 million acres of arable land is rain-fed, leaving farmers at the mercy of an often uncertain monsoon. The remaining arable land is under irrigation, which the government plans to expand by a tenth over three years.

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