Scientists and farmers strengthen lab-land ties post-lockdown


Over the past few weeks, scientists and farmers have literally seen digital transformation on how to stay connected. From webinars to social media message platforms and audio conferences, multiple methodologies have been adopted with both sides reorienting, innovating but staying in touch amidst the lockdown. It has also been a crucial period – the end of one season and the preparation and start of the next. For smallholder farmers depending on regular income, even small disruptions can have long-term consequences

An array of hand-held plant samples, farmers, digital devices and the green coat ‘plant doctors’ – the village of Mookampatty was abuzz with a physical plant health camp for the first time in six months. The small group gathered in Pudukkottai District, Tamil Nadu, marked its presence, warily keeping distance, but holding up awareness banners on why scientific pest identification and redress was important. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Thanjavur District, a group of women and men farmers gathered around an audio transmitter in Villiyanoor.

As they sat in the shade of a thatched roof on the bare earth, the audio system alone was reverently placed on the only sheet that covered the floor. Taking a quick break from their work on the field, they were gearing up for an audio-bridge conference that connected them to experts, preparing for livestock care before the oncoming rainy season. Now, the scientific support and timely advice to farmers is back in physical form. “While we have stayed in touch, there is nothing to replace physical engagement with the farming community, that has been reduced over the past few months,” says R. Rengalakshmi, director, Ecotechnology Program, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF).

“Over the past few months, it was a record realisation of reaching over 2700 farmers through multiple means. The COVID-19 context has strengthened use of digital technologies more than ever before and this pedagogy in farmer learning is demonstrating an important strategy for future agricultural extension services and systems,” she said. Timely addressing of pest and diseases in crop as well as in livestock, makes a crucial difference in the income of smallholder farmers, who as it is, do not have huge economic cushions. This is where precise, scientific support and timely access to right information comes in useful.

“It is important that we map crop issues using modern apparatus such as a microscope, laptop with a huge database, and webconnected advisory. What cannot be ascertained with naked eye is diagnosed with a research-motivated diagnosis pattern, giving the location-specific, eco-friendly and cost-effective timely advisories to the concerned farmers,” said R. M. Sivakumar, joint director of Agriculture, Pudukkottai District, launching the physical ‘plant clinic’ and Plant Health Campaign organised jointly by MSSRF and CABI Plantwise. The buzz around the clinic also included many warm greetings among farmers and the development workers in the neighbourhood. Said farmer K. Govindan, “The plant doctors examined my sick paddy crop using a microscope with the same effort like a doctor who examines people.

When he found it affected by mites, the plant doctor clearly described the problem and remedial measures. My villagers and I are so happy to meet agriculture scientists here after five months and get the recommendations.” During the session plant doctors provided advisories on various problems including paddy-leaf folder, mites, sheath rot, bacterial leaf blight and grain discolouration, groundnut-thikka leaf spot, stem rot, tobacco caterpillar, tapioca-mosaic virus, greengram - podborer, jasmine - red spider mite that were seen in the village. Coordinator of the project R. Rajkumar took the opportunity to organise a small exhibition of commonly seen pest and disease attacks and presented these, complete with mask and gloves, said it had still been a challenge, with the restrictions in place to organize a physical event.

“We still decided to hold this, because we have seen the definite difference in actual interaction and online engagement. I was so happy to see some of our long-standing farming community friends and government department personnel back here today.” Meanwhile, women farmers who engaged more actively in the audio conference discussion, also shared their preparations and activities for the season. While they gathered together in one place, the veterinarian providing advise connected over the audio bridge. C. Maheswari, Villiyanallur, Thanjavur, whose cow was suffering from cowpox got remedial measures from a veterinarian over the audio conference. “My neighbours also got solutions for care and management of their livestock. It is a great help to interact with an experienced veterinarian for our village farmers,” she said. While farming and related activities did not stop through lockdown, the relaxation of restrictions imposed due to coronavirus, comes as a relief in the ‘new normal’. The lockdown strengthened communication networks, between scientistfarmer engagement – a crucial component of the lab-to-land and land-to-lab partnership in this digital era. Now, resuming in person, this rapport is only getting strengthened, for science and for rural society.


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