Why you should care
Environmental changes are forcing Taiwan’s rice farmers to adapt.
When the rice farmers in the Rift Valley in eastern Taiwan plant again after the summer harvest in July, they count on the typhoons that lash the island in late summer and early autumn, bringing lots of rain in the early growth phase of the crop. But this year, each of the tropical storms gathering force over the Pacific took a sudden turn north and headed to Japan instead.
“The changes in climate is something we can’t predict. Many farmers rely on the traditional farming calendar, but in fact the climate no longer follows that calendar,” says Chen Cheng-hung, who runs a rice mill that his family has owned for three generations.
He and his rice farmer neighbors now look to a new tool to survive in times of climate change: big data. In a pilot project conducted over the past five months, OwlTing, a Taipei-based startup, equipped one organic rice field worked by Wei Jui-ting, a young local farmer, with a set of sensors monitoring rain, temperature and chemicals in the soil.
Over a wireless network router made by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications equipment company, OwlTing’s system fed the data online, allowing consumers to monitor how the rice they were going to buy was being grown. But OwlTing has much bigger plans for the information. On Nov. 15, as Wei’s father was driving his combine harvester into the field, the engineers from Taipei picked up the sensors and started harvesting the information collected.
We used to follow the traditional farming calendar, but that no longer works because of climate change.
Wei Jui-ting, Taiwanese farmer
“It will become part of a growing database that will eventually allow farmers to optimize their production cycle,” says Darren Wang, OwlTing’s CEO.
Big data has been on a march into the fields for several years: Tractor-maker John Deere, for example, installs sensors on many of the farm machines it sells. In the U.S. and Europe, a growing number of agribusinesses document their production process to attract consumers who want guarantees that they are buying local, or organic, produce. In Taiwan, agricultural researchers backed by the government have been using sensors to collect data for tropical fruit breeding. OwlTing wants to break new ground in bringing these various functions together and adding another dimension: financial services. Wang, a former database engineer at Google, has been experimenting with blockchain in payment, travel and food. Now he is launching a tool for insurance companies.
Taiwan’s government is pushing the development of farmers’ insurance, a market it hopes will, over time, reduce the need for state handouts after every storm or torrential rain. But the new insurance product has been slow to take off because farmers are reluctant to pay, and insurance companies lack sufficient information for building a pricing system. OwlTing’s product offers farmers a fee for joining the data collection net, while insurers are given the right to sell on the information.
Observers say they expect solutions such as this to spread quickly and lead to a restructuring of the rice market.
“We will see a much larger proportion of farmers choosing to produce under contract at a set price,” says an executive at a large Taiwanese bank in charge of agricultural lending. “That will mean that eventually the company that controls the data — if it’s an insurer or a trading house or a bank or a technology firm — will have a say in what is grown, when and how.”
Back in Chihshang, a rural town with a population of just 8,000, residents have different priorities. Wei says he allowed OwlTing to use his field because it would make it much easier to market his organic rice. Local farmers who are not growing organic rice also believe that transparency about the real-time food supply chain can bolster the position of Chihshang rice as a leader in quality. Because of the local climate and the cleaner air, water and soil in an area without industry, the region’s rice sells at a premium over that from other parts of Taiwan. Chen, who also heads a grass-roots community development initiative, hopes that the production transparency tool will boost tourism.
Beyond these immediate economic considerations, however, Chihshang’s farming community knows that the sensors may change their lives forever. “We used to follow the traditional farming calendar, but that no longer works because of climate change,” Wei says. “Our young people used to learn from our fathers how to grow rice, but they no longer can because they leave for jobs in the big city. Now this system will become our new farming calendar, and it will become our collective memory for how to grow our food in the future.”
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