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Sugarcane farming: Sweet taste of technology

Churee Naktipawan
Vice President – Corporate
Communications Department
Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation
[email protected]


Thailand-based sugar manufacturer Mitr Phol Sugar Group has applied new technologies in its processes not only to improve the quality and supply of its sugarcane, but also to improve the income and quality of life of the cane farming community

Mitr Phol Sugar Group is the largest sugar manufacturer in Thailand with an annual milling capacity of 1.3 million metric tons. With its principle of “Living together…growing together”, Mitr Phol Sugar Group lays strong emphasis on community development. It has invested in many community development projects, not only pertaining to knowledge and technology transfer to increase productivity, but also those focused on cost efficiency. These projects aim to help cane farmers increase revenues and raise the quality of their lives, leading to a better living standard and sustainable development. These projects have impacted nearly 30,000- 40,000 households of cane farmers.

NEW TECHNOLOGIES
Mitr Phol Sugar Group has applied new technologies in its processes not only to improve the quality and supply of its sugarcane, but also to improve the income and quality of life of the cane farming community. The technologies also offer additional benefits like better irrigation design and reduced consumption of fuel and other natural resources.

Mitr Phol has increased cane and sugar productivity by quickly and accurately addressing farming intricacies through precise databases. Geospatial technologies help agro-industries effectively overcome limitations caused by critical factors such as lack of essential information or excessive complexity.

As a result of spatial analysis techniques, the group has been able to achieve lower costs, continual improvements and world-class competitiveness. Geospatial data has enabled correct qualitative and quantitative prediction through optimal combination of tools such as high resolution remote sensing, GIS and GPS.

In 2002, Mitr Phol Sugar Group began utilising geospatial technologies through the Sugar Cane Information and Management System (SIMS) initiative. SIMS kicked off a number of programmes to improve cane plantation operations and productivity, from planning and planting to cane harvesting. On its successful development, SIMS was integrated with financial and legal information on the Web, named as “Cane Smile.”

Rooted in geospatial technologies, SIMS and Cane Smile address the following aspects of farming:

Land-use and cane area mapping: Coupled with remote sensing imagery and GPS, land use map and soil series map accurately identify and determine contract farmer’s cane plantations. Additional data such as actual land usage, soil properties and prevailing climate help seek out potential areas for cane cultivation.

Early crop monitoring: The applications assist in plantation zoning, gauging crop conditions and analysis, leading to the improvement of cane yields. This can also fill up any gaps spotted in data analysis.

Cane production estimation: Geospatial technologies ensure precise measurement of plantation areas to support cane supply estimation techniques with mapping accuracy of 95% and surveying time cut by one-third.

Harvest planning and monitoring: The harvesting sequence with cane farmers is mapped out and coordinated to cut the cane at its optimum sucrose content. Cane backlogs are eliminated and logistical obstacles in delivery smoothed out. Data on cane maturity and climate conditions for each plot of land are stored in the database memory for monitoring. Harvested fields are GPSmarked on a real time basis, so the mill management is well aware of the remaining cane supply for each day.

Irrigation planning: Remote sensing images help identify sources of water and design an efficient irrigation application for the farming communities, who review and work together with the mill management to build irrigation systems.

FARMER SUPPORT AND ASSISTANCE
The Cane Smile System advances farmer support and assistance. The system encompasses three main elements: GIS, web database, and online loan approval scheme. It offers prompt credit information, shortens loan processing time, fertiliser and plantation management. The streamlined process reduces chances of overestimating cane output, therefore any likely loan defaults that ensue, and shortfalls of raw materials. Under the old manual paper-based system, the farmers’ loan applications took much longer time to process – up to 19 days, involving a lot of paperwork and transportation of documents.

The estimation of the farmers’ actual plantation area and output could sometimes be subject to inaccuracy. With the Cane Smile system, the processing time of loan applications has reduced by 85% to about 3 days. The farmers are informed of their loan status through the Internet and mobile phone alerts.

In addition, the system is eco-friendly, reduces the carbon footprint, mitigates air pollution from courier vehicles and lowers usage of paper through an Internet-based system. Another key benefit of geospatial technologies is the reinforcement of susta inable development in and around farmland localities, including economic development, social development and environmental protection.

CONCLUSION
As sugarcane is the vital raw material for Mitr Phol Sugar Group, ensuring its reliable and high quality supply is key to the company’s business. The main sourcing method used in Thailand is “contract farming,” an informal partnership between cane farmers and sugar millers. Optimising the productivity and efficiency of field operations from the cane supply agreement up to its delivery is crucial to the survival of the sugar industry. The applications of geospatial technologies helped in improving not only the quality and supply of Mitr Phol Sugar Group’s sugar cane, but also the farming communities’ productivity, revenues and quality of life.