KHLONG SONG, Thailand, Jul 6 2022 (IPS) – Hidden in Pathumthaini province just outside of Bangkok, 0.24 hectares of land adjacent to Seangsan temple has been turned into an urban vegetable farm managed by members of the Association of the Physically handicapped of Pathumthani.
‘Farm Samart Khon Samart’ consists of a large open greenhouse that sits at the back of the land. In a small grass field at the front stand six raised beds of bok choy and coriander. To one side are the office building and workshop.
Inside the greenhouse, three rows of elevated beds are filled with seedlings of a variety of salad vegetables, still too small to recognize. The soil is covered with rice straw to protect the young plants.
Ten years ago, Khoen Sapanyabut founded the association to spotlight the rights to education and employment of differently-abled people. The land, donated by the temple, sits almost two kilometres from the main highway. One side of the tree-lined road is flanked by a canal that is dotted with poor community homes and shops. The other side alternates from factories to empty land, to a school.
The land secured, Khoen, who uses a wheelchair, was musing over what activity the members should focus on. He chose vegetable-growing. “Handicapped people have different skills. Some are good at computer or fixing devices. But growing vegetables is an activity that everyone can do, even without proper education,” he says.
The association first adopted hydroponic farming and grew vegetables like lettuce, water spinach and bok choy. Although these veggies are easy to grow and sell, they are cheap and not profitable.
Also, due to limited space, production couldn’t keep up with demand. The full cost of hydroponics, including the electricity, water system and chemical fertilizer, also exceeded profits.
The shift to soil-based agriculture happened when the association partnered with Bangkok University three years ago and started to receive annual funding and support, including the greenhouse.
The farm now has 28 raised beds in total. All are designed to a certain height to accommodate wheel-chaired farmers. The aisles are accessible by wheelchairs too.
Today the farm grows red and green oak lettuce, kale, cos lettuce, Frillice Iceberg, and butterhead lettuce which are high-value vegetables. All production follows organic farming practices including the compost, which is made by the members.
Rawan Bo-khuntod, 53, is responsible for the farm’s day-to-day paperwork. She also does accounting and sometimes helps the farmers prepare and plant the seeds. Rawan says the job has boosted her working life as a disabled person because she particularly likes doing administration.
It has also made her healthier. “I found it hard to eat vegetables before. Now I’ve come to like butterhead lettuce and usually add it in the salad.” Not only do organic vegetables taste better than chemically grown ones, Rawan adds, “I feel safe eating them knowing that it’s 100 percent organic.”
One of the first steps after partnering with DEPA was to install a digital watering system using a mobile phone application. Automated water sprinklers were hooked up along with mist sprayers. Temperature-controlled, the system delivers four minutes of mist watering five times a day
One additional boost came in the form of a partnership between the farm and the Thai Government’s Digital Economy Promotion Agency. Rittirong Chutapruttikorn, dean of the School of Architecture at Bangkok University, who led the design of the greenhouse, says that he was looking for ways to make the farmers’ lives easier. He had seen how tending to the crops, such as watering while sitting in wheelchairs, was both time and energy-consuming for them.
One of the first steps after partnering with DEPA was to install a digital watering system using a mobile phone application. Automated water sprinklers were hooked up along with mist sprayers. Temperature-controlled, the system delivers four minutes of mist watering five times a day.
Prasert Latim, who is disabled as a result of polio in his childhood, is one of two people tasked with accessing the app via his phone. He tells IPS that using the automated water sprinklers is more convenient as he doesn’t have to keep monitoring and watering veggies all day. It also prevents soil spattering, which can deplete nutrients.
Prasert, 56, notes that smart irrigation will not only save water but money too, especially as utility costs are rising.
Farm Samart, is part of the Digital Initiative Village (DVI) project supported by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), in collaboration with DEPA, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, and Kasetsart University.
“Our goal is to find a way to encourage the farmers to adopt more digital technologies,” says Witsanu Attavanich, Associate Professor of Economics at Kasetsart University and an FAO lead consultant.
“We can apply the Internet of Things (practical digital applications) in planting and harvesting processes. All of this should generate more income for both farmers and the community,” says Witsanu. His team of professors from the agriculture and engineering faculties will assist the farmers in both agricultural and technological areas.
Despite members’ determination, the farm faces challenges. The first one is limited space. Also, the farm cannot meet market demand because of inconsistencies in production.
It is Witsanu’s job to find sustainable business models not only for Farm Samart but for two other DVI farms in Nonthaburi and Chumphon provinces.
For Farm Samart, the professor says he plans to collaborate with local government agencies and villagers in nearby communities in order to increase land, manpower and eventually, production to meet the demand. Witsanu also plans to implement a long-term business plan in an attempt to nudge more people to join the project.
On the technological side, he says that the team will also explore additional practical tools from the Internet of Things to better assist the farmers and ensure that whatever they adopt keeps up with emerging technology.
Although “the application (that runs the watering system) is very advanced,” as it can support sensors for air temperature, humidity levels in air and soil, and light intensity, Rittirong says that “we are not there yet” because the farmers still lack knowledge about technology, soil, pests and diseases in vegetables.
Witsanu says training on agriculture, technology and business will be provided to both the farmers at Farm Samart and nearby villagers. That information will be collected in a guide at the end of the project.
Khoen has a vision of the association becoming a learning centre with a small cafe selling drinks and healthy food made with vegetables from the farm. He hopes to set an example for other associations and surrounding communities.
Although it is still at the nascent stage, “I’m proud (of the farm) because it proves that disabled people can grow vegetables like normal farmers,” he says.
A global initiative inspired by FAO’s Director-General, Mr QU Dongyu, the DVI is being piloted in the Asia-Pacific region. This village is among many being showcased and sharing its advancements with other villages and areas in Asia and the Pacific, as well as other regions of the world.