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New Technology Helps Farmers Remote Control Crops

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For Wei Tian'en, growing watermelons is a white-collar job that needs only a few clicks of the mouse.

Most of the day he stays home in north China's Shaanxi Province and tends the crops through software installed in his computer, which allows him to monitor the humidity, temperature and other aspects of the greenhouse.

"It makes farming much easier," said Wei, 41, one of about 100 villagers in the suburbs of the provincial capital Xi'an who have joined the "remote control your farm" project sponsored by Northwest China Agriculture and Forestry University.

For generations, the Wei family have made a living growing watermelons, a demanding job for his father and grandfather. "They used to spend nights in the greenhouse when the fruit were about to bulge or mature, two critical stages that demanded timely watering, ventilation and constant temperatures."

The big temperature difference between day and night in western China used to be a major threat to the fruit quality, he said.

After 20 years toiling in the fields, Wei does not need to spend 24 hours a day in the greenhouse thanks to the remote monitoring project.

The project, on trial since March in Yangling District, a high-tech agricultural zone in Xianyang City, 70 km west of Xi'an, has equipped greenhouses with sensors and meteorological monitoring devices.

"It monitors temperature, humidity, wind direction and speed as well as exposure to sunlight," said Li Xin, a professor with Northwest China Agriculture and Forestry University. "If farmers have any doubts, they can send their data to the university and get expert advice."

He said the project was producing at least 10,000 kilograms of watermelons daily from 11 hectares of experimental crops. "They are sweeter and more watery, a result of the scientific farming process and use of organic fertilizer."

Farmer Wei Tian'en said he was expecting "the best harvest ever" this year. "Fruit dealers have flocked to my farm since my first harvest, offering three times the average price," he said.

Last month, the remotely-monitored watermelons had an average wholesale price of 6 yuan (US$0.85) per kilo, compared with 1.6 yuan per kilo for other melons, said Prof. Li.

"Every fruit has a bar code, which traces its origination and date of harvest," he said.

If the trial proves successful, Prof. Li and his colleagues plan to promote the project and help more farmers in western China to remote control other crops, particularly peaches and apricots that promise higher profits for farmers.

Remote farming, which was piloted last year in the rich eastern province of Zhejiang, is still not very common in China, a country with 900 million farmers.

"It's a major breakthrough and surely benefits farmers," said Yang Lixu, an official with the Shaanxi Provincial Department of Agriculture. "But it's difficult to popularize the practice anytime soon, given the huge investment and complicated technology involved."

(Xinhua News Agency June 12, 2009)

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