Published: 2020-05-20 11:39:05 BdST
Fresh to farming, Mary found herself struggling after India's coronavirus lockdown began in March, unsure of how to fight the pests attacking her paddy and groundnut crops.
Initially she called her husband in Singapore to ask for advice. But then she realised she could use her phone to dial into an "e-plant clinic", where farmers and experts meet online to discuss crop pests and blight.
"I was using the phone to only make WhatsApp calls to my husband and complain about things," Mary told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from her home in the Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu state.
"Now I use it to call the plant doctors instead and they help me instantly. I don't have to wait for my husband to finish his work shift," she said.
Like Mary, other farmers across India are learning to remotely access similar plant clinics. They were first started in 2012 by bringing experts to a public location in a village twice a month to look at diseased crop samples and suggest remedies.
The roughly 30 physical clinics across five Indian states have now been replaced by online ones. So far seven sessions during the COVID-19 lockdown have seen more than 350 farmers participate from Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Assam and Puducherry.
Rising temperatures due to a warming global climate have also increased pest populations, agricultural experts said, adding it was crucial to control pest attacks quickly to help farmers protect their yield.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that annually 20% to 40% of crop production worldwide is lost to pests, with plant diseases costing the global economy about $220 billion and invasive insects about $70 billion.
In India, jasmine flowers, groundnut, eggplant, chilli and rice are some of the crops currently being affected by pests like bud worm, pod borer and thrips, which have been brought up by farmers in the e-clinics.
With an exodus of migrant workers returning home due to the coronavirus pandemic, farmers have been left to tend to their plots alone, slowing down the process of pest control.
"Shortage of labour has increased the chance of pests due to upkeep issues," said Jayashree Balasubramanian, a director at the Chennai-based MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.
The charity, which backs the use of modern science for sustainable farming, runs the plant clinics with the non-profit Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI).
"If farmers neglect any disease now, their lockdown losses will also impact the next cropping season. They need experts to help them and technology has fast-forwarded its way into their lives," said Balasubramanian.
Mary met "plant doctor" Rajkumar Ramasamy for the first time virtually during an e-clinic earlier this month for farmers from Pudukkottai.
The mother of two said that, despite a patchy connection, her plant sample was diagnosed and treatment suggested. "I was quite excited to attend this online meeting," she said.
"I felt very happy that I could follow the instructions sent to me via a message and then download (the app) on my phone and connect to the plant doctor. It felt like an achievement."
Ramasamy, who has worked with the plant clinic initiative since it began in 2012, was enthusiastic too.
"We had not planned to do anything during the lockdown but within days farmers started sending us pictures of their infested plants and asking us for help," he said.
"Then a young farmer suggested going online and we sent out a link asking farmers to register. Only 17 registered but on the day of the e-clinic, 48 joined. It was amazing."
Ramasamy and his colleagues have been able to provide timely advice via the web to farmers who showed them samples of sick crops to reduce their losses even during the lockdown, also sharing information on where they could get pesticides.
Farmer S Mathiyalagan, 51, needed his son's help to log in and learn how to participate in an online meeting.
The chilli farmer said he was nervous, unfamiliar with how to mute and un-mute himself, and not sure if the infected plant he was holding up was visible to the doctors.
"But it worked," he said over the phone, adding that he may need less help from his son next time.
Encouraged by the experiences of Mary and Mathiyalagan, the plant doctors now feel virtual clinics could expand their reach tremendously in the future.
"The only thing is to teach farmers how to use technology," Ramasamy said.
For example, they need to figure out how to hold the plant in front of the camera without blocking it, so the plant doctors can diagnose the problem, he said.
"Once these issues and internet connectivity are resolved, we could reach thousands of farmers, resolving issues in real time," he added.