By Nadia Pontes
SAO JOSE DOS CAMPOS, Brazil, Feb 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Despite years of experience, Charlei Sousa finds himself struggling to grow maize. A lack of rain took half his last crop, and he says uneven rainfall has for years become a worsening problem in his fields in Montes Claros.
"We don't know anymore how and when to grow," said Sousa, a family farmer who plants about 30 hectares (74 acres) of maize in the north of Minas Gerais state, which lies within a semi-arid region of Brazil.
Changes in weather patterns linked to climate change are challenging the traditional knowledge of family farmers in Brazil, particularly those in traditionally dry areas of nine northern states, where land is used mainly to grow subsistence amounts of maize, rice, beans and cassava.
But help may be on the way. This season, Sousa will take a new ally to the field with him: a smartphone app. Used as a sort of in-field diary, it will record what is planted and when, how much fertiliser is used, geographical data about the field, photos and other details.
A few hundreds kilometres away, in São José dos Campos, in São Paulo state, scientists receive the data in real time. The information produced by Sousa and other family farmers will feed a new system designed to monitor the risk of crop failure in Brazilian semi-arid areas.
"There is no such monitoring being done in real time, with information coming directly from the producer," said Ana Paula Cunha, a researcher at National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters (Cemaden).
The centre, together with the International Institute for Applied Systems and the National Institute of Science and Technology for Climate Change, developed the app called Agrisupport.
With the help of farmers, scientists at Cemaden say they will be able to predict up to two months in advance whether the semi-arid region faces a risk of crop failure.
Alongside the information from farmers, researchers will rely on measurements of humidity, temperature, wind and solar radiation coming from monitoring equipment installed in nine states.
Those will be fed into mathematical models that researchers run on the institute's computers, and turned into forecasts for farmers and others in Brazil.
"We want to provide information about the crop productivity loss for all municipalities of the semi-arid region," said Regina Alvalá, a coordinator at Cemaden. The first report is expected to be available by the end of 2016.
PLANNING FOR PAYOUTS
The forecasts are expected to be particularly important for the federal government. Since 2003, Brasilia has offered financial compensation for family farmers from semi-arid regions who lose at least 50 percent of their crop. This type of insurance is known as "crop-guarantee".
"For the decision maker, information on the risk of crop failure is vital because it is possible to have a better view of how much will be paid for insurance," Alvalá said.
"But the information is also relevant to the producer," she said. "For example, if a farmer wants to extend the planted area but the forecast shows the weather conditions wont be good enough for the type of crop raised, the farmer can save the seeds."
According to government data, around 63,000 family farmers applied for crop-guarantee insurance payouts last year. The government provides 850 Brazilian reais (around $215) per producer, paid in five installments. But many farmers complain the amount is too low and doesn't cover their costs.
Access to the Agrisupport app could be another way of cutting farmer losses in dry areas. Reinaldo Oliveira, an agronomist at Technical Assistance and Rural Extension (Emater), a state agency, is working directly with farmers to help them use the tool.
"The mobile phone is already used by family farmers on a daily basis. But to send information through the app it's also important to have a good internet connection, which is not always possible in some regions," he said.
Still, farmers able to send through a photo of a crop pest, for instance, can get feedback on what do about it in as little as a few minutes, Oliveira said.
Sousa has already tested the app. Besides providing information about what he's planning to grow and how much of it, he will also report on his harvest and receive advice on how to take better care of his crop.
"I think this application will help small farmers to organize themselves better. We shall know in advance which is the best time to start planting. This information can help us to save money," Sousa said. (Reporting by Nadia Pontes; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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