Turning phones into plowshares

How wireless networks are transforming an ancient profession.

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By Jessica Shambora, reporter

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Turkish Farmer Mustafa Bacak used to slog through muddy fields, occasionally in pouring rain, to determine the temperature inside his greenhouse. Today he simply checks his cell phone for text messages informing him that the greenhouse's climate needs adjusting. He can tweak the humidity or temperature using his phone or computer, all from the comfort of his home.

Bacak is one of more than 100 farmers using wireless operator Turkcell's network and software to remotely tend their crops. After logging on to Turkcell's Web site, the farmer can set alert conditions. Sensors in the greenhouse monitor the climate and transmit data over the cellular network to the vegetable grower's device of choice. The farmer can text a query for data, or if the soil is too dry, he receives an alert and can text a command to start irrigation.

In addition to the convenience, the system can also translate to better profits. In the past, farmer Kemalettic Aksoy lost around 30% of his 400-ton tomato crop due to frost. By the time he got to the greenhouse to turn up the heat, it was too late for many plants. Now when a text warns him of a frost risk, he can respond right away. He estimates having saved 80,000 Turkish lira (about $51,000) by preventing the spread of viruses from frost, thanks to Turkcell.

Turkcell (TKC) CEO Sureyya Ciliv, argues that such software and services are essential to improving the lives of his country's rural residents. He notes that some four billion people worldwide are now connected to one another -- and to sources of information that weren't previously available to them. "Now a mother in a village without a doctor can use her phone to make a call or get a text message with some basic information on how to treat a sick child," Ciliv says.

Indeed, telemedicine and even telecom-based farming applications aren't new. But for farmers worldwide who don't toil near phone lines, wireless systems typically are the only way to send and receive information.

And then there are places where wired connectivity simply isn't an option -- like rivers, lakes and oceans.

In Australia, mobile provider Telstra's Next G broadband network offers seafaring farmers increased flexibility. Mark Ryan, CEO of Tassal Group Limited, which farms salmon in Tasmania, guesses he's saved around $100,000 a year using the wireless network to receive and transmit data. In the past any data captured at sea would have to be brought back to shore to be in put into systems. Now the data is streamed directly from the boats to shore. "It offers us the ability to utilize our labor time far more efficiently," says Ryan.

But it goes beyond connectivity. As demonstrated by the greenhouse solution, by partnering with software developers, Turkcell can provide mobile applications that transform work where monitoring and controlling from a distance is crucial. Solutions are also available for monitoring the cool chain system for frozen foods, and for controlling the climate and feeding systems in chicken coops.

For a new generation of agrarians, the most valued farm implement may be their cell phones. To top of page

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