Central America
Software Helps Profits Grow With Crops

Farming on steep mountain slopes in Honduras, Miguel Cruz always worried about erosion and the loss of soil nutrients because of the slash-and-burn agriculture he practiced. But a software program developed by NC State soil science professors Jot Smyth and Deanna Osmond, along with other good management practices, has allowed Cruz to handle his crops more efficiently with less fertilizer, boosting his profits.

The Nutrient Management Support System (NuMaSS) diagnoses and remediates deficiencies in tropical soils. The software is based on years of soil nutrient management research conducted by NC State, Cornell, the University of Hawaii, and Texas A&M as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Collaborative Research Support Program (CRSP) in soil management. The agency created several CRSPs in the 1980s to support agriculture in developing countries, redirecting efforts a decade ago from basic research to technology transfer.

Smyth, Osmond, and their colleagues spent five years refining algorithms to measure crop responses to phosphorous, nitrogen, and other nutrients in tropical soils. “We wanted the program to be as science-based as possible,” Osmond says. NuMaSS matches a farmer’s crop with the soil type in the region to provide basic yield information. A local soil analysis is necessary to produce more detailed information, such as a diagnosis of soil problems and recommendations for the type and amount of fertilizers to use. “It’s like going to the doctor,” Smyth said. “He’s not going to be able to tell you about your cholesterol without a blood sample.”

NuMaSS accounts for previous years’ plantings to determine whether less fertilizer is needed for the current crop. Smyth says it’s unclear whether the program improves crop yields, but it can decrease the amount of fertilizer needed to produce the same yield, saving farmers money and keeping them from overtaxing the soil. “A lot of countries have blanket recommendations for fertilizer and lime concentrations to apply for certain crops, but our software looks at site-specific situations,” he says. The program also can provide a cost/benefit analysis to help farmers choose the most profitable fertilizer to use or crop to grow, from beans to potatoes.

The NuMaSS software helps diagnose and remediate deficiencies in tropical soils.

In recent years, the researchers have focused on eight Latin American countries from Mexico to Bolivia to train extension agents and others on using NuMaSS, and have translated the system into Spanish and Portuguese for easier use. Many of the national project coordinators obtained their graduate degrees at NC State on CRSP scholarships. “We’ve created a corps of ambassadors,” Osmond says, “who can take the program and put it to direct use in the field.”

 

Drs. Deanna Osmond and Jot Smyth spent 10 years developing a software program to help farmers in Latin America.

Farmers in Honduras are among those who have used the Nutrient Management Support System to better control their use of fertilizers. (Photo by Jot Smyth.)