By Ben Schiller
Running a farm is complicated. You need to choose crops, manage the soil, and get your harvest to market. You have to cope with the weather, diseases, and various pests. You have to compete, or collaborate, with other farmers doing the same thing. And so on. It's no wonder, really, that many farmers struggle, and why many people are choosing something easier these days.
To appreciate the complexity of agriculture, take a look at a new simulation game called Farm Defenders. Developed to train extension workers--government consultants who spread knowledge in the countryside--it covers hundreds of aspects of running a farm, and in a highly realistic way. All the data--soil conditions, climate, commodity prices, and so on--is live, and accurate to a village level (the weather information, for example, changes every 15 minutes). As a player, you get a small virtual budget. Then you have to fend for yourself.
"You've got a lot of tradeoffs to make. You have to do it profitably and each thing you do costs money," says Philip Parker, a professor at Insead business school, who was involved in the development.
"It teaches you how strategic you need to be. You can go for a quick and dirty yield this year. But then your soil depletion goes quickly that you erode soil to nothing, if you don't have a rigorous soil management program. Then your farm is at risk."
Funded by the Gates Foundation, the game is based on a database called Toto Agriculture. The first edition covers seven climatic zones of Africa. But Parker says it could be applied to any region of the world, including the U.S. Graduate students are now testing a beta version, ahead of a full launch later this year.
Farm Defenders tests players through a full "crop calendar"--seven stages, from soil preparation and "pre-planting", to growing and weeding, and "post-harvest". At each stage, they have to make choices about whether to invest in water, trees and shrubs, and fertilizers. And there are continual problems. Rats squeak and run across the screen, eating up seeds. Pests attack when the plants reach a certain height. Birds swoop down at harvest time (you can choose to invest in scarecrows, or something stronger). Then, once the crop is out of the fields, players have to decide whether to sell immediately--and whether to sell to a co-operative or direct--or whether to put crops in storage (where they could get damp with mildew and mold).
Though it was expensive to develop, the game should be cheap to roll out to countries that want to use it, Parker says, cutting the cost of educating extension workers. Several governments in Africa and Asia have said they are interested in using it.
Parker says many countries can't afford their own training, and, as a result, workers tend to know mostly about their own regions only. "This allows them to see a whole variety of different environments that they wouldn't normally experience, and to do it in a more engaging, and interesting way."
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.