New Farming Methods May Yield Capital Grains

bati district, Takeo province – During the last four years, a quiet change has been taking place in some of the country’s rice fields.

Paddies have begun to fall into formation. Rice shoots stretch out in straight and orderly lines, wa­ter levels have fallen, and by some accounts, farmers are pull­ing in larger harvests than ever.

When it came time to plant his crops this year, Men Chan, who grows rice on half a hectare, set aside a small field for an experiment at his farm in Bati district.

Instead of planting handfuls of rice shoots helter-skelter, Men Chan carefully sowed single seedlings well apart from each other. Then, while he flooded his other field, he kept his experimental plot relatively dry, with just a thin layer of water at the base of the plants.

He heard about the new meth­od from some of his neighbors, who had reported good results. A visiting NGO had also offered some advice. But Men Chan, 62, was wary of changing a routine he had followed for decades.

“I tested on a smaller field and planted in the traditional way on the larger one because I was suspicious of the new techniques,” he said.

Men Chan was a quick convert.

His small experimental plot yielded twice as much rice as his other fields, and because of the lower concentration of seedlings, planting took a fraction of the time compared to a similar sized patch he prepared in the traditional way.

“Next year I will apply the new techniques everywhere,” he said.

Since 2000, a method of growing rice that doesn’t rely on new seed varieties, heavy equipment or chemical fertilizer has been aggressively promoted in Cam­bodia.

Advocates of the System for Rice Intensification say that yields can be double or triple those of traditional techniques, but others see a new and relatively untested idea that could put people’s livelihoods at risk.

Developed two decades ago in Madagascar, SRI has since been adopted in countries around the world. Despite its relative simplicity—SRI suggests a few fundamental changes in the way that rice is planted, cared for and harvested—the system has inspired a fair amount of debate.

The divide seems to fall be­tween those willing to rely on anecdotal evidence and observations from the field and those needing more rigorous testing and scientific evidence.

There are a number of recommendations for farmers practicing SRI, but the basics are simple: Plant your seedlings at a relatively young age; space them well, with roughly 25 centimeters be­tween plants; and keep the soil wet but not saturated, an oddity in a country where rice paddies are generally kept flooded.

The expected results are plants that have stronger root systems and bear significantly more grains.

But these practices can also result in a number of other issues. When fields aren’t flooded, weeds sprout up, which re­quire more labor. Young plants need more delicate care. And, significantly, the whole system needs an effective means of water control, something that many parts of the country just don’t have.

Programs inside and outside of Asia have reported results with SRI that sometimes border on the amazing.

But there have also been some failures and a fair amount of skepticism.

Inter­nationally, the strongest criticism comes from those who say that the system has no scientific basis and that agricultural techniques that have the potential to change entire countries—for better or worse—should be well established before they are spread.

One of the local champions of SRI is the Center for the Study and Development of Cambodian Agriculture (Cedac), the same NGO that advised Men Chan on his experimental field. Since the organization first encouraged 28 farmers to use the new cultivation method in 2000, it has converted about 15,000 families to SRI and hopes to see 50 percent of the nation’s farmers practicing the technique by 2010.

Cedac Director Yang Saing Koma said that the simplicity of the system was part of what made it so attractive.

“You don’t bring anything to the farmer, you show them how to do it,” he said. “It’s not really a technology, it’s more of a philosophy…. People are relearning about rice.”

In a few years, farmers can become adept at using the new techniques, save small fortunes by using a fraction of the seed they once needed, and increase their rice harvests by two to three times, Yang Saing Koma said.

But the speed of the transition has unsettled others.

Men Sarom, director of the government-run Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute, said he hoped that backers of the new system would proceed with more restraint. He maintained that Cardi had been looking into SRI for years and that his institute and others had established that the system was not appropriate for all conditions.

“I’m not against someone who is trying to help the country. But something that is done must be properly tested,” he said. “We must be very cautious.”

Just up the road from Men Chan’s farm lives another family that has been using SRI for about two years. Hem Chamroeun, 46, is a mother of nine and grows rice on about half a hectare. Her husband, Luy Hong, 64, is the Trach Kos village chief.

They too have experienced greater crop yields since they were introduced to SRI by Cedac.

“The plants are very healthy and very big,” Hem Chamroeun said.

But the family has also seen some setbacks, especially in the wake of this year’s drought.

Hem Chamroeun said one of their fields has a gentle slope that causes water to slowly drain from one end to the other, a significant problem when water levels need to be carefully controlled.

Like their neighbor, the family continues to harbor some suspicion about the new planting method.

Taking the drought into ac­count, they decided to play it safe this year and plant some of their crops as they always have, with crowds of seedlings pushed up against each another.

“I really appreciate the new techniques, but this year was an exception,” Luy Hong said. “If I put out just single plants I am still worried that they will die. So I plant many. Then if one dies, its friends will live.”



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