1.3 million rice farmers now using innovative growing methods in Vietnam

By Soleak Seang
Farmer Chu Thi Thanh Khuong, 41, shows visitors bags of rice she grew in Thai Nguyen province. Chu Thi Thanh Khuong was among the first 30 farmers in the province who tried growing rice using SRI in 2009. Photo: Soleak Seang/Oxfam America.

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The harvest season is just over in Thai Nguyen Province, and the vast terraces are filled with rows of freshly harvested rice stalks in countless small paddy fields. It was a good harvest, says 41-year-old Chu Thi Thanh Khuong as she shows visitors bags of rice stacked up to two meters high.

Khuong farms on two small plots of rice paddies, a total of 10 sao (nearly an acre) in Dong Dat commune of Thai Nguyen’s Phu Luong district. She attributes the good harvest to the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a package of good agricultural practices for hand-planted rice that increase yields while using less seeds, water, and fertilizers.

Today more than 1.3 million farmers in Vietnam have embraced this innovative farming method, producing more rice and earning extra income for their families. Oxfam has been helping promote SRI in Vietnam for nearly six years, and has made possible the ongoing training of farmers in the methods.

“It’s a smart investment needed to lift people out of poverty and to boost the national economy,” says Ngo Tien Dung, Deputy Director General of the Plant Protection Department in Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture.

SRI practices involve five simple steps including soil preparation, plant and water management. Farmers who use SRI transplant seedlings earlier and space them individually and in square patterns farther apart to reduce competition for light, water, and nutrients.

“I save quite a lot on seeds and fertilizers,” Khuong says. “Before I used almost 50 kg (110 pounds) of seeds for the two paddy fields, but now I use only 4 or 5 kg because with SRI, I transplant only one and sometimes two seedlings per hill instead of bunches of them.”

Robust root systems, bigger and healthier plants grow more grains of rice. Khuong now produces 2.7 metric tons of rice from her two paddy fields, as compared to just 1.8 tons grown with conventional methods, a 50 percent increase.

“I’m very pleased with the results, and I’ve stop worrying now,” she says.

According to the Plant Protection Department, farmers who use SRI significantly reduce the use of chemicals, thus growing healthier food, improving soil quality, and protecting farm biodiversity. On average, SRI farmers increase their yield by 500 kilograms (1,110 pounds), and earn extra income of $130 per hectare in just one cropping season (a hectare is just under 2.5 acres). This is a significant sum in a country where average income is around $1,200.

SRI honored with national award

SRI was recently honored with the National Golden Rice Award for making positive changes in the life of over a million Vietnamese farmers.

The award is an initiative of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to honor major contributions to sustainable agriculture and rural development. Fifty-six winners were selected from across Vietnam for the first biennial Golden Rice Awards, which took place in November.

SRI was the first recipient at the Golden Rice Awards ceremony, and was recognized as an innovation that helped to revitalize sustainable food production, improving food and income security for small-scale farmers in Vietnam.

“We need to build the momentum for SRI extension over the coming years,” says Ngo Tien Dung of the Plant Protection Department, who received the award for the Department’s outstanding work in promoting the farming method.

Beyond mere benefits

The benefits of SRI go beyond increasing yield and reducing input costs. According to a report by Africare, Oxfam, and World Wildlife Fund, SRI practices have contributed to the reduction of greenhouse gases released from agricultural activities.

By improving nutrient use efficiency, farmers reduce the use of water, fertilizers, herbicide and pesticide, resulting in reduced emissions of methane, one of the most prevalent and dangerous greenhouse gases.

Farmers also reported positive change in community relations as a result of using these techniques. SRI farmers—most of them are women—learn together and help each other in the fields. This practice has created a culture of mutual support in rural communities.

Oxfam has been supporting organizations promoting SRI in Vietnam since 2006, working closely with officials of the Plant Protection Department, and recruiting local farmers to train others. These local experts formed a core of SRI proponents and formed Farmer Field Schools that grew demonstration plots and promoted the techniques.

Because farmers who try SRI see results almost immediately, the number of SRI farmers increased five-fold from 2009 to 1.3 million in 2012.