Avoiding pests in Vietnam

By Chris Hufstader
Loc Thi Su (left) and Dao Thi Bon in their rice field in Na Tap. They report that their rice is now more resistant to pest infestations since they started using the System of Rice Intensification. Photo: Chau Doan/Oxfam America

Low-cost rice growing techniques help farmers earn more while reducing pesticides.

Phung Duc Tam lives on the side of the narrow road running through the small village of Na Tap, across from a sodden rice field. It’s a rainy day, and the nearby mountains are mostly behind fog. Tam has recently butchered a pig, and its various parts are arrayed on a table next to the road. His neighbors occasionally come by on their motorbikes to buy a few pieces, which he hacks apart with a cleaver.  

Tam is a middle-aged married father of three children, and a member of a group of 14 rice farmers learning and using special growing techniques called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). He says that farmers in Na Tap are growing more rice than ever. “We have the same people growing rice, using the same land, but we are reducing input costs and increasing yields,” he says. “In other words, same people, same land, but with new technology our life is better.”

Hua Van Phuc works at the Plant Protection Sub-Department, known as PPSD, in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, which partners with Oxfam to teach farmers SRI. The program prioritizes areas like Dinh Hoa where the rate of poverty is around 25 percent, roughly double the national average. He says at first the farmers here were skeptical of SRI. “They were worried and suspicious. But we convince them with demonstration plots. Evidence shows that SRI is good, and seeing is believing.”

One plant at a time

Tam says the biggest change for farmers in Na Tap is “now we transplant one seedling at a time, and we’ve cut down on seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and labor.” He says they only transplant the most robust seedlings, to ensure they grow the strongest plants, which will produce more grains.

Do Thi Nyen, the deputy director for PPSD in Thai Nguyen, says it is precisely the resistance to pests that interests her. “Before we had support from Oxfam, the traditional approach used a lot of pesticides because the farmers transplanted many plants together, which made for better conditions for the pests to develop,” Nyen says, standing in front of a large wall map in her office in Thai Nguyen, where she tracks insect infestations.

She is most concerned about an insect called the stem borer. “When they occur, we have to use pesticides to kill them. But with SRI the space between the transplanted seedlings is wider… they grow faster and the stems become very strong. And the stronger stems are more resistant to the pests.”

Phung Duc Tam says farmers in Na Tap have all but stopped using pesticides. “We used to spray pesticides four times, but now we do it just once or maybe not at all,” he says, pouring tea for guests at his home. “This is a great benefit to our health.”

Oxfam has been working with PPSD to train famers in SRI practices since 2007. By 2010, PPSD and Oxfam could count more than 817,000 farmers using SRI on 151,000 hectares. The number of SRI growers leapt to 1.1 million on 196,540 hectares of land by 2012. The program prioritizes the northern highland indigenous areas as they are largely being left out of the rapidly falling rate of poverty in the rest of Vietnam, according to World Bank reports.

Hua Van Phuc has been training the indigenous Nung farmers in Dinh Hoa since 2011. “When we look at these farmers we see big changes,” he says, sipping a cup of green tea at Tam’s home. “They have time to do other things, and the reduction of inputs helps them have money. They feel happier, and I see them share their experiences freely.”