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Bold commitment to innovation

By Soleak Seang
Rice is Vietnam’s most important food crop. Farmers growing SRI rice in Vietnam are increasing their yields, sometimes by as much as 11%, reducing use of some fertilizer by as much as 16%, and irrigation expenses can drop as much as 35%. Photo: Chau Doan/Oxfam America

Watching his parents’ rice crop fail in 1984 was a heartbreak for Le Ngoc Thach. In that growing season, stem borer grubs devoured the harvest. “It destroyed the plants,” Thach tells visitors to his village, Dai Nghia, just south-east of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. “So it was a lost year for our family and community.”

Tragedies such as this compelled Thach to serve as president of the commune agricultural cooperative. When he was elected to this post in 2001, he says he made a commitment: “I told myself to find new technology to help farmers get a better life.”

In his research about ways to help farmers in Dai Nghia, Thach learned about a new and innovative way to grow rice, Vietnam’s most important food crop and the main source of nutrition for many small-scale farmers. It’s called the system of rice intensification, SRI, and involves techniques that help farmers save money on seed, fertilizer and other chemicals, and cuts down on labor needed for transplanting.

Oxfam and the Plant Protection Department, which is part of Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, have been running farmer field schools to help rice farmers learn the new techniques, and in turn teach other farmers about SRI. Oxfam began this work in Cambodia, and then expanded it to Vietnam in order to help small-scale farmers learn new farming methods, develop their skills to analyze and solve agricultural problems, and teach each other to improve their farming.

Thach was excited about bringing SRI to his village. “I saw with my own eyes the obvious benefits of SRI in all the places I visited,” he says. “So when I introduced the method to my farmers, I knew exactly that victory was on my side.”

Despite his confidence, Thach knew there would be doubts among the farmers. For example, SRI recommends transplanting single rice seedlings, instead of bunches of them. Many farmers did not believe this would increase their yield. “How can one rice seedling produce more than four or five seedlings together?” Tran Minh Tien, member of the Dai Nghia Agricultural Cooperative, said as he recalled farmers’ reaction when Thach first introduced SRI in the commune.

But Thach was willing to take the risk. In 2006, he made a bold promise to the farmers, “If you apply SRI and the yield is lower than the yield from your ordinary practice, I will take my own money to compensate for your losses.”

With this assurance, he convinced 50 families to try SRI on a 10-acre plot. Initial successes attracted more farmers to try SRI. Farmers learned from each other as they helped their neighbors work in the field, and they all witnessed more and better rice in the SRI field. The number of SRI farmers in the commune tripled in less than a year, and in the spring crop of 2008, all the 2,000 members of the cooperative applied SRI on the entire commune’s 420 acres of paddy land. “I’m very happy to win this confidence from all the farmers in my cooperative,” Thach said. “It is my most precious achievement.”

Farmers in Dai Nghia work closely with Thach to grow two rice crops and one non-rice crop including soybean and vegetables per year. Those who used to spend one month to transplant their rice now spend from 10 to 15 days. This allows them to have more time to do other work such as raising livestock or growing vegetables.

“Now I have more time to become a seller at the market, and my husband has more time to work in construction,” said Nguyen Thi Dua, one of the first women who started using SRI in the commune. “We earn a little more income for our family.”

All farmers in Dai Nghia are now embracing this growing method with results that are boosting household incomes, helping them to send their children to school, and fund other essentials.

The Plant Protection Department reported that on an average field just smaller than an acre, farmers can save $53 per year of two rice crops on seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and on hiring labor for transplanting. The combination of input savings and yield increase contributes to extra income of about $70 on the same size of paddy land. That’s enough to pay for one year of school or two year’s worth of seed for the next growing seasons.

Thach takes pride with this achievement for the commune. “I’m proud to see farmers in my community increase their income and improve their living conditions,” Thach said. “SRI has brought about a better life for Dai Nghia.”

Better for the environment

Thach and other farmers have been concerned about the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in Dai Nghia. The fertilizers were actually decreasing soil fertility and making the rice plants even more dependent on artificial fertilizers. A lot of pesticides were released into the environment to kill pests such as stem borers, but the chemicals also killed beneficial soil bacteria and other valuable species including fish. Some of the chemicals travelled into the air, soil, and water sources, causing environmental concern for the people who depend on the resources. But the rising prices of these chemicals forced them to find alternatives.

Growing SRI rice reduces farmers’ reliance on pesticides; the plants are farther apart, which makes them healthier and more resistant to pests. Thach says he can see the effects of less spraying of pesticides: “I think SRI creates a better biodiversity condition for the rice field. There are more fish and other creatures living in the field.”

Nguyen Thi Dua, an SRI farmer in Dai Nghia, said due to the wider spacing of seedlings, her rice plants get better exposure to sunlight and have stronger roots, which reduces vulnerability to pests. “I don’t need to spend too much money on buying pesticide anymore,” she said. “The fields are looking good, and I’m pleased with the clean and sound environment.”

Thach remains committed to exploring new and better ways to grow rice and to sustain the environment. Farmers who used to grow barely enough rice for family consumption now have a surplus.

But perhaps most importantly, farmers in Dai Nghia are open to new ideas. “SRI is a success in Dai Nghia commune,” says Tran Minh Tien. “We’re now working with the [Hanoi] University on organic rice, and the research over the last year shows some success. This can lead us to adding more value to our rice, and a safer product for consumers.”