Food on the table and savings on hand

By Andrea Perera
So Sophal and her sister use strands of wire to mark off straight lines, which guide them as they transplant seedlings from their nursery.

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Rort Kea rolls up his pants and steps down into the rice paddy. Walking backward through the mud, he takes the biggest seedlings from his nursery and plants them in a row. Trained in the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), Kea knows that by dividing the clump of seedlings and planting them farther apart, he can give the healthiest plants their best chance to thrive. But accustomed to using speed to carry out the task, he moves too quickly and winds up planting the seedlings too close together.

Standing on the dirt road above the paddy, Luy Pisey Rith watches the farmer as he works. A program officer in Oxfam America's East Asia office, he is skilled at observing a situation and determining the appropriate response. Rather than lecture Kea on the drawbacks of how Cambodian farmers have planted for generations, Rith simply walks around the perimeter, gathering scraps of wood. Crouching near the ground, he lashes the wood together, creating a grid. Then he demonstrates how to use the grid to mark off parallel lines for planting. Kea laughs as he watches him. But soon he's accepted the homemade tool, carrying it with him as he moves.

This is the reality of changing minds, not just practices, in Cambodia. Eight years after Oxfam's partner brought SRI to the region, some farmers are following many but not all of its 12 practices. They immediately accept the easier steps, which save them money on the front end—such as weeding, selecting fewer but higher-quality seeds, and collecting household manure to use as compost instead of buying chemical fertilizer. But when it comes to providing proper spacing for the seedlings or managing the irrigation of the paddies, they sometimes trip up.

This is where the proper balance of patience and persistence comes in.

"We try to bring them to the method slowly," Rith says. "If we asked them to follow it 100 percent from the beginning, not everyone would. They need time to change."

Time to change, and the proper motivation to do so. After just one harvest using some of SRI's methods, Cambodian farmers experience immediate benefits, producing more than they did the year before. It's the job of Oxfam and our partner, the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, or CEDAC, to educate farmers about how much more they could make. To respond to this kind of need, CEDAC started the SRI Secretariat, a permanent working group of local organizations providing training in SRI; the Secretariat is now a totally independent body housed in Cambodia's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.

Farmers who follow all of SRI's 12 steps can produce 50-150 percent more rice compared with conventional farming. They grow enough to feed their families and sell the surplus at the local market. They save money buying fewer seeds and time collecting less water. The plants are bigger, hardier, and better able to withstand some pests, droughts, and floods. At a time when the poorest 40 percent of Cambodian people struggle to deal with rising food prices, spending as much as 70 percent of their income on food, it's these promises of more stability and security that move them.

"The increased yields and decreased inputs convince the farmers," Rith says.

Mey Som's legacy

Created in the 1980s by a Jesuit priest in Madagascar, SRI is flourishing in places—like China and Bangladesh—where rice is the staple of every meal and farming is the main occupation. Having learned of its success, CEDAC brought the method to Cambodia in 2000, choosing a farmer named Mey Som as the first trainee.

I first met Som almost two years ago at his home in Tro Paing Raing village. We'd come during the dry season, when all the fields were yellow, the rice plants dry and stalky. Back then, Som told me that he had seen big changes with SRI just halfway through the first season; he'd noticed that his seedlings were growing bigger and stronger. The same plants that had once grown up to his knees were now growing past his head. Som was so encouraged by the results that he began traveling around the country with CEDAC, talking to other farmers about his experiences, explaining how a technique that requires less water and fewer seeds could actually produce more rice. It's all about the roots getting the right amount of water, sunlight, and nutrients, he told the farmers, a refrain I've heard from so many other farmers since then.

When Som, 68, farmed using conventional methods, he barely grew enough to feed his family. He still depended on his daughters' incomes; they were working at a garment factory in Phnom Penh, a two-hour drive from their village in Kandal province. Now, Som's farm is so productive that his daughters quit the factory to run the day-to-day operations. Their father no longer depends on their incomes; instead, he's teaching them to carry out SRI.

Earlier this morning, we watched as the sisters used strands of wire to mark off straight lines in their paddy, planting each seedling in a neat, shallow row. One of Som's daughters, So Sophal, who is 37, said that following SRI meant putting more thought into the process. But that translated into less energy in the fields. When she plants fewer seedlings, she can cover the same area in half as much time.

"We used to carry the seedlings by ox cart. Now we carry them by hand," she says. And "before, I used to hire labor from the village. Now just my relatives help."

Other farmers from Som's village admit that they struggled to convert from their traditional farming methods to all of SRI's practices in the beginning. It wasn't that they weren't interested in following the rules, Rith explains. Some steps are just harder to follow in Cambodia. For example, more developed countries like Vietnam have better infrastructure in place for irrigation and drainage. So it's easier for farmers to manage the water levels in their paddies. But the Cambodian farmers I spoke to say that they typically depend on rain for irrigation, and because of that, they keep whatever standing water that accumulates in their fields during the rainy season. It was only through their SRI training that they've learned how it's better for their rice to have shallow water soaking the roots.

This is one reason proper SRI training is so crucial; it takes these sorts of problems into account. For example, CEDAC trained Som's family and other farmers like them to build fish ponds near their rice paddies. During the wet season, farmers can use pumps to remove the excess water from the fields and use it to fill their ponds. During dry spells, they can use the water in the ponds as a backup supply to irrigate the fields.

In addition to the ponds, CEDAC teaches SRI farmers to cultivate vegetable gardens and fruit trees. By diversifying their livelihoods, farmers can eat and sell other crops when changing weather patterns or insects (like brown plant hoppers) damage their rice. But they can also use the new crops to support SRI itself. For example, Som uses the pumpkins, papayas, and mangos he grows to make natural compost. The new activities mean more to keep track of on the farm. But that can be a good problem to have, Som says.

"I'm busier, but I have more food to eat. I can sleep better because I don't worry."

Rice and microfinance

Perhaps the greatest attraction of SRI, particularly in poor countries like Cambodia, is that with just a bit of training and virtually no technology, farmers can earn big returns. This approach makes it the perfect partner for another Oxfam initiative, this one a microfinance program called Saving for Change. In August 2005, Oxfam began providing funding and technical assistance to CEDAC, the same organization that trains farmers in SRI, to form savings groups in 14 provinces throughout Cambodia.

Together, the savings group members focus primarily on their financial well-being, pooling their money (a few dollars from each farmer each month) to provide loans to their neighbors. The groups set their own interest rates, with the understanding that all the interest earned goes back into the community fund. They use their monthly meetings to review the bookkeeping for financial transactions in their group and to handle any outstanding payments or collections. But when that work is done, many farmers use the meetings as an outlet to exchange information about their experiences with SRI or any other issues in the community that they want to discuss.

"We have a monthly meeting, and we talk about our experiences in agriculture and other things," says Kea, the 37-year-old farmer who, thanks to Rith, is now using the homemade wooden grid to plant in Kompong Speu province's Prey Kdai village.

In a country where 75 percent of families lack access to financial services, particularly the more than 10.5 million people who live on less than $2 a day, pairing SRI with community savings groups helps individual farmers. But because the money stays in the villages instead of going to outside lenders, the communities prosper as well.

In fact, some farmers say they don't even ask for loans for their own use. They make enough money selling rice to provide for their families, pay off their farming expenses, and leave what they've contributed within the savings group. These farmers allow their neighbors, who might not be as fortunate, to take out what they need to support their small businesses or pay for farm equipment, seeds, school fees, and medicine for their family members.

Roeun Youn, 47, a rice farmer from Som's village in Kandal province, says that, thanks to SRI, she now produces 1,600, or 50 percent, more pounds of rice per acre. She earns enough to put away 2,000 riel (50 cents) per month in her community fund.

"But I haven't borrowed any yet. I want the other villagers to be able to use the money," she says.

Oxfam is working to grow both our SRI work and our savings group work. Our partner, CEDAC, and others hope to teach the innovative agriculture method to farmers in 12,000 villages in Cambodia over the next five years. And thanks to a new, nearly $12 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—the largest single purpose grant ever received by Oxfam America—our microfinance program is slated to grow to over half a million members worldwide over the next three years, or over 180,000 new members in Cambodia alone.

Building stronger communities

Having worked together to improve their understanding of farming techniques, manage each other's finances, and respond to family emergencies, Cambodian farmers who participate in SRI and the savings groups now say they feel a greater sense of solidarity and closeness with their neighbors. This is no small feat in a country still recovering from the ravages of the Khmer Rouge.

As neighbors learn to trust neighbors, these farmers build loyalties and relationships within their communities. Last year, Sophal took out a loan for 50,000 riel (about $12) to buy fingerlings, or young fish, for her family's pond. Knowing that her neighbors depended on her to pay back the loan as soon as possible so that the savings group fund could keep gaining interest, Sophal says, "I paid back the loan within six months—including the 3 percent interest."

As one of the Cambodian farmers participating in both the SRI and the savings group, Sophal's work is totally integrated and the benefits, ever expanding. She uses the water from the pond to irrigate her rice. She uses the fruits and vegetables to create compost to nurture the rice. The fish, vegetables, fruit, and rice feed her family. And the extra profi ts from selling those crops go into the savings group.

Her father, Som, summarizes it simply: "When I did conventional farming, we didn't have enough rice all year. We didn't have vegetables to eat. We didn't have enough water to bathe. Now we have a surplus."