UN warns Ebola could infect 10,000 people per week—unless we act now

Lessons learned: growing rice in Haiti and Vietnam

By Kevin Ferguson
Marie Melisena Robert visited Vietnam recently to learn more about the System of Rice Intensification. Here, she is standing in a rice field in Haiti just before the harvest. Photo: Anna Fawcus/Oxfam America

A new method for coaxing more rice from the land with less water and fertilizer is beginning to take root in Haiti--as it has in Vietnam.

Six months after visiting their counterparts in Vietnam to compare rice-growing methods, an Oxfam-America-led delegation of Haitian farmers and agronomists reports that one of those methods used in Vietnam, the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), has begun to take root in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley.

The reason for SRI’s growing popularity in Haiti is clear: Many farmers practicing this method have boosted their rice yields by 50 percent to 100 percent. They include two farmers’ associations supported by Oxfam America: Movement to Help the Women of Liancourt-Payen commune of Verrettes, and the Irrigators’ Association of Liancourt. The women’s farming collective boosted its yield to seven tons per hectare, up from less than five tons the previous year, according to Marie Melisena Robert, president and founder of the 200-member group who was among those who traveled to Vietnam. The Irrigators’ Association, an association of 450 farmers, saw yields reach seven tons, up from less than four tons per hectare, says  Hollange Antoine, the group’s president.

Likewise, in Petite Rivière, the local branch of the Ministry of Agriculture reported that its 2.5-hectare SRI pilot plot yielded 5.7 tons of rice per hectare—about double what might otherwise be expected using traditional growing techniques.

In plots adjacent to those farmed by the women’s collective, farmer Présulmé Louis said that he was impressed with SRI and would try it next year. In explaining why he used a more traditional method this year that produced a more moderate two to four tons per hectare, he says, “SRI looked too hard.”

Indeed, SRI is not Miracle-Gro. While SRI requires less seed, water and fertilizer than traditional farming techniques, it’s a labor-intensive approach to rice farming that must be followed painstakingly to be effective.

“SRI activities must be done on time and just as prescribed,” says Antoine. Mesadieu Alexis, president of a water users’ association and also on the Vietnam trip, echoed those sentiments, noting, “If you apply the [SRI] technical package correctly, you will have good yields. That’s what we experienced.”

Following the SRI guidelines can sometimes be more difficult in Haiti than in Vietnam, members of the delegation report. First, there is the issue of water management. In Vietnam, there is a strong culture of cooperation among farmers—supported by government regulation—to share water resources. In Haiti, farmers working adjacent plots don’t often agree among themselves and with the government about access to water and management of irrigation canals.

Also, in Vietnam the use of herbicides reduces or eliminates the need for weeding SRI plots. Haitians, on the other hand, typically don’t use herbicides because they could wash into the  irrigation canals from which families pull water for drinking and bathing. Consequently, farmers must yank weeds from rice paddies two or three times each season.

SRI farming—whether in Vietnam or Haiti—also requires using the right seeds in the right soils at the right time of year. In Haiti, each of those aspects need further study, according to Gérald Telfort, director of research and training for the ODVA, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Artibonite Valley Development Organization.

Following four months of studying the yields of two varieties of Haitian rice grown using two cultivation systems, SRI and one promoted by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Telfort found that in certain circumstances the yields of both systems were comparable. ODVA published the research, sponsored by Oxfam America, in an October report.

Despite these challenges, Haitian farmers say they have benefited from SRI. “So, for those farmers who are not using SRI, we are encouraging them to do so,” says Antoine of the Irrigants’ Association.