Next to the small home of Say Chhoun, 55, and his wife Yem Dieb, 51, is a small rice paddy. They say it is about a quarter of an acre, and it looks a little bigger than a regulation basketball court. “When I planted that area using conventional rice growing techniques, I got about one [50kg] bag of rice,” Chhoun says, looking out from inside his house, which is so small he can barely stand up inside. “Now I’m getting two bags, which is quite a difference.”
Chhoun says he is now using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) since he learned about it two years ago during training sessions with Oxfam’s partner, a local organization called Srer Khmer. SRI techniques involve cost-saving ways of planting rice: farmers use less seed, water, fertilizer, and grow more rice. Farmers can follow as many as nine steps, ranging from seed selection to the way they transplant seedlings individually (instead of in clumps of five or more plants together). SRI techniques promote the growth of stronger roots, so each plant produces more grains of rice.
Since following SRI practices allows him to plant fewer seeds and use less water, Chhoun says it is helping him save money, grow more rice in the same area, and even increase the number of harvests per year. “The techniques we’ve learned have helped us feed the family better,” he says. “I plant three rice crops a year now. Here I’ve just harvested my rice, and then I transplanted again right away.”
On a cool winter afternoon, Dieb and Chhoun and three of their children are across the narrow dirt road from their house, transplanting rice onto a rented field. Dieb is in the nursery, pulling the seedlings up by their roots. She carries them a short distance to where Chhoun is planting them in a small area flooded with about six inches of water. He wades down a straight row, inserting each individual seedling about one inch deep and 18 inches from the next.
Chhoun and Dieb were the first family in their village, Anlong Hab, to grow three crops a year. That was three years ago. Last year there were three families doing it, now there are 10. “In the wet season everyone grows rice so it’s hard to find land to rent,” Chhoun says. “Usually people don’t grow rice in the dry season, so it’s an opportunity for me to go rent their land.”
Chhoun says the added production is helping his family of nine eat better, but they still need to grow more. So finding land he can plant is a priority. “I want others to grow three crops a year also because we’re all poor,” he says, wondering aloud if he will find enough land to rent if more farmers expand their growing season.
Nevertheless, Chhoun and Dieb feel they are making progress, and their status in the community is changing as others have learned from their experience. Chhoun’s rice cultivation skills have established him as one of the most innovative farmers in the village. “I’m quite proud,” he says. “We’re poor, but people look at me and follow what I did. That’s what motivates me to do this work.”