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Learning new rice technique inspires growers in Cambodia

By Chris Hufstader
Oun Poy, 36, saves her healthiest plants from each rice harvest so she can plant the best seeds. She learned that rigorous seed selection is one of the most important steps in the System of Rice Intensification, which has helped her increase her harvest and income. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam America

System of Rice Intensification boosts production, incomes, and attracts converts.

Oun Poy will tell you quite honestly: She used to be a reluctant rice grower. “I did not want to go to the field,” she says. “But now I want to go every day, because the rice just keeps growing better and better, and I want to see the difference.”

What changed? About five years ago Poy, a 36-year-old married mother of two small children, learned some different techniques for growing rice. She tested what she learned on small areas of her land, saw good results, and slowly started incorporating the new techniques on more and more of her land.

She offers an example: on one half-hectare (about 1.2 acres) plot, she says she used to plant 50 kilos of rice seed, transplanting 480 bundles of seedlings to grow about 900 kilos of rice. She had to hire laborers to help her. This was a typical result for a rainy season rice crop near her home in Takeo, in southern Cambodia.

In 2010 she attended some training sessions with Oxfam’s partner RACHANA, and learned about the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). On the same half-hectare plot, she planted 15 kilos of rice seeds, and transplanted smaller seedlings, only 60 bundles. She could do it all herself instead of hiring laborers. Despite planting less, her yield jumped up to 2,150 kilos. She also learned how to do the same thing during an abbreviated early rainy period, when she says she can grow as much as 3,000 kilos.

Growing in rows

The System of Rice Intensification is a low-tech, low-cost way of growing rice that concentrates on quality, not quantity of rice seeds, seedlings, and plants. SRI can comprise as many as 12 steps, ranging from rigorous seed selection, field preparation with organic fertilizer, transplanting only the healthiest seedlings, and spacing the plants farther apart in rows to give the plants more light and reduce competition for nutrients, and encourage stronger roots. Planting each seedling individually in rows also helps farmers use a mechanical weeder in between the rows, so they can save time and use less water to flood the field to control weeds. SRI works well with any variety of rice seed, and because the plants have more space between them they can grow bigger and produce more grains of rice.  Their stronger roots help them withstand heavy winds and rain without falling over and breaking, and are less vulnerable to destructive pests. SRI farmers tend to use less pesticides, saving money and the environment.

One of the most important steps in the System of Rice Intensification is transplanting each seedling individually in rows. This allows the plants ample light and nutrients, and farmers can weed between the rows with a mechanical weeder. Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

RACHANA trains farmers by convening farmer field schools. With each group of farmers RACHANA identifies a “farmer promoter” who gets special training and provides ongoing advice for group members. Creating an environment in which farmers learn from each other, and try new ideas, is one of the reasons that SRI is taking off in Takeo. “Every year we hold a farmer forum to allow the best farmer to teach others how they grow rice using SRI practices,” says Sorn Dim, who works for RACHANA.

In the 137 villages in the area, nearly 100 percent of the rice farmers are using at least four of the key steps in SRI during the summer rainy season, particularly planting seedlings individually in rows. A study by RACHANA cites the organization’s training and technical advice from farmers, along with the higher yields and reduced costs as the key reasons that farmers are switching to SRI for at least part of their rice production. “Farmers who don’t use SRI watch the other farmers as they prepare the land, select seeds, and transplant,” Dim says. “They monitor the plant performance, see the difference, and get encouragement from SRI farmers to switch.”

Standards of living improving

Oun Poyn lives in a village called Yul Cheik. The benefits of switching to SRI are making a difference here, according to Un Oeurn, 72, chief in the village for the last 10 years. He says of the 170 households here, 20 of them were very poor five years ago when RACHANA started training farmers in SRI. “Some of them used to run out of rice,” he says. Now, there are only five very poor families in the village. “People are planting twice a year and growing more,” he says. “Most people have at least one motorbike, people have enough to eat, and everybody has a better life.”

One indicator of an improved standard of living in rural Cambodia is the ability to buy a motorbike. Thanks to better rice harvests, Oun Poy bought herself a brand new Honda. Photo: Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

Oun Poy shows visitors one of the reasons her rice production has improved: Hanging from a beam under her house are several bundles of harvested rice plants, the grains still on the panicles. RACHANA staff showed her how to identify some of the strongest plants in each harvest, which she saves for planting in the nursery at the start of the next growing season.

Poy has just sold her rice harvest, and now has a brand new black Honda Dream motorbike. The plastic is still on the seat. She stores the new motorbike under her house, which she has just rebuilt. It now has formidable brick and plaster walls, a metal roof, and a proper stairway with a metal railing going up to the elevated first floor. Having some extra rice to sell over the last few years helped her find the money to fund her house renovations. Before she switched to growing SRI rice on most of her land, she says her family ran out of money and rice between harvests.

“I feel very happy…before we never had enough money, now we have everything we want and expect to have more in the future,” she says. “I can’t wait for the next rainy season to start a new crop. Rice farming’s not boring! ”

Fixing up her house was a major milestone for her family, now she is setting her sights on her next goal: “I expect that we will save money for the children, so we can send them to university.”

Oun Poy and her son relax in a hammock next to their newly rebuilt home. Now that she has renovated her house, Poy says her next goal is to save money for her children’s education. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam America

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