Seeds of success

In Cambodia, farmers have been learning a new way to grow rice that uses fewer seeds but results in greater yields—all of which translates into more income for their families. Some farmers like Khek Koeu are even going a step further. With the help of Oxfam and a local partner, they have received training on how to cultivate high-quality seeds, which they can sell for as much as five times the standard price.

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Khek Koeu must have been having trouble sleeping at night. Underneath her house were stacks of rice in 50-kilogram bags. She and her daughter grew about a third of it, and they bought the rest after the last harvest. They will sell it later, hopefully at a profit. All in all, it’s worth about $18,000—leaving enough money for Koeu to invest in building a metal fence around her house and yard, with a gate she can lock.

Despite her worry about thieves, having enough rice to lock up is a nice problem for Koeu, a 55-year-old widow in Cambodia’s Pursat province. She says she is now making more money, and growing more rice, since she learned to apply what’s known as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in 2010. In the past six years, she says, she has finished paying for college for all three of her children, and she bought them all motorbikes. “It’s hard to afford all this,” Koeu says. “In the years before we started SRI we had a lot of difficulties.”

The system works

SRI is a simple list of practices for growing rice. Farmers can use it with nearly any variety of rice; they just need to make sure they plant high-quality seed, transplant only healthy seedlings, and arrange the plants in rows far enough apart to encourage strong roots that can withstand diseases, pests, high winds, and heavy rains. The method saves farmers money because they plant fewer seeds, but the plants grow more grains because they are bigger and stronger than those grown by the traditional practice of transplanting several seedlings together, crowding the paddy field.

Koeu says before she started using SRI practices she grew about one metric ton of rice on a hectare of land (about 2.5 acres). But since adopting SRI she can grow as much as four tons in a good rainy season, and between two and three tons if there’s less rain.

Oxfam has been working with an organization in Pursat called Srer Khmer (SK) for eight years to train farmers in SRI as a means to help families grow more food. During these years, SK has also helped farmers to specialize in different aspects of SRI production. Some get training in producing organic compost they can use and also sell to other farmers, and others, like Koeu, have become expert seed producers.

“We train seed producers to differentiate good rice seed based on the size of plants, height, and color,” says Yim Choem, who works for Srer Khmer in Pursat. “We teach farmers to cut back plants if they are not growing well. Later they check the plants to find the best seeds.”

Koeu says planting the rice in neat rows helps her keep track of the plants that are growing best, so she can reserve seeds from those plants.

Srer Khmer is currently working with about 3,000 families in 75 villages in Pursat. About 25 of these families are trained in seed production, and they live in five villages including Stem Krong, where Koeu lives. Behind her metal fence, and around her simple wood-frame home up on stilts, she has rice drying in the hot morning sun on plastic sheets all over her yard. She rakes it periodically, so it dries evenly, and she is constantly sorting through the rice, assessing its quality.

Part of Srer Khmer’s training for seed producers like Koeu includes developing business plans and finding ways to market their seed to farmers in the area. Koeu has sold rice seed after the last two harvests, and is learning that farmers will pay a premium for good seed. “If you sell the normal rice seed, you might get 12 cents per kilo, but our rice seed gets 60 cents per kilo because there’s high demand,” Koeu says. She says buyers get good results from her seed, so they pay more. “They trust me because the quality is so impressive.”

Oxfam’s investment in SRI in Cambodia

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SRI is just one of the ways we work with farmers on improving their livelihoods. Help us support the hard work of others like Khek Koeu around the world.

Farmers as innovators, leaders, entrepreneurs

Fighting poverty in Cambodia means finding ways to help poor farmers. About half the country’s workforce of eight million is engaged in agriculture, and the sector comprises nearly a third of the country’s $18 billion economy. Most poor farmers grow rice for their own consumption on small areas of land and struggle to access fertilizer, good-quality seeds, and tractors and other equipment.

Srer Khmer and others working with Oxfam are teaching farmers about SRI so that these farmers can produce surplus rice to sell; these organizations are also teaching them about new and different ways to grow rice that can help them adapt to changing rainfall patterns and other effects of climate change.

When Srer Khmer brings together farmers to learn from each other, it encourages them to sharpen their expertise in specific areas that help them generate more income, as Koeu has as a seed producer. The training also encourages a spirit of innovation: Farmers test different rice varieties to see which ones work best at different times of year, such as a short-duration variety that might grow fast enough to squeeze in a crop in early-season rains, or another that needs less water for a dry-season crop.

Oxfam’s work with SRI stretches far beyond Cambodia. And often when farmers give it a try, they are surprised by the results. Listen to writer Chris Hufstader recount some of those turning points.


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Additional credits: In the opening photo taken by Patrick Brown/Panos, Khek Koeu says she sells rice seed at a premium price. “After the harvest people are always buying it from me. They trust me because the quality is so impressive." Photos in the audio slideshow were taken by Rebecca Blackwell, Sokunthea Chor, Chau Doan, Brett Eloff, Anna Fawcus, Jane Hahn, Chris Hufstader, and Patrick Brown/Panos.

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