Once a month, Yem Neang walks a dusty road to call famers in her neighborhood to attend a training session on how to grow rice using an innovative method called the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI. Neang received her first training in the technique before the start of the wet season in 2009. She immediately adopted the approach and achieved a substantial yield increase for the last harvesting season. Now she wants farmers in her village to practice this farming technique.
Neang volunteers as a group leader to promote SRI in her village, Chambok Koang, about 90 miles from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Before, she produced about two tons of rice from the 1.5 hectares of farm land she owns, but when she experimented with SRI using 600 square meters of the land, she noticed a sizeable yield increase.
“Compared with the same size of land, the yields from the SRI field was twice as much,” the 37 year-old petite farmer said in an SRI workshop. “In the SRI technique, we need to follow certain steps. That’s why I think the training is important, and I’m happy to go from door to door, asking people to join the training.”
SRI focuses on applying low-cost practices for better soil, water and plant management. In this technique, farmers take young rice seedlings between 8 and 12 days old off the seed beds for immediate transplanting. In the traditional method, farmers use seedlings as old as 35 days and transplant them in bunches—normally from 5 to 10 seedlings per hill.
The SRI method was first developed in Madagascar during the 1980s, and is now practiced in some Asian countries. Working with local aid groups in Cambodia, Oxfam began to introduce SRI to farmers there in 2000. Results are impressive: Oxfam has found that Cambodian farmers can reduce the amount of seeds they need by 75 percent while increasing their yields from 30 percent to 150 percent. The organization also reports that rice plants grown using the SRI method are generally healthier, have better roots, and are more resistant to pests and diseases.
Padek, a local organization, brought SRI to Neang’s village in 2009. Now, about a third of the villagers are practicing the technique, but others still hesitate.
“I talked to most people in this village about practicing SRI, but some said they would wait and see. If farmers who practiced SRI really produced higher yield, they would follow,” Neang said.
Working with local organizations like Padek, Oxfam last year trained more than 4,300 rice farmers to increase, and in some cases double, their harvests while cutting out chemicals, reducing labor, and spending less on seeds.
Tears for yields
For Neang, it was no easy job to convince people to adopt SRI. She had to struggle even within her own family. It took Neang many tears to convince her husband to try the new farming technique.
“I tried to explain to my husband that SRI could increase yield and save seeds,” Neang said. “He argued ‘Everybody transplants in a conventional way, yet they still have rice to eat. You measure distances between hills like this, when are you going to finish transplanting? And when are you going to have enough to eat?’”
Arguments erupted and tears were shed, but in the end, Neang convinced her husband to dedicate the 600 square meters to the SRI experiment.
In the beginning, Neang admitted that even she herself had doubts about whether the new technique could actually increase her rice production.
“In the first two weeks after transplanting, I was disappointed,” she said. “My SRI field looked very empty and barren. My rice didn’t seem to produce tillers [shoots from the roots]. In the traditional way, the field would have looked full of rice plants.”
SRI requires different tasks from traditional rice growing, but after just one time of experimenting, Neang and her husband found that cultivating rice with this new method is easier and faster.
“In the conventional method, I use a lot of labor to transplant rice seedlings deep into the soil [from five to six centimeters]. But with SRI, I don’t use much force. I transplant the seedlings just one to two centimeters deep,” Neang said. “It’s also faster because I transplant just one or two rice seedlings per hill and I spend a lot less on seeds.”
A pond of the future
Millions of farmers across Cambodia struggle with water shortages, including those who practice SRI. This has become an obstacle to promoting SRI in the country.
“You need rain to come at the time when rice seedlings are about 10 days old in order to transplant the seedlings using the SRI,” Neang said. “In the conventional method, you can transplant whenever the rain comes regardless of the age of the seedlings.”
Because farmers like Neang depend on rain-fed agriculture, they are vulnerable to changing weather patterns. The increasing irregularity of rainfall has hurt her crops. But Neang has worked out a way to address part of the problem. She has joined a community savings group, and last year borrowed about $50 to dig a pond to store rain water for her crops. With this water storage, she plans to expand her family’s SRI field to half a hectare in the next planting season.
Neang and her husband had just a few years of schooling. They grew up during the Khmer Rouge, who dreamed of turning Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, but ended up killing a quarter of the population from 1975 to 1979. Understanding that illiteracy is a major handicap, Neang and her husband are now working hard for the future of their children. Their daughter is a twelfth-grader and their two sons are in junior high school.
“I don’t know how much money I need to send my daughter to college. I want her to go to medical school,” Neang said. “I hope to expand my SRI paddy and grow more rice and crops. Then I will be able to save more money, and I hope I can afford to give my children better education.”