New rice-cultivation techniques are seeing family farms double their rice production, but some argue the Kingdom must implement longer-term strategies for food security
Photo by: VANDY RATTANA
Farmer and SRI advocate Ros Mao shows off his rice crop in Takeo province.
SRI Basic principles
Young seedlings less than 15 days old (as opposed to the usual 30+) are selected after the removal of their exterior husk. They are then swiftly transplanted into a raised bed, ideally in a square pattern. Seeds are also planted singly, as opposed to in clumps
There should be spacing of 15-25cm between each rice plant, which allows for the increased growth of the roots and canopy and maximum exposure to the benefits of photosynthesis.
Shallow transplanting at 1-2cm into the soil is best.
Soil should be kept damp but not flooded, allowing for improved soil aeration.
Frequent weeding further improves soil aeration.
Use of compost and natural fertilisers increases the soil's biological activity.
THE small, one-hectare farm in Champol village is an emerald in the dust of Takeo province's Tramkok district. It is green despite the two-week drought, bursting with organic vegetables and poultry, despite the current food crisis.
A large pond fat with fish and overhung with heavy vines of squash and tomatoes takes up 0.2 hectares, and ducks laze across its muddy surface in the heat of the midday sun. But the most impressive feature of this lush farm is its rice crop, thick and tall, the shiny stalks towering above Ros Mao, the farmer who owns this land.
"My farm was not always like this," he said, bouncing excitedly on one foot in the dust. "Five years ago I was very poor. My annual rice crop per year was 1,200kg, barely enough to feed my family of seven. I had to go to Phnom Penh often and work in construction or as a cyclo driver to help us get by. But still we were barely surviving."
"Then I heard about SRI. I didn't believe it at first, and my wife was against it, but the CEDAC people took me on a tour of other SRI farmers and I decided to take a risk. I planted a small crop of rice in 2003 as an experiment using the SRI method," he added.
Ros Mao's gamble paid off, and his farm now produces double the amount of rice it used to. "I am so happy," he said. "My life has completely changed. Farming less land [0.8H], I am reaping double what I was before - 2,700kg - and each year the crop is bigger and better." The success of Ros Mao's rice crop means that he has the spare capital to diversify his operations, and is now a multipurpose farmer.
"I have vegetables that I can sell for a high price because they are organic and they are fat and tasty from the bat droppings I collect as manure," he said. "I also sell my rice seeds for a good price, and teach others in my community about SRI."
SRI - or System of Rice Intensification - is a method of rice cultivation first developed in Madagascar in the 1980s, and introduced to Cambodia in 2000 by the Cambodian Centre for the Study of Agriculture (CEDAC), a local agricultural NGO. SRI operates according to simple principles, but local farmers say the results have so far been extraordinary.
MY life has completely changed. farming less land, i am reaping double what I was before.
Yang Saing Koma, president and founder of CEDAC, told the Post he searched for five years for a reliable method to improve agricultural practices in Cambodia since founding the organisation in 1997.
"SRI is a very simple method, and works well on small farms, which is perfect for Cambodia, since 90 percent of our farmers own less than two hectares," he said. "The basic motivation for me in launching SRI was to improve the quality of life for people in Cambodia."
To test out the SRI principles, Yang Saing Koma planted an SRI crop on his own land outside of Phnom Penh, and then persuaded a friend in another district to do the same. Confident of SRI's ability to improve rice yields, Koma recruited 28 farmers across Cambodia to test SRI, a task he says was "immensely difficult".
The success story of the first 28 farms spread, and last year CEDAC estimated that 80,000 farmers in Cambodia were using SRI techniques. This year, it expects to have 100,000, and Yang Saing Koma is aiming for a million to sign up in the next few years. The program has the official support of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and has been incorporated into the government's 2006-2010 National Strategic Development Plan.
The basic principles of SRI farming are easily understood, athough the benefits are best seen in the flesh: tall, robust rice plants, one-and-a-half to two metres high and deep green in colour. The cooked grains are fine and fluffy, and have a sweet, sophisticated flavour, almost of a gourmet variety.
The SRI method deviates sharply from the rice farming methods practised in Cambodia for thousands of years, but the trend is quickly catching on and the results seem to speak for themselves.
However, critics of SRI claim that the system is too labour-intensive to work on large-scale farms, arguing that if Cambodia wishes to develop seriously it will have to move away from small rice plots to embrace more large-scale commercial farming.
"SRI works best when farmers own their small land, and have their houses situated right by their plots," said Ouk Makara, Cambodian deputy director of the International Rice Research Institute. "For larger farms, such attention is not possible. I think we still need to consider other options in Cambodia."
Ouk Makara added that US-style mega-farms would be good for the country, but warned that "it will take time unless we can have replacement jobs for farmers".
Some also claim that SRI methods only work in the particular soil conditions of Madagascar - although supporters say this has been disproved by its success in Cambodia, as well as in other nations in Asia, South America and Africa.
Yang Saing Koma says one of the things he likes most about SRI is that is allows the farmer to experiment and use his initiative. "It caters for creativity for the mind, exploration and a drive to improve," he said.
Ros Mao certainly personifies this sort of initiative, and the walls of his hut are covered with diagrams and SRI instructions, a breakdown of his yearly income before and after SRI (US$280 before, $2,000 after) and photographs of his flourishing plot.
Every inch of his farm is being used, and as he bustles around with pride showing off his ducks, eels and compost, one can only wish such success for every rice farmer in Cambodia.
Cambodia's Rice-ing expectations
Prak Chres, the first farmer in his district to use SRI methods, says local farmers called him crazy when he decided to experiment with the program. “Even though no one else believed me, I wanted to test it,” he said. “I have always been a big supporter of science, and I was keen to experiment with this method. I started with a small patch five-by-five metres, and when it was successful, I expanded. Other farmers came to see 50 tillers sprouting from one seed of rice, and the very long pinnacle of the plant. I started to become well-known in the district and people would visit my farm for advice, and to buy my seeds. Last year, the minister of agriculture came to see my crop.” Prak Chres used to generate 1,500kg of rice per annum from his 1.1 hectare plot. Now, seven years after he first began experimenting with SRI, he hauls in an average annual crop of 4,700kg, nearly triple his past intake. “I can afford health care for my family now, and my son is studying at university. My rice, too, is of better quality. It is organic and the taste is vastly superior,” he said.