Mee Som's grandson enjoys making rice sheaf ties.
ar Toun stands in his rice field with a bundle of the crop in his hand and
a grin on his face.
To the experienced eye this rice is obviously different: the panicle - the stalk
on which the grains grow - is around twice the length of normal rice. Twice the length
means double the amount of rice, which means the rice farmer, in this case Toun,
is happier than he was last year.
"This technique has brought us greater benefits and a better yield," he
says at his farm in Trea village in the Ba Phnom district of Prey Veng.
The technique Toun is talking about is called the System of Rice Intensification,
or SRI for short. For that, Toun can thank the Centre d'Etude et de Developpement
Agricole Cam-bodgien (CEDAC), a Cambodian NGO that has been involved in research
into sustainable agriculture here for the past four years. It developed SRI to help
improve the yields on Cambodia's most important crop.
The smartest aspect of SRI is that it contains no new surprises: it uses the same
seeds, and merely requires farmers to use what they have - rice seeds, water
and compost - more effectively.
It all comes down to better management: the rice seedlings are transplanted at a
much younger age, and planted individually rather than the traditional method in
which as many as ten seedlings fight over the same soil. Farmers are also taught
to manage the water better. That means maintaining a minimal level of water in the
field and frequent weeding to improve aeration.
The method was introduced in Prey Veng in 2000. CEDAC expects substantial benefits
to farmers as its use spreads across the country. Among its strengths is that the
method can be used for wet season or dry season rice.
Dr Yang Saing Koma, executive director of CEDAC, says that when the SRI project started,
only two farmers decided to risk using it. There was, he says, widespread skepticism
at CEDAC's claims. However, success bred interest, and within a few months more than
50 farmers in four provinces had signed up.
"What is important to note is that most of the farmers achieved the yield increase
without using any agro-chemical inputs," says Dr Koma. "In addition, they
use mainly the local seed varieties."
Results from 2000 show that farmers harvested on average 5 tons per hectare; some
achieved a harvest equivalent of 13 tons per hectare, far above the usual figure
of 1.5 tons.
With the benefit of second-mover advantage, many farmers are keen to climb on the
bandwagon. That was not the case a year ago when those prepared to experiment did
so without the support of their families. Some had their neighbors laugh at them.
"When they saw the rice growing so well and knew it would produce a good yield,
they stopped laughing and started smiling," says Dr Koma. "Now they too
are following the new method."
Mee Som, a villager from Makak in Kandal province, was one of the first two farmers
in the country to take a chance on the new method.
"We had never seen transplanting of seedlings that were so young," he says.
"In the beginning even I didn't believe it. Some of the farmers who walked past
my rice field laughed at me. I was very ashamed."
For the first time, though, Som had a surplus: he sold one ton of rice to traders
from his SRI field. Before adopting SRI, he says, the same plot was unable to provide
enough to support his family. The neighbors took notice: many have started to use
SRI, and some are already getting higher yields than him.
Back in Prey Veng, Toun points out another benefit: the need for less seed. These
days he uses only one kilogram of seed on his plot, where before he needed 17 kilograms.
His wife is happier too: the shorter seedlings mean that Toun, who lost an arm in
the civil war, is able for the first time to help her in the field. By 2002 he will
use SRI for his entire rice crop.
A group of farmers from Takeo Province inspects an SRI rice crop ready for harvest.
The potential benefits are set to extend well beyond Toun's and Som's rice fields.
As in all developing nations, the same amount of land needs to support an increasing
population. Nov Sokhun, district governor of Ba Phnom, is a vocal supporter.
"Our population is growing, but our lands are not," he told participants
at the opening ceremony of CEDAC's new branch office in Ba Phnom. "We need the
new method to improve our rice crop and protect the environment, as well as to reduce
my people's poverty."
Som Horn, chief of Ba Phnom district's agricultural office, says yields there currently
average only 900 kilograms per hectare. Given SRI's higher returns, he is certain
his farmers will adopt it.
Dr Koma says CEDAC has learned many lessons during the two harvest cycles. At least
ten other NGOs and development projects, he says, have used SRI in their extension
programs in 2001. CEDAC too has been training more farmers in villages across Cambodia:
around 500 used the method this year.
Dr Koma adds that once farmers realize they need only a small plot to get a higher
yield, they can diversify their remaining fields. He has seen fields become fish
ponds, aquatic vegetable gardens, and even orchards. SRI, Dr Koma says, can promote
bio-diversity, although even he admits a more collaborative effort between farmers,
development workers and researchers is required before that dream is realized.