Community Member Spotlight - Fah Mui: Biological S.R.I. Rice Farmer
People used to ask me: “You are doing so many things; do you ever feel tired?” I said, “Yes! I do, but every time when I count my money, all of the tiredness completely disappears.”
- Fah Mui (2015)
Fah Mui is a local farmer and member of the ECHO Asia network. Below she shared her story and experience with System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, a tool promoted throughout the ECHO Asia network as a way to increase farmers’ rice yields and reduce their inputs.
Boonsong Thansrithong - ECHO Asia Agriculture Program Manager
"I am a shop owner, but I don’t want to sell chemical products, so most of the products in my shop are biological goods such as EM and molasses. I am not a rich person, and before I was even in debt. To pay off my debt, I had been looking for several opportunities. My family was interested in growing rice, especially rice that was free of chemicals, a product desired by a customer in Singapore. Because of this, about 6-7 years ago, I found a book about SRI that was translated by the Agriculture Extension branch of McKean Rehabilitation Center (MRC), located in Chiang Mai. I carefully read every single word of the book. I had doubts, and so wanted to see if what the book said about SRI was true, so I called MRC and I was able to talk with Mr. Sombat, who explained to me as much as he could. After our conversation, I gained much more confidence and wanted to try my own hand at SRI.
[Note: MRC is a Christian leprosy healing and rehabilitation center that was established by an American Missionary over a hundred years ago. The book translator team was comprised of Klaus Prinz, Ratchakorn U-Seang, Sombat Chaleamleamthong and Boonsong Thansrithong and the book was academically vetted by Professor Pruk Yebmantasiri of Chiang Mai University.]
"At the time I had 36 acres of paddy land in Phayo province, but during that first year, I practiced SRI only on a small 0.4 acre piece of land. It turned out to have a very good yield. So, in my calculation (if nothing went wrong), if I practiced SRI on all 36 acres, I could pay off my debt. Based on this calculation, I practiced SRI on all my land during the second year, but my calculation was proven wrong, as I hadn’t accounted for natural risk. Unfortunately, fields witnessed heavy rains and much flooding all over Thailand that year. My paddy flooded and all of my rice was damaged. Instead of paying off my debt, I acquired more debt. Thankfully, my Singaporean customer came to visit me and was able to help me with a 30,000 THB grant.
"I kept growing rice. I continued at this place in Phayao for another four years and rather than improving, the yearly flooding became worse. Finally I decided to move north, where I bought 6 acres of rice paddy land in Mae Chan District, in the Chiang Rai province. I had come to learn from my previous experience with rice-growing, which taught me I shouldn’t use a single method for the entirety of my land, at least not until I became more sure and sufficiently confident in the technique and environment. That first year [in the new location], I planted rice with three different methods in order to test them: the first method used the traditional technique (planting 8-10 older seedlings together with close spacing in the paddy), the second method was a "double transplant” method (prepare the seedlings like SRI in a seedling bed, transplanting them into a special bed in the paddy and then planting the field using the seedlings from the special bed), and the third method was the SRI method (planting single young seedlings, spaced further apart). At the end of the season, it turned out that the yield of the first two methods didn’t even compare with SRI, which was significantly higher. With these results, I bought another six acres (in total I now have twelve acres). In the coming years, I will continue to grow SRI on all twelve acres. As the land has enough water to grow a second crop, I am also able to grow rice using the SRI method through the dry season on six of the acres.
"Not only do I practice SRI, but I also mix it with a ‘biological agriculture concept.’ I do not use any synthetic chemicals and only use biological and natural materials. I use "Fermented Herb Juice” for repelling insects, manage water levels in order to control weeds, and use natural methods to prevent crab and snail damage to the rice. I apply only 250 kilograms of organic fertilizer per acre. My healthy SRI rice makes me very happy - I even visit the paddy and talk with my rice. When I look at my paddy I can see that there are many kinds of fish and various species in the water of the paddy. Hovering about the rice I can see a cloud of dragonflies looking for insects to eat. There are also spiders and many other good insects present. With biological controls, my healthy rice is able to resist many potentially harmful diseases that can otherwise be transmitted by insects.
"While at first I might have had questions or concerns about SRI, such as the labor required or the amount of time that needs to be spent weeding, after the first month, I haven’t suffered from these two main concerns at all. Instead, I actually enjoy spending time in the healthy rice paddy and I love seeing my rice every day because it makes me happy! It’s funny, when it’s time to harvest the rice, workers actually complain that my rice is heavier, per volume of rice, than other farmers. They don’t like to work for me unless I pay them a little bit higher wage than other farmers! I am happy to pay a bit more because I produce a better quality rice.
"I do not sell my rice in the same way that other farmers do (normally they will sell their rice to a rice storage facility). Instead, I mill my rice to produce brown rice. I then pack it in 1 kilogram bags using a vacuum packing machine (for a longer shelf life) and sell it at $2.6 per kilogram (on farm), and $4 per kilogram in Bangkok. This price is 2-3 times higher than the general market price, thus I don’t need to rely on the government subsidy price, because my price is already several times higher. In addition, I produced GABA (Gemma-aminobutyric acid) powder, which is a rice powder (pre-germinated brown rice that is turned into powder). GABA is good for peoples’ health. I pack 200 grams of GABA rice powder/bag and I sell it for $1.6 ($8 per kilogram). Since my son began selling this GABA rice powder on the internet, I have received so many orders that I almost can’t produce enough to keep up with the customers.
"This successful application of SRI and biological practices has caused many people to come and visit my paddy. Some are government officers, some are general farmers, and a few are non-Thai (including people from the United State and a professor from Cornell University). People used to ask me: 'You are doing so many things; do you ever feel tired?' I said, 'Yes! I do, but every time when I count my money, all of the tiredness completely disappears.'