This article is from ECHO Asia Note #21
The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is a promising rice-farming methodology that is able both to lower production costs—of seed, fertilizer, chemicals, and water—and to increase yield by enabling each rice plant to reach its full potential. However, the SRI approach involves transplanting young seedlings, a labor-intensive practice that farmers are often resistant to adapt. This article will introduce appropriate SRI tools that save both time and energy, making the technique more accessible to (Thai) farmers.
Weekday Vocational Teacher and Weekend Farmer
Currently, the average Thai farmer is over 40 years old. That does not mean young people are completely ignoring rice farming. Chunawat Phana-Ngam, for example, the child of a Banpog, Ratchburee farmer, is both a vocational college teacher and a weekend rice farmer. He would like to grow organic rice for personal consumption and to sell to friends or those interested in healthy food. He looks for new techniques that make rice cultivation simpler and more cost-effective. He has tried many methods: broadcasting, direct seeding, transplanting, and parachute rice transplanting. In his experience, transplanting is the most appropriate. He has also found that by alternating wet and dry conditions to stimulate the rice, the SRI technique can help to reduce costs and increase yield.
For the past two crop cycles, Phana-Ngam has planted Jasmine rice using SRI on 12 of his 50 rai (2 of his 8 ha), producing 65-70 buckets per rai (1,625 – 1750 kgs per acre). He also planted ‘Riceberry’ rice, a healthy and popular variety. Even though he grew this rice in a location where water was difficult to control, he produced a good yield. During the most recent crop cycle, his farm was damaged by four storms. His Jasmine rice was able to remain upright, while his field of broadcasted ‘Supanburee 1’ [Ed: another rice variety] was flattened by the first storm. Neighboring farmers were amazed.
Developing the SRI Tools
SRI requires transplanting, which is difficult and labor-intensive work. SRI is also weeding-intensive [Ed: whereas traditional paddy production relies upon standing water to kill weeds, SRI alternates wet and dry periods, which has the potential to encourage weeds to germinate and grow, , but also has the potential to increase microbial break-down and release of key soil nutrients, improving plant health and yield]. Phana-Ngam developed a convenient and fun tool to make the work of weeding easier. The tools that he produces are uncomplicated and easy to make. In the past, he used a more complicated imported tool, but found it difficult to use because it was designed for different conditions. Phana-Ngam modified this tool, making it suitable for Thailand’s paddies. He developed both a rotary weeder and a grass cutter that fit between the SRI rows.
“I modeled the grass cutting tool after a Japanese grass cutter which cost about
7,000 Thai Baht ($230.00 USD). This tool was made from fiber plastic. It is expensive and not well-suited to the Thai landscape, so I applied its useful principles and designed one myself. To make this tool, I used only simple iron. Attached to the cutter is a shield that prevents damage to the rice while weeding. I made a simple blade by heating it and bending the iron material. In the end, the machine only cost about 300 Thai Baht ($10.00 USD) to make, but it works similarly to the Japanese machine I had been using.
“I also made small rotary weeder machines for weeding and loosening the soil structure between the SRI rows. I weed the rice at day fifteen (after planting). This rotary weeder buries weeds in the soil. Organic farmers could then also apply microorganisms to help speed up the decomposition process….The rotary weeder will weed five times faster than pulling out the weeds by hand, which involves having to bend down and may cause back pain. With just five machines, paying five people 300 baht per day for wages, we will still save a lot of time and labor,” says Phana-Ngam.
Phana-Ngam also produces an SRI rolling marker tool with his vocational college students. “If we do not want to use a transplanting machine, we must mark the rows ourselves [in order to plant in straight lines]. Some people use rope to draw the lines, but it is inconvenient. Some people use a harrowing comb to draw a line, but in order to create the proper marking, it has to be used twice—one time in each direction. The rolling marker tool I developed only has to be used once, because it marks the horizontal and vertical spacings simultaneously]. You then transplant the rice seedling at the target mark. Your rice will then grow in straight rows, which is easy for weeding, either by implement or by hand.” [Ed: if your rows are crooked, it is easy to damage the rice when passing by it with a weeding implement.]
Most of Phana Ngam’s paddy tools are light and easy to use. He had previously used tools that hook up to larger machines, like paddy tractors, but they were not appropriate for the Thai mud paddy. Phana-Ngam had to change his way of thinking, so he turned back to simple tools.
“It is research,” says Phana-Ngam. “I wanted to find the easiest tool to use in our rice paddies, because every tool was too heavy. I had invested in a 10,000 Thai Baht ($333.00 USD) ploughing machine, but it did not work well. When you rake the mud it sinks because it is so heavy, so I turned back to normal, simple, and light tools. If I become tired, I just move it aside and take a break. We should also work together. Working alone is boring and is not fun, but when you work with friends, you get the work done faster and have more fun.”
Design for Development
The early tools that Phana-Ngam developed weren’t perfect. When he or other farmers used the tools, problems occurred. This didn’t worry Phana-Ngam, because when problems occurred, he adjusted and further developed the tool. Phana-Ngam commented, “The tools I made were not perfect. I do not produce these tools to sell, but to solve a problem. Whoever faces a problem always wants to find a solution. I was able to brainstorm with a large group of people—the more people that trial our product, the better. Not only do I benefit, but they do too. I do not produce these tools for business, but for development. Now my rice farmer friends are happy.”
[Ed: A growing number of people in Thai society have day jobs and farm on the side for supplemental income]. These “weekend farmers” use Phana-Ngam’s tools and have helped to fix the weak points and problems, leading to design of a new tool with better potential than the former model. These tools will help Thai people practice rice farming sustainably.
Ideas for the New Generation of Farmers
Rice farmers in Thailand need to know what weekend farmers already know: “Don’t ask, don’t wait, just do it.” Do not ask for solutions from the state, because this has often led to problems. Do not wait, but act immediately. Farmers are able to survive because of their self-reliance. Phana-Ngam is a good example in how he grows rice: first for his own consumption and then for direct sale to consumers. “I have 50 rai (8 ha). I sell directly to people from 10 rai (1.6 ha). I sell only some to the rice mill. I try to produce organic rice. Because I have successfully established a customer base for my rice, I can see a new future for myself as a farmer. I think that if farmers keep selling their rice to the rice mills, one day there will be no more rice farmers. Only new farmers that develop new practices, organize customers and markets themselves, research consumers, produce quality products (rather than focusing solely on quantity), and sell directly to the consumers, will be able to survive.”
“I would like to see farmers with mini rice mills in their houses, milling rice once a week. Small mills may be less efficient than big mills, but what kind of rice do we eat every day? We don’t know the quality of the rice we consume. If you eat my rice, you know where it comes from and you know that it’s of high quality. You can order processed rice from me (de-husked or milled) or you can buy non-milled rice from me at a cheaper price and mill it yourself at your home. If you mill it yourself, you will get rice bran and rice husk as well. Rice husk can be used as fuel for gasifier stoves. This is a complete system: you get quality rice to eat, and I save time by selling rice to you before de-husking.”
Chunawat Phana Phana-Ngam represents the “new farmers” who see their role as producing food for the Thai people. They have ideas for the government. “I would like to see whoever becomes governor support the farmer directly. I want to see the government help farmers decrease rice-farming costs; help lower the price of tools, equipment, and machines; and provide the right knowledge, such as information about soil quality. One of the main factors affecting rice farmers is the soil. If the soil is good, whatever you grow will grow well and be healthy, but if the soil is bad, whatever you grow will not grow well. How can farmers improve the soil; how can they lower their costs? Who should farmers sell their rice to? The government should support farmers by helping to lower farm costs in action, not only in policy.”
Tools like Phana-Ngam’s help farmers farm with meticulousness and attention. They are the most efficient way to produce high quality rice. These appropriate tools directly benefit the farmer by lowering costs and labor inputs. Consumers receive high quality rice. The environment also benefits, because these tools assist farmers to lower their dependence on chemicals in rice production.