What we’ve been up to (Part 2): Extra Rice Please

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Since we started our project, we were challenged by how we would produce our staple food: rice.  We didn’t have experience. We didn’t know where to start.  We were challenged to produce more yields using organic inputs in a small piece of land to make us self-sustaining.  To make it easy for us, we could have just done the conventional flooded rice planting production and just ask our neighbours to teach us.

But we didn’t want to just do the conventional way, which is wasteful in irrigation water, expensive and destructive because of the use of chemical inputs. So we did a research about traditional and alternative rice planting practices.  We found a system that focuses on higher yields using planting techniques that are totally different from what Filipino farmers are used to.  It’s called the System of Rice Intensification or SRI developed in the 1980s by Henri de Lanlanie, a French priest farmer who lived in Madagascar.  It was then developed further and promoted to other countries by Prof. Norman Uphoff of Cornell University.  Since then, this system has been tried and tested by many farmers all over the world, including the Philippines, resulting to higher yields and better rice quality with reduced water requirements and production costs in seeds, fertilizers and other inputs.

The key elements of the SRI include transplanting single and younger seedlings (12-day old) that are 25-30 cm apart, intermittent water application (2-3 days flooded and 5-7 days dry), and the use of organic inputs.  This way, the system is less expensive because it uses less seeds and water.  And it uses organic inputs that a farmer can make.  In the conventional rice planting practice, older rice seedlings are transplanted (24-day old seedlings) closely together using 3-5 seedlings per hill.  It is also a common practice to continuously flood the fields and thus require lots of irrigation water.

When we started the project in 2012, we were concerned about the health of the rice fields.  To rejuvenate the soil, we planted legumes such as peanuts and mung beans.  Legumes have nitrogen-rich foliage and nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root systems, which make the soil richer.   We did the chop and drop technique, using the leaves of the legumes as green manure.

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From June to November of last year, we focused our work with our first organic rice planting.  As beginners, we did a trial plot of about 500 square meters for our first SRI application and planted the rest of the fields of about 1,000 sqm using the conventional practice for comparison.  But we also applied organic fertilizers with the conventional plot.  We prepared the fields the usual way by plowing with the help of our neighbour and his carabao (water buffalo).  We added compost and vermicast mixture that we produced.  We flooded the fields and did further tilling to loosen the soil. We sprayed Indigenous Micro-organisms (IMO) that we prepared weeks before to help in the decomposition of the weeds.

For our first planting, we originally planned to use a traditional red rice variety but the quality of the seeds we got was not good.  Instead, we planted an inbred variety of white.   Compared to hybrids, inbreds are pureline and the succeeding generations produced by this variety still have the same genetic makeup.

We prepared the seeds by soaking them in a bucket of water with salt.  We discarded those seeds that floated.  We rinsed the good seeds with fresh water and soaked them again overnight.  After draining the water, we placed them in a wet sack and kept under some rice straw for at least 3 days, until they sprouted.  We then transferred the rice sprouts in a prepared bed and let them grow for almost 2 weeks.

When the seedlings already had 2 to 3 leaves, we started making grids on the SRI trial plots using an implement that we made.  This way, it would be easy for us to plant the seedlings with the right distance from each other.  We transplanted one seedling per hill.  For the conventional plots, we transplanted about 3-4 seedlings per hill close to each other.

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We irrigated the fields after transplanting all the seedlings for the first week.  For the trial plots, we followed the SRI method of alternately flooding and drying.  But because it was the rainy season, the recommended schedule of intermittent irrigation was not strictly followed.

During the first month, we focused on weeding the fields especially in the SRI plots.  Weeds grew faster because the seedlings were planted far apart and because of the longer drying schedule.  During the early stage, we made use of a rotary weeder we bought from an SRI practitioner from Tarlac province.  When the rice plants were a bit older and taller, we did manual weeding.  We regularly sprayed the fields with organic concoctions that we produced:  Indigenous Micro Organisms (IMO), Fermented Plant Juices (FPJ), Fish Amino Acids (FAA), Oriental Herb Nutrients (OHN) and Vermi Tea (vermi cast extract from culturing African Night Crawlers). Except for the Vermi Tea, the rest are fermented natural farming inputs, which helps regenarate the soil and adds strength to the soil and plants.

After about four months, we finally harvested.  We were amazed by the results of our harvest even though it was just our very first time to plant rice.  The SRI plants compared to the conventional ones were much taller and had more stalks or stems, panicles, grains and bigger root systems.  These attributes are called the SRI effect.

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The SRI plant on the left is taller with more stalks, panicles and grains.

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The bigger root system of the SRI plant is due to the intermittent irrigation. During the drying period, the roots tend to grow longer and deeper into the ground trying to capture moisture. This also makes the plant sturdy.

Aside from the visual comparison, we did a sampling from both SRI and non-SRI plots.  We randomly picked 10 rice plants from each plot.  We then counted the stalks in each plant.  We picked the shortest stalk in each plant and counted the grains.  The non-SRI had an average of 6 stalks each with about 31 grains per stalk.  On the other hand, the SRI samples had an average of 10 stalks with about 102 grains per stalk. Unfortunately, we were not able to get the comparison in weight (in kilos) because we didn’t have a weighing scale.

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Manual thresher courtesy of the Center for Development Programs in the Cordillera (CDPC)

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The thresher separates the grains from the stalks.

The Psychological Resistance

It’s good we didn’t have the experience in planting rice because we also didn’t have psychological resistance against alternative practices.  But because what we were doing was completely different from the usual practice, we got some extreme reactions especially from our neighbours.  We felt the psychological resistance from them.  Most of them laughed at us while scratching their heads and telling us we really didn’t know what we were doing.  Some tried to help us out by telling us that we were doing it wrong and it should be like this and that. But a handful got curious and talked to us to learn more about the system especially when they saw the SRI effect.

Not bad at all for first timers

For this year’s planting season, we decided to apply the SRI principles for our entire rice field.  We started last July just in time for the rainy season.  We planted five traditional rice varieties: balatinaw from the Mountain Province, Cordillera, kintoman from Benguet, Cordillera, the Vizcaya aromatic white rice from Nueva Vizcaya Province, black rice, and glutinous white rice.  We wanted to know what traditional varieties could be grown in our site.  Although balatinaw and kintoman are both highland red rice, the friend we got them from said these varieties are drought and heat resistant. We later found out that balatinaw is also produced in the lowland Ilocos Region where we are located.  These traditional varieties take longer growing period compared to conventional hybrid varieties.

We are still trying to get other traditional varieties that are more appropriate for our site.  We are particularly looking for brown rice varieties, which according to our research have more health benefits.

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We are now on our third month for this planting season. The Vizcaya white rice, glutinous rice, kintoman and the black rice are already blooming.  The balatinaw variety has just started to grow panicles.

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The SRI is a viable system for producing more yield while helping regenerate the soil.  This system can definitely be applied by Filipino farmers to address issues of food security.  A farmer in India was able to produce 448 sacks of rice grain in one hectare land using this system.  Here in the Philippines, harvests using the conventional practice range from 80 to 150 sacks of rice grain a hectare.  With Filipino ingenuity, who knows, we can break that record and we’ll have lots of extra rice for everybody especially the toiling masses.#

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5 thoughts on “What we’ve been up to (Part 2): Extra Rice Please

    • Hi there, I’m Cye of The Pitak Project.

      There are a lot of reasons why the SRI and other alternatives are still not being practiced by many rice farmers. One major reason is the psychological resistance of the farmers because they’re used to their conventional practice. It’s so hard to break that barrier and to make them realize that there are other better alternatives. Of course companies that produce and promote chemical inputs actively campaign against these alternatives especially the use of organic inputs because they’re going to be out of business. There are also some criticisms against this system like its being labor-intensive that’s why they say it’s not a good practice for large rice farms. But SRI practitioners are working together to improve it. Here in the Philippines, there are already some groups of SRI farmers and Non-Government Organizations developing and promoting it. They also give support to those who want to convert to this system.

      For us, we plan to integrate other systems with SRI. Like the natural farming method of Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer. We’ve read his book “One Straw Revolution” and other materials about his practice. We particularly want to adopt his no-till method. We are also researching about traditional rice farming practices especially of indigenous peoples. We are also considering the rice-duck farming system that you mentioned.

      There’s no perfect system, but we can definitely integrate good alternative practices to make it work.

      Thank you so much for dropping by our blogsite.

      • Thanks for the answer, Cye! I can see how the added labor would turn off some farmers, but maybe that concern could be offset by telling them about the reduction in cost?

        I spent a few days with a farming family in Nueva Ecija two years ago as part of an outreach program and they said their primary worry (besides from a typhoon wrecking their fields) was having to borrow a large amount of money to buy fertilizers and pay for irrigation and hope that their harvest will be enough to pay it off.

  1. Hi. Congratulations on your successful SRI trial. I have worked with the SRI team at Cornell since 1999 and now help the company Lotus Foods in California connect with SRI farmers to market rice in the US. [www.lotusfoods.com]. I just wanted to let you know that red and black rice are the healthiest rices, healthier even than brown rice. Pigmented rices have very high antioxidant levels. If you send me your email I can send you some information. I started a bibliography on research related to red and black rice. It’s my prediction that in the future people will return to eating those healthier rices. Best, Olivia

    • Hi Olivia, we’re so glad that you connected with us. We’re really convinced that SRI works even though we’re still in the trial phase. We still have so much to learn. Please send us more information (thepitakproject@gmail.com). Thanks so much.

      Best regards,
      Cye

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