Weekend farmer puts climate-smart farming practices to the test in Thailand
Supisra Arayaphong was wondering why a lot of Thai farmers, despite working so hard, were still very poor, many times feeling helpless and even depressed. Could she make a change, a difference, in their lives and to farming in general by testing new rice practices more suitable for a changing climate? And if so, how?
I quickly realised that becoming a rice farmer on the weekends would be my dream scenario.
I have a profound interest for rice cultivation. That is why I did a master thesis about rice cropping patterns in Thailand. After that, I learned about the new, interesting techniques of growing rice, which is the ‘System of Rice Intensification’ (SRI) and ‘Alternative Wet and Dry system’ (AWD).
What's so special about these rice growing techniques?
This story won the CCAFS open blog competition for the Southeast Asia region.
Supisra Arayaphong is making a difference to food and farming in her community by leading the way and showing farmers new and alternative ways of growing rice that could be better suited for a changing climate.
This blog has also been published on the Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative (SIANI) site.
System of Rice Intensification is a cropping technique, where farmers use 8-12 days old seedlings (2 leaves stage) to transplant only one seedling per hill (single seedling). A transplanting space between hills can be from 25-40 sq cm depending on soil’s fertility (high fertile soil, wider space).
Although often, what is being
implemented in Asia is not the original SRI approach in the strict sense,
but rather variations on sustainable intensification of rice production.
This technique can save more than half of seeds used in conventional methods. Besides, single seedling benefits a farmer in weed management because it is planted neatly and orderly, which makes it easy to get rid of weeds.
The Alternative Wetting and Drying irrigation system’s core concept is to irrigate the rice field to a water level of 5 cm and then let it dry until water level drops to 15 cm below the soil surface, which takes about 7–10 days, before starting a new round, depending on soil and climate conditions. With this irrigation technique, the amount of water used in the rice field decreases about 40%; moreover, it enhances physical benefits from the environment to rice plants. One is that rice roots can absorb oxygen and nutrients directly through soil cracking, leading to root length density, and growth of roots and shoots. Strong and dense roots enhance rice plants’ resistance to storms and flooding.
Nevertheless, both techniques could be integrated with Thai conventional practices in order to find the most suitable practices for each area.
Land plot search
The first plan that came to my mind after I got back to Thailand, was to find a piece of land for my two rice cropping experiments. It wasn't that easy though. After some months passed, I realized that buying a piece of land is nearly impossible, especially for me who grew up in the city. None of my friends or relatives were farmers, plus my budget was tight. What I had was knowledge, but no experience. How could a person like me, who has lived her entire life in an urban area, actually grow rice?
Had this been ten years ago, I might have spent months trying to find the right person to talk to. Today, Mark, Larry and Sergey have invented magical gadgets named Facebook and Google. All I had to do was just to use them. Many thanks!
After typing in some keywords, I found a guy, who initiated “the holiday farmer network” with the concept that everyone can be a farmer.
What the holiday farmer has to do is invest time during the weekends or holidays. This sounded like the right place for me. I contacted him and joined the group, where I gained more knowledge, techniques, friends, and more importantly, inspiration. After a while, I started talking to more people until I met one man, who found my idea interesting, but was not yet ready for change. He gave me a shot to test my idea in his rice field though.
With an area of 1 rai (1600 sqm), my life as a week-end farmer had begun
The first important thing that I had to do was to make a field observation. This place is not far from the city. It takes just 1.5 hours by car. There is a small road separating the rice field and the owner’s house, which is full of fruits, vegetables and herbs. My piece is located at the end of the field, so I walked there to check the irrigation system and soil type. Both of them are perfect, I just needed to build a small paddy dike separating my rice field from the whole field.
The next step was land preparation. This typically involves plowing, harrowing, and leveling the field to make it suitable for crops. Since I planned to test single seedling, transplantation, puddling and land leveling are all significant procedures.
To use the concept of AWD, I needed to measure the water level under ground, so I made a tube from a PVC pipe (4 inches) with 40 holes (height 25 cm with 5 cm between each hole). How did I use it? First, I put this tube under the ground with around 5 cm showing above the soil surface. Then, I removed the soil inside the tube, so that water can flow in and out the tube through its small holes. In this way, the water level under the ground can be seen easily.
For transplanting space, my rice field is mostly clay soil, so an appropriate space that I applied is 30x30 cm, which is also a suitable space for me and my workers to walk in the field.
When the land is dry, weed can grow very fast. Since this is a chemical-free farm, I decided to use rotary weeder; a labor-saving weed management tool, to get rid of and control weeds in my rice field.
If you have no idea what it looks like and how it works, please, picture a lawn mower without the engine, and in a mop-shape. The process is very simple. It is similar to mopping the floor, but it wipes out the weeds in the rice field.
Harvesting what you have sown
A cropping period depends on paddy seeds. The optimum age is around 90–120 days. The rice seed that I used is suitable for wet season, and it takes around 112 days from seedling to harvesting period.
After transplanting in July, the sparse seedlings grew slowly until my paddy was covered by a bright green color. Two weeks passed, they turned to dark green. Around mid October, my little rice field turned from dark green to deep gold. I knew it was time to harvest.
In the past, rice was normally harvested by hand, but it has changed to a labor-saving machine. However, I decided to go with the traditional way since my rice field was fairly small, plus I had planned to make this activity a public event that connects city people, especially the younger generation, to work with local farmers where my rice field was located.
This time though, it was not the right moment to invite people to join harvesting activity because my rice field was unfortunately flooded. When I got the news, I rushed to the field the next morning to rescue my rice plants. I was picturing the devastation, but what I actually saw was the rice plants still standing firmly even though the water level had risen up to one-third of the plant.
This to me was proof that SRI and AWD methods enhance the strength of rice’ roots and shoots. However, rice plant is not a water plant, so I together with 2 workers grabbed sickles and jumped into the field.
The steps of traditional harvesting are first to bend the rice plant, which contains several florescences or panicles (the terminal component of the rice tiller). Then, grabbing a group of rice stalks on one hand, and slicing them with the sickle by the other hand. Since the water level was rising, while I was harvesting, not all could be harvested in time. I could only save half.
Polishing the rice
After four days had passed, the rice stalks were dry enough to be threshed. This was also performed manually by using two sticks tied together with a rope (or can use hands) to grasp a bunch of stalks and to hit them on a large tarp to release the grains. Some places hire a thresher truck for labor-saving and time-saving purpose.
Then, rice grains can be collected in bags, and brought to the local village mill in order to remove the husk from the grains. Polishing and sacking are the last steps in the process of rice production. The total amount of rice grains that I got was about 450 kg, and around 200 kg after milling. Not that bad, but it did not meet my expectations. Well, I still have my next batch to improve my techniques.
After the harvesting period, I had learned some valuable lessons from my first rice cropping experiment. I realized I needed additional hands to help me in the cropping processes, especially transplanting, harvesting and processing since investing in machinery is too expensive for a small area like mine.
However, it was not easy to find anyone willing to help me. The attitude towards being a farmer is not positive. This is especially so among the youths, even if their parents have been working in the fields for their entire lives. Consequently, the number of young farmers is decreasing in many places, including my area. The solution that came to my mind is to invite people living in the city, who are interested in rice farming, to help me during transplanting and harvesting periods. Not only will they get the experience, but also organic rice grains to consume or sell.
Another important thing that I found out is the attitude of local farmers. Most of them think that new techniques consume a lot of time; moreover, they are used to the old way of flooding the rice fields to control weeds. I would say that being different in a rural society possibly brings trouble to the farmer.
In my case, I showed up as a city girl with zero experience in rice cropping, but with strong beliefs in the techniques - SRI and AWD. Clearly, I did received negative remarks and looks from local farmers, but I have proven that rice cropping is what I really love. And it is what I want to do. Even though I made some mistakes and I experienced unpredictable situations, like flooding, I would say that these two new techniques have proven to me to be effective methods for growing rice.
Now, I have all the answers to the questions that I had at the first place:
Why do Thai farmers work hard and are yet still poor? That is because most of their income depends on the price they can get for their rice. Not many of them take a look at the production cost, which mainly comes from chemical pesticides and fertilizers, so they got stuck in debt.
Why is helplessness a common feeling among Thai farmers? Local farmers are smart, I would say, but they do not realize their potential. Although the new techniques make it easier for them to control all factors in the paddy field, they are still scared of changing from the conventional way to a new way of doing things. It looks too risky for them, which I totally understand, especially if the household’s only income source is from rice cultivation.
Is there a way to make any change? As I stated at the beginning, SRI and AWD are wonderful techniques, but need to be adapted to local environments. The major obstacle is labor-intensiveness, which can be solved by connecting local farmers with people from the city. Lower costs of production are not the only benefit from this activity. Application of this approach also benefits social network building among farmers, as well as knowledge and experience exchange both of which are a high value gain.
Photos in the story by Supisra Arayaphong
Disclaimer: This story does not reflect the views of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)
Supisra Arayaphong is working as a program associate at Ashoka, Thailand where she is responsible for social projects evaluation and social impacts investment, while working in the rice fields as a weekend farmer.
Ekaterina Bessonova works as a Communications and Editorial Assistant at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).