by Tricia Brick
When a series of tropical storms struck Duong Thi Thanh’s village in northern Vietnam last summer, she feared that her rice harvest would be lost. “I thought we would have nothing to eat and sell for this crop,” she said, noting that a neighbor’s rice fields, grown using conventional methods, were severely damaged by the storms. But Thanh’s crops, cultivated using practices of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), survived the rains and brought a good price at market.
Hoang Van Phu, director of the International Cooperation Center (ICC) of Thai Nguyen University, has been working for more than a decade to bring SRI practices to smallholder farmers in the region, with the goal of increasing farmers’ efficiency, productivity, food security, and income through the use of environmentally sustainable methods. Buddhist Global Relief grants have supported the center’s efforts since 2011.
The BGR grant for fiscal year 2016-17 was used to support training for farmers in SRI methods via the creation of three large-scale collective fields in the Phu Binh district of northern Vietnam’s Thai Nguyen province.
SRI cultivation practices involve the planting of fewer seeds, with seedlings transplanted according to precise recommendations to encourage stronger root growth; fertilization with compost and other organic materials; frequent weeding; and reduced water use. These methods have resulted in more resilient plants and crop yields 20 to 50 percent higher than in traditional methods. Other benefits of SRI include a need for fewer seeds per hectare, a reduction in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and improved water conservation.
While the use of SRI methods has been increasing among rice farmers in the region over the past decade, the fragmented nature of the local farmland has proven an obstacle to maximizing productivity and efficiency. Most farming households in the province raise rice on multiple small plots, with up to seven varieties of rice grown in each field. As a result, farmers have difficulty applying standardized methods across their fields, as the varieties often require differing optimal growing conditions and cultivation calendars. Further, these mixed crops are difficult to market, given vendor demand for single varieties.
This year, in alignment with government efforts to encourage farmers to organize as collectives, the ICC established large-scale fields, each 50 to 70 hectares (about 123 to 197 acres) in area, in three communes in Phu Binh district. A single rice variety was cultivated in each field, enabling farmers to tailor growing conditions to the selected variety and thus optimize labor efficiency.
Supported by the BGR grant, the fields became outdoor classrooms for farmers’ field school classes in SRI methods. More than 200 farmers from nine villages in the communes participated in training courses and field workshops to learn about SRI practices on large-scale fields, evaluate the successes and challenges of the model fields, and consider changes that might improve the next generation of crops. The ICC also provided weeding tools and other materials to farmers using SRI.
The grant also supported conferences bringing together representatives from provincial and district government and other agencies with local farmers to develop plans for the fields and, at the end of the grant period, to study the project’s results. The ICC reports that this cooperative engagement has been key to the project’s success.
Tricia Brick is a volunteer writer for BGR.