Thursday, March 25, 2004

More rice with SRI

One unforgettable one-liner that I heard a long time ago from farmers and which made me laugh was: ``Hindi na kami magsasaka, magsasako na.’’ (We’re no longer rice farmers, we’re now rice sack dealers.) That’s one pun that gets totally lost in translation because the punch rests on one vowel of a Filipino word. Forget it if you don’t understand Filipino.

The letter O of magsasako might as well be a fat zero, meaning empty. Empty sacks. Where have all the palay gone?

There are a myriad reasons for troubled rice yields, rice shortages and vanishing rice varieties. One could blame wanton land conversion, chemical poisoning of the soil, wrong government agricultural priorities, overpopulation, environmental destruction and multinationals who play god. Name it.

But there’s hope for the palay. There is hope in SRI or system of rice intensification. Its Filipino practitioners have coined a Filipino name for it—Sipag-Palay or ``ang sistema ng pagpapalago ng palay.’’

Well-known SRI proponent Norman T. Uphoff, director of Cornell International Institute for Food Agriculture and Development, was here last week to speak and listen to SRI farmers. Uphoff, who had been here several times before, was the speaker at the Third National SRI Conference organized by the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, the Philippine Greens, Pabinhi, Broad Initiatives for Negros Development and SRI-Pilipinas.

SRI, I learned, had its beginnings in Madagascar in the 1980s. Jesuit Father Henri de Laulanie who lived among farmers there for three decades helped develop a way to increase rice yield from 50 cavans per hectare to 144 cavans per hectare. In some cases, the yield even reached as high as 200 to 300 cavans. This was possible even in soil that was not fertile and without using modern rice varieties and chemical fertilizers, and even with very little water.

Straight out of a biblical parable? No, it’s straight out of Madagascar and now several countries in Africa and Asia including the Philippines.

SRI practices were first tested outside Madagascar in 1999 at Nanjing University in China and later by the Agency for Agricultural Research and Development in Indonesia.

Let me share some info on SRI that I’ve read and learned.

SRI is a system, not a technology, because it is not set or fixed. It has to be tested and adapted to particular conditions. If practiced skillfully, it is possible to increase rice produce by 50 to 100 percent, and in cases where initial production level is low, the increase could go as high as 200 to 300 percent.

The objective of SRI is not to maximize rice yield but rather to achieve ``higher productivity’’ from the factors of production, namely, land, labor, capital and water. Increased productivity should benefit farmers and consumers, the poorer ones especially, while practices remain environmentally friendly and sustainable. Yields vary depending on skill and the soil biota and other conditions.

The principles underlying SRI, it is to be stressed, are more important than the practices themselves. The practices that follow from these principles differ dramatically from age-old practices.

The principles: Rice is not an aquatic plant. (It does not really thrive best in a watery setting.) Rice seedlings lose much of their growth if transplanted more than 15 days after they have emerged from the nursery. During transplanting, avoid trauma especially to the roots. Wider spacing will result in greater root growth. Soil aeration and organic matter create beneficial conditions for root growth.

The practices: Transplant seedlings when they are eight to 12 days old, when the plants have only two small leaves and the seed sacs are still attached to the roots. Transplant quickly and carefully, allowing only 15 to 30 minutes between uprooting from the nursery to planting in the field. Plant wide apart, with one seedling per hill, or two plants per hill in poor soil. Plant in a square pattern to facilitate weeding. Keep the soil well drained. Do early and frequent weeding. Add nutrients to the soil, preferably organic from compost or mulch.

One thing I learned from listening to all that, which I could apply to my own garden: Do not feed the plants, feed the soil that feeds the plants.

Known local SRI guru and practitioner Rene Jaranilla of Pabinhi shared his SRI experience in Guimaras. Practitioners of conventional agriculture dismiss SRI as too good to be true, he said. To prove his point, he gave a video presentation of the results of SRI practices. One of his examples was the sturdy rice variety that grew as high as six feet.

The first years of SRI are not easy. Transplanting very young seedlings could be tedious. Jaranilla showed ways how this could be made easier, like making seedlings grow in old wash basins that are easy to carry to the field. It is more labor intensive at first, but as farmers develop the skills, the third or fourth year could be a breeze.

For the late Fr. De Laulanie, SRI was a strategy not just for increasing rice production, but also for human resource development. Farmers who have experienced the benefits of SRI are urged to be more involved in their own development. They are encouraged to continue experimenting with spacing, water applications, weeding, etc. and discover what works best for them.

If you want to know more about SRI or Sipag-Palay, try contacting Vic Tagupa (0916-5104462) of Xavier University College of Agriculture or Noe Ysulat (0919-4068084) of Da-ati Kabacan who has produced more than 200 cavans per hectare. Or access or contact