Friday, December 31, 2010

SRI in Northeast India

Among millions of rice growers throughout Asia, SRI rice production is still very much the exception rather than the rule. However, the promotion and adoption of the innovative approach in the region is quite widespread and growing. For more information about the status of SRI worldwide, check out this website,, maintained by the SRI International Network and Resources Center (SRI-Rice) with support from Jim Carrey's Better U Foundation and the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development.

In October, I had the opportunity to visit the Patharkhmah District, a focus area of NEICORD ( in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya. With support from CRWRC ( and the Food Resource Bank (, the NEICORD team is promoting various food security projects in the district, including home gardening, SALT (Sloping Agricultural Land Technology) and SRI.

Although NEICORD attempted a couple of trial plots last year, in 2010 they were basically starting their SRI programming from scratch. However, the project had done its homework by training their agricultural staff and key farmers in the basics of SRI during the dry season. By the beginning of the 2010 rainy season, 53 local farm families were prepared to experiment with SRI on their paddy land.

When I visited the NEICORD Patharkhmah project in October, the rice in the SRI trial plots was beginning to ripen. Inspecting the farms of several NEICORD partnering households, I was impressed with the overall quality of their SRI effort. Overwhelmingly, the farmers were satisfied with the SRI package of planting single young seedlings in hills arranged in straight rows that were widely spaced (between approximately 20-25 cm apart). During the time of my visit, in most fields the rice panicles were heavy with grain and the local farmers were giving the trial SRI plots high marks.

The early adopters also reported that managing water levels in the paddy to minimize flooding was not a problem. Less water in the paddy means more oxygen gets to the roots of rice plants, which promotes improved growth and production. On the other hand, with unflooded conditions, there were reports of more weeds in the fields. However, most of the farmers were able to control weeds with the simple SRI cono-weeders that are pushed between the rows of rice (see my earlier blog posting).

Regarding the early maturing rice, this was a bit of a problem as the rest of the rice in the area ripened 2-3 weeks later making the early ripening rice a target for hungry birds. You can see a video link of one farmer using a bamboo "clapper" that scares birds off. But having learned that SRI rice matures a bit earlier, the farmers simply plan to establish their SRI plots 2-3 weeks later next year.

I was impressed with NEICORD's 2010 efforts to promote SRI. I was also encouraged about the "adoptability" of SRI. To most rice growers the innovation is probably strange and counter-intuitive. But if seeing is believing, then the positive 2010 SRI results in Patharkhmah are probably going to yield more local adopters in 2011.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Jumpah Home

During our October visit to Phnom Penh, Stan Doerr and I had the chance to visit Jumpah Home on the outskirts of the city. Founded by Tim and Darlene Ratzloff almost 10 years ago, Jumpah activities help families living with HIV-AIDS as well as orphans and low income persons.

Providing care for the residents adds up to a considerable cost. To help supplement associated expenses, and to offer agricultural outreach to neighboring farmers, the Jumpah team grows vegetables and also raises dozens of pigs for the local market. The pig production component was particularly intriguing as the operation contains several inter-linked activities, each of which yielding essential products. In combination, these activities and related products appear to provide a significant degree of self-sufficiency for the institution.

For instance, within the well-maintained pig production units, manure and other wastes are continually collected for the production of biogas. Tim reports that the resulting biogas provides the home with cooking fuel as well as supplemental lighting.

In addition, the biogas fuels a mechanical chopper powered by a gasoline engine that finely slices a variety of forage materials used to supplement the pig feed. These forages include a lot of aquatic morning glory (Ipomoea aquatica) and sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas) as well as a some mulberry (Morus alba) and a little roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa). To view Pastor Chanta's brief explanation of the biogas system and to see the chopper in action, click on this link.

Additionally, much of the manure and other waste collected in a covered cesspool are occasionally pumped out with a treadle pump and released into the forage production areas. This keeps the forage plots moist, well fertilized and productive almost year-round .

Citing the capital and labor required to operate Jumpah's agricultural component as well as other costs, Tim refuses to boast about any savings attained by the production cycle of hogs, biogas, forages and natural fertilizer. But he admits that a foundation is being built for a significant degree of self-sufficiency.

For Stan and I, it was quite evident that Jumpah home has developed an impressive and productive multi-faceted farm component. We look forward to seeing what they do next.

Friday, December 3, 2010

An Agricultural Outing to Prey Veng

In late October I traveled to Cambodia with Stan Doerr, President/CEO of ECHO. Much of our time was spent connecting with partners in Phnom Penh. However, I had one full day to visit the project area of Beth (Stitch) Steinbrenner, a former ECHO intern, who works with the Parse Project of International Cooperation Cambodia in Prey Veng Province, not far from the Vietnam border. We were accompanied by Ryan and Daphne Fowler who work with the Mennonite Central Committee in the same province. Daphne had also been an ECHO intern.

The trip to the ICC project area required a ferry ride across the Mekong with National Highway 1 offering a great ride almost the entire way. However, as ICC's work is a bit off the beaten path, ultimately our visit with partnering communities and farmers required "moto" transport. Wisely, I was designated as a moto passenger rather than driver. Click here to see portions of the trip.

Among 16 communities in the Parse area, ICC is engaged in work related to agriculture, health and community development (e.g., water and sanitation) activities. Concerning agriculture, we saw rice production everywhere; most of the crop established by hand broadcasting. But ICC is helping to further diversify farm incomes by promoting improved small-scale catfish farming and home gardening, including the production natural fertilizer such as compost (made from cow manure). Vermiculture (earthworm production) is another initiative.

With a high water table, small catfish ponds can be dug without too much trouble. Most of these ponds are approximately 1.5 m deep. Farmers stock catfish fingerlings (brought over from Vietnam) at a rate of 30-40 fingerlings per square meter. The catfish are raised at least 3-4 months before being sold between $2.00 to $3.00 per kg (depending on the season). Farmers generally feed the catfish with locally abundant termite larva as well as cooked snails mixed with a little rice bran. Click on this link to see one of the local farmers feeding his fish by hand.

I noticed a good bit of duckweed in these ponds and wondered if it was used as a feed resource. The aquatic plant is widely harvested in Asia as a source of feed for fish, livestock and poultry, offering supplemental protein, phosphorus and other major minerals and trace minerals, not to mention vitamin A and the B group as well as fiber (for more information about duckweed, check out the FAO publication Duckweed: a tiny aquatic plant with enormous potential for agriculture and environment, The ICC partners confirmed that certain types of fish would graze duckweed. It is also consumed by ducks as well as harvested to be mixed with rice bran and cooked rice and fed as a nutritious porridge for pigs. "Duckweed keeps pigs healthy," reported one farmer.

The number of farmers who have begun producing compost from cow manure appears considerable. I was also impressed by local vermiculture efforts, especially that of Mr. You Wa in Prey Rey Toap. ICC helped him obtain 2 kg of earthworms in January 2010 following his participation in a vermiculture workshop the previous October. Mr. You Wa's small, thatch-covered earthworm enclosure is comprised of a shallow pit (only 2 cm deep) lined with perforated plastic sheets on which 10 cm of soil and another 20 cm of manure was layered. His earthworm bed, approximately 1 m wide and 3 m long, is now covered with loose, brown vermicompost that teems with red wrigglers.

Mr. You Wa says that the main function of the earthworm project is to produce supplemental protein (fed along with rice) for a handful of chickens. He reportedly harvests approximately 1 kg of worms every few days (this is probably just an estimate; the weight might also include some vermicompost).

Regarding the supplemental earthworm diet, Mr. You Wa says his chickens grow faster and recover from illness much faster than before. Now, many neighbors come to request worms, which sell for $1.25 per kg. So far he's helped four or five neighbors get started with their own earthworm projects. And ICC has also bought earthworms from Mr. You Wa and two other local producers, enabling at least 20 new farmers to get started with earthworm production.

Our Prey Veng outing was ending quickly. But before heading back to the city we encountered another community that, with ICC assistance, had just manually bored a 16 m deep tube well and installed a hand pump; all taking place within six hours. We arrived just in time to see the first bath provided by the well.

After having one last hurried look at a wonderfully diversified small family farm, we returned to the ICC office, making use of a new road being constructed by the Vietnamese. By sundown we were back in bustling Phnom Penh. Quite a contrast to the ICC Parse Project.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

ECHO Northeast India Agricultural Conference

In early October, I traveled with Laura Yoder and Abram Bicksler (both with Chiang Mai's International Sustainable Development Studies Institute as well as ECHO Asia Seed Bank advisors) for the 2010 ECHO Northeast India Agricultural Conference that was held at the Indian Centre for Agricultural Research (ICAR) Research Complex near the city of Shillong. Jointly sponsored by Northeast India Committee on Relief and Development (NEICORD), and EDGE Outreach, this was the first national/regional agricultural and community development conference to be offered by the ECHO Asia Regional Office.

Approximately 50 persons attended, including delegates from 15 Northeast India development organizations and ministries.

ICAR personnel offered topics related to agricultural technological options for enhancing livelihood options for tribal farmers, System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and Integrated Crop Management as well as participatory plant breeding related to rice varieties for Northeast India.

Other presentations included a talk given by Dave Brothers about EDGE Outreach's water purification approach, Laura's introduction to farmer managed crop improvement and Abram's introduction to simple research methodologies for development workers.

Additionally, I had the chance to introduce the regional activities of ECHO and offer a presentation about green manure cover crops.

A very popular activity, also led by Laura Yoder, was a seed swap event. This session enabled crop seed and other plant material from eight regional plant varieties, as well as five types of ECHO Asia Seed Bank crops, to be exchanged among the participants.

Additionally, personnel from regional development projects, such as NEICORD and RATARC, shared case studies about the implementation of Sloping Land Agricultural Technology and FAITH Gardening in their focus communities.

The successful event would not have been possible without the facilitation of the NEICORD, particularly the involvement of Rev. Dr. H.M. Songate (CEO), and Joshi Tuisom, Manager of Relief and Development.

We're grateful for the involvement of ECHO’s partners in northeast India. This conference set the standard for future regional and national events to be held in various other locations in Asia.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cono Weeder at Fair Earth Farm

Being involved in agricultural development work in Asia, obviously a major concern for ECHO Asia Regional Office clientel is rice production. A fairly recent rice farming innovation is known as SRI (System of Rice Intensification). Some key SRI distinctives include:
  • Planting individual stalks of rice (aged 7-10 days) in widely spaced hills about 20-30 cm apart.
  • Aerating the top soil and minimizing flooding of rice fields to increase the supply of oxygen to the rice plant root systems.
  • Providing inputs of natural fertilizers (e.g. compost) and incorporating green manure cover crops to improve the fertility and structure of rice-producing soils.
When managed properly, the reduced plant competition, increased soil oxygen and improved soil conditions can offer some interesting results. For example, the number of tillers (stalks) produced by a single seedling in a SRI system can multiply to 20, 30 or more. This is much higher than the typical 10 to 15 tillers produced by a single hill of conventional rice that is usually established by transplanting several seedlings together.

Increased numbers of tillers generally translates into higher rice yields. Worldwide, SRI rice farmers are reporting increased yields that are 50% to 100% higher or even more ( compared to conventional systems.

There are reported drawbacks to the system. Managing water levels to reduce flooding can be a challenge in many locations. Also, with reduced flooding, the consquence will be increased weed pressure.

Fortunately, appropriate technology has been developed to reduce the labor of weed removal. The cono weeder, a simple, hand-operated rotary cultivator, is one such innovoation. Reportedly developed at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, these machines are being mass produced and sold in various locations in Asia.

Unfortunately, until recently, SRI rice producers in norhern Thailand had no such implement available. But earlier in 2010, a group of 10 farmers and development organizations pooled an order for cono weeders from India. The ECHO Asia Regional Office helped to organize the pool and distribute the weeders.

So far, reports about the new weeders have been positive. The clip at the top is the Cono Weeder being used at Fair Earth farm ( just outside of Chiang Mai. Besides uprooting and incorporating weeds into the earth, the cultivator also aerates the soil, increasing the supply of air to rice plant root systems.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Spiders over Snakes

Here is James Manson, one of our interns, with a tarantula (Haploplema minax?) that the Seed Bank staff dug out of one of the seed production beds recently. When asked what they did with the spider, James said the staff decided to bury it back in the bed alive. Why? The staff replied, "Where there are tarantulas, there are no snakes." Apparently, they'll take the spider over snakes.

Incidentally, James also dispatched one of these in his room last month. Apparently, the tarantula/snake rule doesn't apply to James' domain.

Haploplema are burrowing spiders and can inflict a bad bite. Reportedly, the venom isn't fatal unless the hapless victim is particularly allergic.

And though we appreciate the conservation ethic of the Seed Bank staff, we also want James and others at the seed bank to be safe. Fortunately, despite his two recent encounters with tarantulas, sightings around the Seed Bank have been quite rare.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

An Impressive Community Garden in Hawaii

As our family has done several times in the past, we recently stopped in Honolulu for a few days while on our way to the mainland United States. It was nice to visit old haunts such as Hanauma Bay and the Foster Botanical Garden.

One day while exploring behind Waikiki's Kapiolani Park I came across a new site; the Diamond Head Community Garden. I've visited quite a few community gardens but the Diamond Head collective stands out, partly due to the abundance of well tended plots (roughly 1 x 2 meters). What's most impressive is the enormous variety of plants found throughout the garden. Compared to other community gardens in the US, Diamond Head has the tropical advantage.

Of course, vegetables, herbs and a few types of fruit, such as papaya, make up the bulk of the plantings. But the garden species diversity includes a large mixture of Asian and Pacific island crops planted along with conventional American garden varieties. For example, among cherry tomatoes and Swiss chard were also bitter melon,Malabar spinach and false roselle (perhaps from ECHO?). I even encountered one plot planted exclusively in cassava and another covered with tropical vegetable fern. And, as expected, a good bid of Hawaiian taro was encountered as well.

Apparently, plots in this garden are in high demand as there was no ground left idle. A yearly rental fee (someone said $20) provides access to a plot and water. Not a bad deal.

Compost heaps could be found within the garden. And the personal decorative flourishes (including colorful bottles, pinwheels and other knickknacks) on display throughout the plots were as interesting as the plant biodiversity.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Our Partner's Partners

Recently, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) friends in Laos informed me that colleagues with the Lao Ministry of Agriculture are currently engaged in a one-month long special studies program at Chiang Mai University. The folks at CRWRC wondered if I might have time to take their friends to see local sustainable upland farming efforts, particularly green manure cover cropping and agroforestry, being carried out by farmers in the nearby Chiang Dao district.
As Sundays are the only free days for the two Lao men, we made plans for a May 16 field trip. Crops are usually in the ground by the first week of May. Unfortunately, since the monsoon rains have yet to materialize this year, field crops such as corn and upland rice are still not planted.

By the time we arrived in Pang Daeng Nai village, mid morning temps were already above 100 degrees F. (37.7 C) and our short hike to the permanent hill fields was not comfortable. Despite the heat and the bareness of the still unplanted farms, we were able to see how local farmers are making use of crop residues to partially cover the soil. By not burning their fields, farmers allow decomposing materials to increase levels of organic matter which enrich their top soil.

We also visited green agroforest plots. These biodiverse patches are helping to extend farm productivity, even during this current drought, while the rest of the land remains unplanted.

Being from this region, the Lao agriculturists had no problem talking to local farmers and understanding their innovations. Obviously, this trip was not wasted on them.

In fact, they plan to come back later in the year after crops have been established and the landscape has been transformed. They would like to bring other Lao colleagues to learn not only from the farmers at Pang Daeng Nai, but others in nearby communities where shade grown Arabica coffee is cultivated and where Thai natural farming techniques are used to boost farm productivity with local inputs.

Basically, partners lead to more partners. And this helps ECHO's network of hunger-fighting allies to grow.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Centipedes on the Prowl

Often when watering our vegetables or applying effluent from the catfish tank I encounter a centipede or two emerging from heads of the cabbages. They usually scurry over the heads, pausing every now and then to let the water shower over them.

One such centipede made such an appearance while I happened to have the camera handy. Check him out.

Fact is, I'm a bit skittish when it comes to centipedes, especially the 6-10 inch (15-30 cm) giants of northern Thailand. They're known to inflict a terribly painful bite that can result in massive swelling or worse. Some time ago my friend Jamlong was laid up for days by the bite of one of these giants.

Fortunately, my cabbage-dwelling centipedes are much smaller; 3 inches most. Another friend, Scott, doesn't think the small ones bite very hard (not that I'm aiming to find out).

Since I encounter them on the cabbages and under the litchi leaf garden bed mulch, I'm assuming they're on the prowl for insects and worms; hopefully the looper caterpillars that chew holes in the cabbage leaves.

So for the sake of our veggies, when it comes to smaller garden centipedes, I'm willing to live and let live.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bamboo vs. Cats

A mischevious puppy led to the construction of a bamboo fence around our small home garden. But nature abhors a vacuum. The exclusion of dogs is just fine with our two cats not to mention others in the neighborhood. The felines think the soft soil in the garden beds makes a great sandbox. Unfortunately, not only do cats disturb our vegetable seedlings with their scratching but the presence of their waste is a health hazard.

No fence will keep the cats out. But other exclusion approaches have been successful. Bamboo slats cut to span the one-meter wide beds can be laid side-by-side a few centimeters apart to prevent cats from settling into the beds. Spaces between the slats can be easily adjusted to compensate for growing seedlings. And for even better cat exclusion, plastic mesh with wide holes, supported by bamboo slats, can be laid across beds until seedlings reach heights greater than 2-3 inches. As a bonus, both the closely spaced bamboo slats and plastic mesh also help to protect tender seedlings from the mid-day sun.

The bamboo and mesh are only needed for awhile as cats tend not to venture into beds filled with closely-spaced, larger plants. I wish the same applied to snails.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Fig Shoots for Supper

This year's dry season is turning out to be quite long and hot. Under such conditions, we're applying a lot of water to our home vegetable garden. Although a fresh supply of vegetables is great, I hate to think about the water bill.

Having access to water for gardening is really a luxury. During the dry season, many communities in our region barely have enough water for basic household consumption. So vegetable gardening often takes a pause until the rains return in May.

Fortunately, various trees and shrubs, both indigenous and naturalized, offer seasonal or year round access to edible leaves. For instance, moringa trees produce considerable amounts of nutritious shoots during the rainy season.

By the middle of the dry season, the semi-deciduous red shoot fig (Ficus virens) may drop a lot of its mature leaves. But around February, the trees produce a flush of tender, edible leaf shoots. At a time when there are few fresh, homegrown vegetables to enjoy, this indigenous strangler fig offers an abundance of greens (which are actually red). Many people in tropical and sub-tropical Asia stir fry the leaves or add them to curries. The leaves are also blanched and eaten along with chili pepper sauce.

On a late February afternoon, a few years ago, I happened to be in the hilltribe village of Huai Pong where I encountered this young lady who was harvesting a batch of fig leaf shoots for supper. An hour later, at the home where I was staying, I found the same on the menu.

By the way, ECHO promotes the cultivation and use of many types of perennial vegetables around the world. Obviously, certain perennial vegetables can fill a niche for home gardeners with limited access to water.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Dry Season Floral Show

In monsoonal Asia, the late dry season is a time of dessicated discomfort. But one thing to be thankful for is the current natural floral show being offered by various types of trees. During late April, one of the most showy species are the Golden Shower Tree (Cassia fistula), with masses and more masses of yellow flowers. Another is the Royal Poinciana or Flamboyant (Delonix regia) which is aflame in orange blossoms. The Golden Shower Tree is native to our area and happens to be Thailand's national tree. Many have been planted along the streets of Chiang Mai. Although the Royal Poinciana is native to Madagascar, it has spread throughout the tropics. They're found all over Chiang Mai. The full bloom Flamboyants in this photo are located on Payap University (Kaew Nawarat campus), across the street from the ECHO Asia Regional Office.

Friday, April 9, 2010

PVC Fish Cage

During a recent visit to Suan Aden Children's Home on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, I came across this PVC fish cage floating in a large pond located on the property. In Southeast Asia, fish cages are commonly constructed in rivers, lakes, ponds and seas in order to confine fish for accessible management and harvesting. Common fish cage materials include bamboo and mesh as well as barrels if flotation is necessary.
Ton Kankaewmoon, who manages the children's home, was inspired to construct this PVC fish cage after seeing a similar one at a local tilapia fingerling supplier. Ton reports that he used 2 inch and 2.5 inch PVC pipe to construct the 3 m x 3 m frame but he reckons that 3 inch pipe would work just fine.

Ton estimates that the frame, once assembled, weighs no more than 20 kg (44 lb.). It's so light that one person can easily construct the cage as well as place it in the water. The glued PVC pipe frame floats just fine making additional flotation materials unnecessary. Ton also used stainless wire to secure the mesh to the frame.

The entire cost was 2000 baht (about $63 US); 1,100 baht for the pipe and glue plus another 900 baht for the mesh.

Ton reports that a cage this size can hold 1,000 to 1,500 tilapia, catfish or other local freshwater fish.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Our First "Official" Batch of Seeds

Recently the ECHO Asia Regional Office sent out it's first "official" batch of seeds. Shown with the shipment are Ruth Tshin, ECHO Asia's Volunteer Seed Bank Consultant, and Lue Chompoothong, Seed Bank Technician. In all, over a dozen kilos of various green manure cover crop seeds, including rice bean (Vigna umbellata), black bean (Vigna unguiculata), jack bean (Canavalia ensiformis) and lablab bean (Lablab purpureus) as well as indigo (Indigofera suffruticosa), a nitrogen fixing tree, were shipped to Laos. Apart from indigo, seeds of the green manure cover crops were purchased from local farmers and packaged at the ECHO Asia Regional Office Seed Bank.

The ECHO Asia Seed Bank is currently evaluating dozens of crops of regional importance with plans to make several of these proven varieties available by the end of 2010. So as soon as our on-line seed catalog is finished and the first dozen varieties are ready for distribution, we will notify our regional partners about their availability.

Of course, we invite interested persons to continue to use the services of the main ECHO Seed Bank based in Fort Myers, Florida ( which offers seeds of hundreds of crop varieties from around the world.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Planeteers Strike Again!

The Planeteers, Chiang Mai International School's environmental club, returned to the ECHO Asia office on Friday, March 26 to help upgrade the container and perennial vegetable garden. Braving hot afternoon temperatures, the 10 young people and their adviser, Mr. ElJay Erickson, replanted approximately a dozen containers in which several species of shade-loving edible plants such as basil, pandanus leaf, fiddlehead fern, sawtooth coriander (Eryngium foetidum), taro (edible stems) and leaf pepper, as well as a few medicinal herbs are being grown on the front porch of the office.

Along the wall of the office, another group of students, under of the supervision of Mr. Chanchai, dug and mulched a raised bed in which perennial vegetables such as sweet leaf (Sauropus androgynus), cha-om (Acacia pennata) and leaf pepper (Piper sarmentosum) are growing in partial shade.

The demonstration looks 100% better thanks to the Planeteers. Thanks again for the hard work guys!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Rapid Multiplication of Bananas

In northern Thailand there's lots of demand for banana stalks these days. In many parts of Asia banana stalk is a traditional feed for pigs. After slicing up the stalks, farmers usually boil them to increase digestibility. Fed alone, such plant material isn't very nutritious. So stalks are usually mixed with other more nutritious feeds such as rice bran, corn, papaya fruit, kitchen scraps and wild vegetables. Otherwise, they mainly serve to fill hungry animals.

In recent years, growing numbers of farmers have been adopting a proven practice of fermenting banana stalk with molasses and a little salt. Reducing the need for fuel to cook the stalks, the fermentation process boosts the presence of digestible bacteria in the silage, making stalks considerably more nutritious. And mixed with smaller amounts of nutritious local feed or supplemented with a little commercial pig feed, fermented banana stalks offer a cheap, nutritious component for small-scale pig production. This, in turn, helps to boost small farm income.

But with every innovation comes another challenge. With demand for banana stems growing, in some areas, stalk scarcity is becoming an issue. So can the production of these plant materials be boosted somehow?

Years ago, ECHO Development Notes ran a story on rapid multiplication of bananas (RMB). Basically, banana stems are mangled a bit to prompt the main corm (underground stem/root system) to produce more daughter corms and, ultimately, transplantable suckers. And a few years later, EDN reported on another rapid banana multiplication approach whereby banana corms are dug up, trimmed and scored just so to injure meristems before being placed in plant beds to stimulate the production of a lot more plantlets. So the idea is, one way or another, to stimulate the production of a lot more plantlets (suckers) which can be transplanted to establish more clumps of usable banana stalks.

Unable to find any references to RMB in our part of the world, I turned to Abram Bicksler. With a freshly minted PhD. in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Illinois, Abram currently serves as an instructor with the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute in Chiang Mai; a key ECHO Asia partner. Abram (shown here) is helping to design a trial by which various RMB approaches can be tested to see if any might actually boost the production of banana propagation material in a way that can be readily adopted by farmers.

Having recently run a "trial" RMB at the Upland Holistic Development Project Center, Abram is encouraged by initial results. He is now planning to implement a comprehensive field trial to evaluate promising methodologies which have emerged during the preliminary trial. Hopefully, this collaboration between ECHO, Abram (ISDSI) and UHDP will yield some very useful RMB techniques for regional pig farmers to employ.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Garden in the Sky

Rooftop gardening creates a good bit of buzz. But real working examples are somewhat difficult to find. The March 14 (2010) edition of the Bangkok Post carried a very informative article about successful rooftop gardening efforts at the eight-story Lak Si District office in Bangkok. The article, with photos, details how the garden has reached productivity following years of trial and error. District office personnel are reportedly using 400 square meters to produce about 70 different crops in rotation over the course of a year. Check out the article via the following link (or click on the title above).

Biogas-powered electrical generator in Myanmar

Check out this link (click on the title above for link) for a brief video shot at the Myanmar Baptist Convention agricultural training center near Yangon in early March. Biogas brewed from wastes produced by a few hogs located just above this location is piped to an electric generator. Each day, there's enough biogas produced to power the 3 kw generator for 45 minutes in the morning and another 45 minutes in the evening. The generator, in turn, powers lights as well as an electric pump that extracts water from the center's well for storage in an elevated tank. The stored water flows by gravity to spigots throughout the farm.

Saw Hei Moo, who directs the project, estimates that the biogas system costs about $350 with the generator running around $300. Toss in perhaps another $100 for pipe, cylinders and other types of essential apparatus. For those living and working off the grid, Hei Moo affirms that this sustainable source of power is "worth the investment."

Also, we heard reports of much larger biogas-powered electrical systems powering rural communities in central Myanmar.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Farm for Children

On the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, I recently had opportunity to visit a children’s home operated by Samuel Thang. Impressively, Samuel and team are using 20 acres of adjoining land to produce enough rice to feed 47 children five months out of the year. Leftover rice straw provides enough fodder to fuel the home’s four cows, which in turn produce a year round supply of milk.

One other thing that the cows and 15 resident goats produce (with the help of a few pigs) is manure. This by-product fertilizes the home’s three-acre garden, making the operation almost completely self-sufficient in vegetables. Additionally, various types of fruit trees, including guava, banana, and papaya as well as pineapple, are scattered throughout the garden.

Samuel stresses that while the supplemental production of milk, rice, fruit, vegetables and a little meat lowers overall expenses by at least ¼, such an effort requires adequate land, water, labor and management.

The kids chip into the overall effort during daily chore times as well as Saturdays and holidays. Samuel reckons that exposure to appropriate farm activities is good for the children, offering them important life skills. Still, he reminds us that their involvement in such work is auxiliary since the main focus of the ministry is to provide the young people with a good education and a safe place to reside.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Friends Like Nam Saeng

I’ve known Nam Saeng for well over a decade. Farming several acres of hilly land in the Chiang Dao district of northern Thailand, he’s an agricultural jack-of-all-trades and a master of many including agroforestry, green manure cover cropping and backyard farming.

Nam Saeng isn’t one to keep trade secrets. He cheerfully accepts visits from farmers and development workers. And it’s obvious that he believes in the power of exchange. By sharing his practical farming knowledge with others, Nam Saeng ultimately gains more useful information; plus friends.

ECHO Asia is one of Nam Saeng’s friends. Many of our regional partners have made the trip to his mountain farm to learn from his work.

I’m encouraged by the fact that he isn’t one of a kind. All across Asia, whether in the uplands, the river deltas, along the coasts or even in the cities, there are others like him. In each place there are farmers who are overcoming various challenges to produce food and improve incomes, and also enthusiastically share what they know.

Nam Saeng may not be fully aware of the extent his helpfulness. But with over 1 billion chronically hungry people in the world (most of whom live in Asia), I believe that it is imperative for ECHO Asia, and our regional agricultural development partners, to nurture working relationships with such innovative small farmers who possess the zeal to share.