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.