Rampung Sorathaworn is a farmer from Surin province, Thailand. She tried out SRI for the first time two years ago, transplanting very young single seedlings in a widely spaced grid, following advice provided by the EU-funded, region-wide SRI-LMB programme. But she wasn’t sure that she had made the right decision when she began to hear her neighbours’ comments: “When they saw my field, the villagers asked how I thought I was going to grow any rice,” she says. “They kept saying: ‘Seedlings can’t grow like that – you need to plant 3 or 4 together. The Golden Apple snails will eat it all up!’ I wasn’t too sure it would grow either, but I told them I would wait and see”. Sure enough, within a couple of weeks, the villagers changed their tune and started asking “Why is it growing like this? How is it you have so many tillers!” And she says after that they began to pay a lot more attention, even helping her to count the tillers on her crop.
In Surin, rice growers traditionally broadcast their seed rather than transplanting and so for Rampung, SRI also meant more work and higher labour costs. “When I first transplanted, I paid a lot for labour. I hired about 8 people for 1 or 2 rais (‘rai’ is a Thai term for a 40m x 40m plot of land). This is a heavy cost – about 300 baht (US$9) per person per day.” The project leader of the SRI-LMB programme, Dr. Abha Mishra, stresses that production costs are a serious issue for rice farmers in Thailand and indeed across the entire Mekong Basin where the programme is working: “The main concern for the farmer,” she says, “is to reduce the cost of production because the price of fertiliser and seed is increasing. So, there are a lot of issues for them. And the price of rice is decreasing every year.”
Rampung surveys her field. The seedlings are only just pushing through and the rains are about to start. It won’t be long before the field is full of big, healthy rice plants.
In practice, farmers in Thailand offset the lower costs of seed when transplanting SRI with the higher costs of labour. For Rampung, the solution to this problem was direct seeding. She has a lot of land and could see how SRI could help her produce significantly more rice, but also that the cost of labour for her would be extremely high in an area where labour is hard to come by. Convinced by her first successful harvest using SRI, she decided to purchase a seeder machine which cost 20,000 baht (US$615) – an appreciable sum. As a business women, she made the decision that the investment was worth it.
She found the direct seeder to be a vast improvement on the broadcast technique and although not as productive as transplanting, she thinks it has proven to be a good compromise. She manages to control the water on her rain-fed fields as much as possible and while direct seeding may not give precise control over spacing between the seeds, the wide rows she plants allow for regular weeding to keep the soils aerated, according to SRI practice.
Her friend, Tawee has found a different compromise. She also used to broadcast all her rice seed until being introduced to SRI. “It’s a good technique,” she says, “and I will continue using SRI because I grow SRI on just 2 rais and it produces enough rice for the whole year, even though the transplanting is backbreaking work.” As head of her household, she has guaranteed her food supply while also producing additional rice to sell. Tawee also has a substantial amount of land and is in a position to set aside 2 rais to get the higher yield that SRI brings. However, to do this, she must also invest in labour to do the transplanting, most of which is done by local women as the men are migrating to the cities to work. “There are no men here,” says Tawee. “It’s just women.”
It’s transplanting season and Tawee still has more than enough rice stored to see her through to the next harvest.
The growing labour shortage provides a strong incentive for farmers to invest in alternative technologies here. Rampung is convinced that the seeder was worth the expense, as direct seeding in rows will reap dividends in the future due to the combination of lower seed use and lower labour costs. Now using the direct seeder instead of broadcasting, she spends a quarter of what she used to spend on seeds. She saves on labour and gets a slightly higher yield. But the quality of the crop is also an important advantage as Rampung explains: “The SRI crop is a good weight but the percentage of the rice that is good for milling is higher than with the traditional crop and I can also use part of my SRI crop for seeds.”
With the guaranteed quality of her rice, she is in a better position to seek out a market and increase her profits, as Dr. Mishra explains: “The quality of the grain really makes a difference because most of the farmers in Thailand are linked with the market and the market now is not just looking for quantity but also quality – especially in Thailand and when you talk about quality, SRI has a significant role to play.”
Interestingly, Dr. Mishra has also seen that it is women in particular who are embracing SRI and the alternative techniques that it also encourages. “The women are contributing a lot,” she says. “And they are reporting higher yield and higher benefits. That is one thing. And the second thing which we have seen is an increase in innovation, because the project encourages farmers to innovate in their fields. And some of the innovative techniques – say, for example changing from broadcasting to transplanting or from transplanting to direct seeding – tend to be done by women farmers.”
This is an observation that comes as no surprise to Sabarmatee, an Indian agricultural researcher who has studied SRI in rural regions of India, where transplanting rather than broadcasting is the norm. “Why shouldn’t women recognise the importance of such innovation?” she asks, “After all, it is women who are spending the maximum time in the fields.” Sabarmatee has investigated the impact of rice growing on women’s bodies during her research. She points out that transplanting and other manual work in the fields is usually done by women, who suffer serious health impacts from the constant bending in muddy water for many weeks during the rice growing season. However, she argues, very little has been done to consider the impact of transplanting and weeding on women’s bodies and to develop new technology that could assist in that work. Therefore it is no wonder that it is women who are coming forward with innovative ideas and embracing the tools and ideas that help them in their work. “When technology is considered, hardly ever does someone talk about the impact of that technology on the bodies of the users of that technology.” Sabarmatee believes that in the past, questions of gender have tended to be overlooked by development professionals in favour of criteria such as yield and income: “People make comparisons between the conventional method and SRI based on which is more expensive in terms of yields and costs. And labour is often looked at as a kind of uniform entity. Performance is considered to be uniform and standardised.”
In Cambodia, where farmers traditionally transplant rice, the NGO Srer Khmer has developed a direct seeder that is becoming a favourite with local women farmers. In an area where labour is also in short supply and women are increasingly responsible for farming, this lightweight tool is proving to be of real benefit to the women who spend many hours bent over transplanting in rice fields.
For Sabarmatee, it is these kinds of innovations that could be really transformative for many millions of women currently labouring in the fields. “More and more women are becoming engaged in agriculture but if they are provided with better technology, I think that would create a big impact, an overall impact, both socially and economically and from a health point of view. At the moment, they are very disadvantaged.” Although Rampung bought her direct seeder for economic reasons, she also recognises the potential health benefits of such technology. For her, it’s the perfect compromise solution between producing a low yielding poor quality crop through the traditional way of farming or having to work for hours bent over in the fields and paying for labour to help her produce the much higher yielding SRI crop. She is living proof that SRI is an adaptive methodology and that direct seeding can be a way to adapt to a farmer’s particular circumstances and needs.
Rampung is a participant in the EU-funded SRI-LMB programme.