Farmers learn with open eyes and open minds, they will change

Mr. Le Ngoc Thach and the potatoes trees in the sacks

The president of the Dai Nghia cooperative – Mr. Le Ngoc Thach – is among the farmers who applied SRI (System of Rice Intensification) the earliest in Ha Tay province (now Hanoi). All 750 family members of the cooperate actively participated and have a confidence in the technological advancement, thus, only after 4 season crops, entire cooperative paddy land of 175 hectares are covered with SRI rice plants.

 How did we apply SRI?

“Farmers merely get their act together when they see the benefits. It is important to communicate and boost confidence” Mr. Thach shared with us the secret to success in promoting SRI. At the beginning not only ordinary farmers but even the local officials did not have a solid confidence in SRI. Prior start the first experiment in the season crop of June 2006, all farmers debated in their plenary meeting and finally came to agreement that they would try SRI and put in writing that Cooperative shall compensate for any reduction of yield for the first brave applicants. The farmers themselves also committed to fully participate in the training and follow the technical procedures. The leaders from the national and provincial Plant Protection Department (PPD) reinforced their confidence with the news that thousands of farmers in other countries have successfully applied SRI.

 The first trial covered only 4 hectare of paddy fields but all 40 families who own these land parcels participated throughout the season. They can only learn new things from doing it themselves. The next spring crop season in 2007, SRI application was expanded to 15 hectares. Two successful yields in a row encouraged Dai Nghia farmers to continue scaling up to 50 hectares in summer crop of 2007 and covered entire paddy land of 178 hectares in the spring crop of 2008. Most of the first SRI applicants subsequently become the key farmers who provides technical assistance and promote SRI adoption. The beginning was not smooth and easy. We had to ensure full and active participation of the farmers in all 6 field classes; PPD staff guides on the fields; the key farmers undertake cross-learning and cross-check visits. We had to invite as many as possible farmers to attend the Field Day. The extension workers and communal leaders were invited to the Farmer Field Day because once they see SRI, they believe in SRI, then will support and promote it. Our Cooperative particularly put woman in the center of the training investment. It is simply the best communication because daughter in laws will share the new technology with their families when they make a visit to home; and daughters tend to transplant seedling in their own fields, or will share this new technique when they’re hired to transplant. In addition, women are usually more attentive to take note during training and more duly apply new skills.

 Thach eagerly talked about techniques “It’s important to have many strong and healthy panicles. For example, one conventional tiller produces 5 panicles, one SRI tiller produces 8 – 10 panicles. Each conventional panicle contains 100 – 120 full grains while SRI panicle obtains 180 – 200 full grains. Surely, SRI is a winner”. Seeing the wonders in my eyes, Mr. Thach explained that majority of the Dai Nghia farmers were equipped with the fundamental skills in rice cultivation. More than 50% of the farmers received essential training such as IPM (Integrated Pest Management). He was very proud that most of these training were self-financed by the Cooperative and with technical support and trainers from PPD. A member only needs to contribute one kilogram of paddy per sao (360m2) per crop season. The extension fund of the Cooperative is very small, hence, any investment has to be selective and strategic.

 What are SRI benefits?

“SRI is awesome. It rightly responds to the pressures of high input costs and low margins in this tough business where many farmers have suffered from it. They heavily applied chemical fertilisers, thus, soil becomes unfertile. The overuse and abuse of herbicide spray make the rice plants become unhealthy and more susceptive to diseases and less productive”, Thach said. Mr. Thach shows me a quick calculation per sao: saving of 20,000 VND on seeds, 20,000 VND on transplant labour and 30,000 VND on sprays to make a total of minimum 70,000 VND per sao. His family has 5 members and is allocated 7 sao. SRI helps him to easily save half of a million VND for each crop; or one million VND per year[1] (approximately US$ 54 savings from 0.25 hectare) not taking into account the profit from yield increase and other saving on irrigation costs if all 5 steps of SRI are fully applied. “This money means a lot for us small farmers. If we add with money from selling chickens or a pig, we can strengthen our home; or we simply put money aside to pay tuition fee, books and clothes for children”.

 Always in the front line

Most cooperative members often tell each other “we just follow the president”. Thach feels this responsibility. He convinced his own family and applied SRI since the very first trial seasons. “We study the procedures and apply them closely that is why our paddy field is bountiful. The farmers simply believe what they see”.  Upon completion of the military service in 1981, Thach returned to his homeland and started his public life. He was appointed in the position of the Cooperative’s secretary, then head of a production unit. He also spared time for the local war veteran club. In 2001, he was entrusted by all Cooperative members and elected to become the president. He was again entrusted for second round of chairmanship in 2006 which runs until 2012.

 Innovative communication is one of the key elements to bring about success of Dai Nghia Cooperative. Different venues and channels were made available for farmers to see themselves the changes of the rice plants throughout the growing cycle, debate about them, learn from their trials and errors then they will change their mindsets and confidently put new knowledge into practice. Bearing this in mind, Dai Nghia cooperative continues tinkering with other innovative practices for winter vegetable crops such as direct seedling to grow soybean and minimum tillage potatoes. With the support from Oxfam America, Thach and his member troops start attacking a new challenge – to experiment household-level book-keeping in order to help farmers improving their simple expenditure and income calculations, thus, to better manage their farms. Improved financial transparency also helps to lessen the domestic conflicts and increase cohesion of family members.

When Thach sees me off, he points the two sacks placing on the wall. The plants inside have lush green leaves. He puts on a great grin and says “I try growing potatoes in these recycle sacks. If the harvest is good, I’ll share this new technique with my neighbours. It is a way to increase the growing areas and also makes our home greener”. Thach is indeed a man living with the quest for innovation.

Le Minh, Oxfam America

1 USD = 18,500 VND approximately.


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