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A Tale of Two Farmers

by: Larry Villanueva

Have you ever heard of SRI or System of Rice Intensification?  No?  That’s not unexpected because SRI isn’t a by-word, even to those involved in the Philippine rice industry. SRI is a climate-smart, agro-ecological methodology for increasing the productivity of rice by changing the management of plants, water, soil and nutrients.

SRI  teaches farmers to: 1) plant very young – plant during the 2-leaf stage, usually between 8 to 12 days old; 2) plant carefully – minimize transplanting shock and protect the seedling’s roots; 3) single planting – one plant per hill instead of the conventional 3 to 4 plants together to avoid root competition; 4) square grid pattern – 25x25cm or wider square grid pattern in good soil; 5) no chemical inputs – use organic fertilizer to enrich the soil and organic pesticide to repel pests; 6) intermittent flooding – instead of the usual continuous flooding practice, SRI applies AWD or Alternative Wetting and Drying water application.

For traditional rice farmers, SRI is “unconventional” and goes against a lot of things they know about rice planting.  Nonetheless, SRI has a proven track record of high palay yield as opposed to traditional rice farming.  Countries like India, China, Madagascar, Indonesia and Vietnam, to name a few, are practicing SRI.

SRI Pilipinas led by Ka Obet Verzola, and a few other NGOs, are quietly promoting SRI to farmers who are naturally sceptical about trying something different from what they have been accustomed to and these are generations of farmers who have learned a certain way of doing things.  Furthermore, a real lack of support from government, i.e. the Department of Agriculture, and opposition from other rice institutions has made the promotion of SRI difficult but its proponents’ soldier on knowing and believing that SRI can make the difference in our country’s campaign for rice self-sufficiency.

Recently, I visited the farms of Mang Nestor in Antipolo and Mang Dionisio in Bulacan with the help of Ka Obet to better understand and see SRI in action.

Mang Nestor

Mang Nestor Laurilla is a caretaker by occupation and supplements his income and food through farming.  He first heard about SRI at a seminar hosted by the Antipolo City Agriculture Office (CAO).  The city agriculturist asked the farmers to devote a small portion of their land to test SRI but as most of them had already started planting, only Mang Nestor took on the challenge of using SRI.

The farm is located at Barangay San Jose in Antipolo City.  Mang Nestor allotted 100 sq. m. out of one hectare (1 ha.) to test SRI.  He began planting in August and expects to harvest by December.  The farm depends on rainfed water since there is no ‘real’ irrigation system in the area.  He occasionally gets water from a nearby resort.  He is assisted in SRI planting by Mang Nic Montajes, agricultural technologist from the CAO.

Upon initial inspection, Ka Obet said that the plants were growing positively given that most of the plants produced about 30 to 40 tillers which he attributed to the SRI ‘effect.’  By following the basic steps in SRI planting, a single plant in the hill gets the right conditions and nutrients for optimal growth resulting in 20 to 30 and even more tillers in each plant whereas in traditional farming, plants produce about 5 to 10 tillers each.

Mang Nestor is very optimistic about SRI because he had to spend less for farm inputs.  He is really concerned about the rising costs of goods since his caretaker’s salary is not enough.  He believes that with SRI, he can produce more palay at less cost and have enough produce left for his family’s consumption.

Mang Dionisio

Mang Dionisio Gonzales sells fruits at Divisoria market.  His father is a long-time rice farmer in Barangay San Juan Looban in San Miguel, Bulacan.  Mang Dionisio is a farmer-tenant as the Gonzales family pays rent to a landowner.  The land could have been theirs had it not been for a loophole exploited by the landowner where the land which their farm was part of was subdivided into smaller parcels thus disqualifying it from the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.  While most of the farm is devoted to rice farming, they also raise ducks, chickens, pigs and goats.

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Mang Dionisio (right) harvesting palay.

He first learned about SRI when he went to an agriculture seminar held at the Quezon City Memorial Circle.  Mang Dionisio met Ka Obet when he asked the latter about tips on producing organic fertilizer.  Interested in the idea that he could plant rice without expensive chemical fertilizers, he decided to try SRI.

Out of 1.5 hectares, he used 600 sq. m. for his SRI test farm.  He started planting last July and harvested his palay on November.  The farm depends on rainfed water for irrigation though he sometimes sources water from a nearby fishpond.  He followed the recommendations of Ka Obet and produced his own organic fertilizer.  According to Ka Obet, the plants produced an average of 20 tillers or more.  The palay harvest of Mang Dionisio’s SRI farm is estimated at 90 cavans/ha. which surprised him because his yield while using traditional planting methods was at 65 cavans/ha.  Ka Obet also noted that Typhoon Santi which had affected Central Luzon had an adverse impact on the harvest result as well.

Mang Dionisio gushed that, “Napatunayan ko na makipag-ani kahit walang fertilizer.” (I proved that I could harvest without using chemical fertilizers)

He said that he will expand his SRI farm and prove to his fellow farmers that SRI works.  He is aware of the problems in convincing other farmers to change their planting methods.  He told us that if his father were not retired and still farming, he would not try SRI because it is different from what he knows and believes.

Unlike his father, Mang Dionisio believes that things have to change because, firstly, farm inputs are so expensive and disadvantageous to small farmers and, secondly, the effect of long-time use of chemical fertilizers has lowered the quality of food and adversely affects human health.

We also met Barangay Captain Ernesto Vicquerra and the municipal agricultural technician, Ms. Norma Ignacio, at Mang Dionisio’s farm.  Both were surprised at the high yield of SRI and were further encouraged by Mang Dionisio’s use of organic fertilizer.  They started making plans with Ka Obet on conducting SRI training for other farmers in San Miguel.

More innovators needed

SRI is not new as this was developed in Madagascar during the 1980s by Jesuit priest, Fr. Henri Laulanie.  There had been SRI trials in the Philippines going back to the late 90s.  Unfortunately, a lack of national information dissemination and government support has kept the progress of SRI at a slow pace.  It seems only a few farmers know about SRI and even fewer want to try it.

Mang Nestor and Mang Dionisio are exceptions to the rule.  As Ka Obet would say, they are the ‘innovators’ that he is looking for to help spread SRI farming throughout the country.  They are small farmers and they are aware of how hard it is to succeed in a very competitive farming industry but they believe that SRI can give them the advantage to be successful.

In the coming months, I hope to visit more SRI farmers and learn of their experiences and post their stories as well. Stay tuned and keep on reading.

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