By: Larry Villanueva
In my previous article, A Tale of Two Farmers, I wrote about my efforts in learning about the System of Rice Intensification or SRI. It is a climate-smart, agro-ecological method of planting rice which uses fewer seeds, less water and zero use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The principles of SRI demonstrate that if we properly take care of the soil and its natural nutrients, the rice plant can achieve optimal growth and high yield without the need for external chemical inputs.
As iCSC is devoted to helping promote SRI in the country, I continue visiting farmers to learn more about their experiences in adopting SRI. Last December 3, 2014, I had the privilege of going to Samal, Bataan to visit the farm of the Isagani and Rick Serrano. Isagani or Gani is the president of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM) while Rick is the Vice-Chair of the Institute for Philippine Cooperatives and Social Enterprise Development (IPCSED). PRRM and IPCSED teach and apply SRI in their respective sustainable agriculture programs.
The Serranos are admittedly weekend farmers but they have a vision to turn their farm into a model farm of sustainable organic agriculture and they are determined to plant rice using SRI.
7000 sq. m. of the Serrano farm is devoted to SRI-planted rice. When I got to their farm, they had people finishing the square grid pattern on the field. On the morning of the planting, they gathered their workers and emphasized that they (the workers) had to plant only one rice plant per hill. During the planting itself, there were instances where the workers would inadvertently plant more than one per hill and they had to be corrected. They also instructed the workers to plant more carefully to minimize transplanting shock of the rice plant. Rick said that it is understandable for the workers to make mistakes since they are unused to SRI methods. (Click here to learn about basic SRI practices)
As I gazed across the field, Rick also told me that the surrounding rice farms employ conventional rice planting methods. I asked him if they had tried to promote SRI to their neighbours. He said that one goal of their farm is to show other farmers that SRI works because most farmers have a “wait-and-see” attitude and this would also take time since the other farmers are used to applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
I also asked Gani and Rick how they became interested in SRI and they told me that they heard about SRI in 2001. PRRM hosted several SRI workshops and they also visited Dr. Yang Saing Koma, 2012 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for his work in sustainable agriculture and a noted SRI advocate, in Cambodia. Dr. Koma is credited with improving rice production in Cambodia. Rick said that Dr. Koma encouraged farmers to experiment and be flexible in how they use SRI except for one component – they must strictly adhere to planting one rice plant per hill. (Click to learn more about Dr. Koma’s SRI work)
Gani also shared that, in his opinion, the Department of Agriculture (DA), has to make a definitive decision with regard to sustainable agriculture development. He said that if the government is going to support organic agriculture, then it should focus on organic agriculture for all farmers. Instead, the DA provides a ‘menu’ of organic and conventional agriculture. Furthermore, organic agriculture advocates lack the kind of support that conventional agriculture producers enjoy giving little incentive for the ordinary farmer to switch to organic production.
I left the farm with Gani and Rick telling me that I could return throughout the season to check on their progress.
My Return to Samal
Last January, I returned to the Serrano farm to check on the progress of the crops. I was met by Mang Nestor Estrada, the farm manager, and we walked around the farm looking at the growth of the rice. It was good to see that the plants were growing nicely, as tall and green as rice plants planted by the neighbours’ using conventional methods and commercial fertilizers and pesticides. I mentioned this to Mang Nestor and he related that in the days after the planting, other farmers were doubtful as to whether the plants would thrive since they were planted singly in a hill but in the weeks that followed, after following SRI steps of intermittent irrigation and manual weeding, the plants began to thrive and grow healthily.
I then heard the quacking of ducks within the field and Mang Nestor said that they let ducks roam in the field as a means to control pests especially snails which eat the plants if left unchecked. The ducks eat the kuhol (snails) and weeds; furthermore, the ducks’ moving around the field helps in aerating the soil and finally, their droppings also serve as fertilizer for the plants. When I first visited the farm during the planting, I remembered Rick telling me of their plans to introduce ducks in the field to manage the kuhol.
Mang Nestor shared that they have a lot to learn before they can say that they have mastered SRI. He said that it has been quite labor intensive but since they just started using SRI, this is understandable. Nonetheless, he is very optimistic that when they perfect their system, they can become more labor efficient and bring their production costs even lower. He also echoed Gani and Rick by saying that the goal is not to compete with the other farmers but to demonstrate that organic agriculture and SRI is doable and sustainable.
Gani and Rick are out to prove the benefits of and promote SRI. They organized a group of farmers in Samal and the neighbouring municipalities called the Samaleño Organiko Producers Cooperative to practice SRI and organic agriculture. Listening to Gani and Rick, it’s hard not to feel excited about developing sustainable agriculture, especially SRI, in the country. I do hope to return to their farm and observe the harvesting but from what I have seen, their farm is on track for a good harvest.