SRI success on first try: how a “weekend farmer” in Laur, Nueva Ecija got a 338-cavan/hectare rice yield

The results of a 2013 “backyard experiment” in a new rice-growing method by “weekend farmer” and physician Dr. Apolinar Tolentino Jr. has astounded his friends and colleagues.

From the control plot of 540 square meters using conventional methods, he got 12 cavans, or 220 cavans/hectare – quite high by Philippine standards. But from the experimental plot of 1,035 square meters using a new method called system of rice intensification (SRI), which he was trying for the very first time, he got 35 cavans, or 338 cavans/hectares – 54% higher than his control plot and more than four times the national average!

Successful physician, frustrated weekend farmer

Dr. Tolentino, whose specialty is family medicine, has been a medical officer of a government corporation for more than 20 years. He is married to another doctor, who enjoys a successful medical practice as pediatrician. Their children study in the best schools in the country.

Despite these marks of success, “Doc Joey” remains engaged in a search to improve income – his farm income, that is. In addition to his successful career as a physician, Doc Joey is also a “weekend farmer,” as he calls himself. He farms, he says, not only for himself and his family, but for all farmers in the country. If he can make his farm operation viable while keeping to “natural methods of farming”, then his approach might serve as a model for other farmers.

On weekends and some weekdays, Doc Joey’s son Percival Jerome (“PJ”) drives him from Quezon City to the six-hectare family farm in Laur, Nueva Ecija that his deceased mother and five other aunts and uncles inherited from their parents. Doc Joey took on the responsibility of managing the rice farm, with son PJ on his side, to try out various ideas that can make rice farming a viable operation.

In between his visits, his paternal cousin Benny Tolentino takes over and implements his “remote” instructions. Eventually, they managed to raise the farm’s yield from 60-80 to 100-120 cavans/hectare. The national average is only slightly below 80 cavans/hectare. Still, he was far from satisfied with the yields they were getting and the costs they were incurring. The margins were frustratingly low, he says.

“I won’t even factor in the cost of driving from Quezon City to Laur and back, or the time I spend managing the farm and travelling,” he adds.

A viable option emerges

Doc Joey’s search for viable farm options led him to the system of rice intensification (SRI).

SRI is a method of growing rice developed in the 1980s by Fr. Henri de Laulanié, a Jesuit priest stationed in Madagascar, a big island off the African east coast.

SRI went viral in the 2000s when Dr. Norman Uphoff, a Cornell University scientist studying irrigation systems, came across it, picked up the torch from de Laulanié, and started promoting SRI evaluations worldwide.

Before he did so, however, Uphoff spent years quietly evaluating the method. “For a long time,” Uphoff told a Filipino audience when he visited the country in 2002, “I couldn’t even mention SRI in my public talks, lest I associate Cornell’s name with what might turn out to be a false claim.”

But after three years of joint evaluations and demonstrations with Association Tefy Saina, the non-government organization which de Laulanié organized with local colleagues and left behind (he died in 1995), Uphoff was convinced that SRI benefits were real. He saw how smallholding farmers raised their yields from 2 to 8 tons/hectare just by changing the way they took care of their rice fields.

Having taught rural development for more than 30 years at Cornell, which hosts hundreds of foreign students a year in its agriculture program, Uphoff had a worldwide network of former students to tap. Also, Cornell received a steady stream of visitors engaged in agricultural and rural development. As director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD) from 1990 to 2005, he travelled abroad regularly and had the opportunity to visit many countries.

Doing so, he started a campaign of encouraging everyone he met, including his former students of course, to “evaluate SRI scientifically.” SRI’s critics characterized Uphoff’s efforts as “missionary zeal” to question his credibility. “He has become an SRI advocate,” they charged. But Uphoff responded that what he was advocating was “the evaluation of SRI within the scientific community.” If scientists and farmers were satisfied with the results, they could decide themselves what to do with their new knowledge.

The establishment strikes back

Uphoff’s detractors, some of them based at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), went so far as to label his reports on SRI as based on “unconfirmed field observations (UFOs)” in articles published in scientific journals – an ultimate insult to a scientist. Some wrote that the SRI results reported by Uphoff exceeded what they calculated to be the theoretical maximums based on their agronomic models, implying that the top yields with SRI methods must be false. “Perhaps it is their current theories that need revision,” Uphoff suggests. “By focusing on the top yields, they diverted attention from the large increases in average yield achieved with SRI management – increases which were well within any concept of ‘biological maximum yield’,” he adds.

This early, highly-publicized opposition to SRI by IRRI scientists could be a major reason for SRI’s relatively slow spread in the Philippines, where IRRI is based. Local agriculture experts and government agriculturists look up to IRRI and they echoed these early criticisms of IRRI scientists, though much of these criticisms later turned out to be unfounded.

Many of these early critics are now silent, but they’ve never published any retraction of their unfounded criticisms, nor apologies for their insulting labels. Even today, some government agriculturists, especially those who are not updated about recent research, still cite arguments echoing these early critics.

To review the state of SRI research in the Philippines and other countries, the Central Bicol State University for Agriculture (CBSUA) is hosting an SRI research roundtable and lecture series on June 4, 2013 at the CBSUA campus in Pili, Camarines Sur. With Dr. Lucy Fisher, CIIFAD staff and a colleague of Uphoff, as guest speaker, the occasion will provide SRI researchers from CBSUA, UP Los Banos, Central Luzon State University, Visayas State University and other schools the opportunity to share and discuss their results.

Doc Joey picked up bits and pieces of the SRI debates, as he browsed the Web and explored YouTube for information, reading all he could about SRI. But he was really after knowledge he could use in his farm.

Eventually he came across SRI Pilipinas, the local network that promotes SRI in the Philippines. This network of SRI trainers conducts free trainings and seminars to farmers’ groups and provides free text/SMS lessons as well as primers to individual farmers. It is launching a “friendly contest” in 2013 and 2014 among SRI adopters to see who can get the most benefits from these methods. Doc Joey attended one of its seminars.

Case for SRI now overwhelming

By this time, as Doc Joey realized at the seminar, the case for SRI has become overwhelming.

For one thing, it has been tried successfully in more than 50 countries. (SRI’s phenomenal spread – often without support from government or agriculture authorities – has so confounded the agriculture establishment that the Gates Foundation funded Wageningen University researchers to study SRI as a “socio-technical” phenomenon.)

In November 2011, five farmers in Bihar, India – all using SRI which they had learned three years earlier – had matched or exceeded the world record for palay (paddy rice) yield of scientist and hybrid rice developer Dr. Yuan Long-ping of China. The best of the five SRI farmers, Sumant Kumar, now holds the new world record: 20.03 tons/hectare (22.4 tons – 448 cavans – before drying). The average yield in the Philippines is less than 4 tons/hectare (80 cavans).

Then, in August 2012, Dr. Yang Saing Koma of Cambodia received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, in large part because he convinced the Cambodian government to adopt SRI as an official program nationwide and helped it implement the program. As a result, Cambodia doubled its national rice production within eight years, from 3.82 million tons in 2002 to 7.97 million tons in 2010. Earlier, the Philippines had announced that they had signed a memorandum of agreement with the Cambodian government to import rice from Cambodia in the next two years.

Several Indian states have, for years, promoted SRI as part of the official government rice program, accounting for significant increases in their rice production. In the Nalanda district of the state of Bihar, where Sumant Kumar made his record-breaking harvest in 2011, 90% of farmers already use SRI. When India’s 2012 rice export statistics came in, they showed India’s rice exports jumping to 10.3 million tons, up from 4.8 million tons in 2011, thanks in part to this early focus on SRI. This doubling of exports has made India top rice exporter for 2012, ahead of Vietnam (7.7 million tons) and traditional leader Thailand (7.0 million tons).

Trying SRI for the first time

In the first cropping season of 2013, Doc Joey made up his mind to try SRI.

On his request, SRI Pilipinas assigned its Nueva Ecija-based trainer and Luzon coordinator, Venancio Garde Jr. of Gabaldon, to help him out. The two were distant relatives, it turned out.

With Jun Garde’s help, Doc Joey started his first SRI trial during the 2013 dry season, on a 45-meter x 23-meter plot. His Facebook entry called the 1,035 square-meter trial “a backyard experiment with lots of limitations.” A modest description of an experiment whose objective was “just to give my farmer-cousin a hands-on training in SRI and to find out if the technique will work in our rice farm.” He would have been satisfied with “anything above 150 cavans/hectare,” – roughly double the national average.

For seed, Doc Joey used a high-yielding Indonesian inbred rice variety he got from a trophobiotic practitioner he met in Facebook.

In his desire to convert his entire six-hectares into an organic rice farm quickly, Doc Joey stopped chemical applications immediately and applied the following on his six-hectare farm, including the 1,035-sqm plot where he was testing SRI for the first time:

Organic input Details
Green manure 20 kg/ha munggo (mung beans) broadcast before land preparation, then harrowed at the flowering stage
Vermicast 5 bags/ha on last harrowing and an additional 2 bags as top dressing for the SRI plot only
Chicken manure 15 bags/ha
Goat manure Unknown amount, “I just gave instructions to dump all goat manure on the SRI plot during land preparation.”
Indigenous micro-organisms 2 (IMO-2) Sprayed on the field after the first harrowing, at a rate of 30ml / 16L sprayer and 5 sprayers/ha to speed up decomposition
Vermi-tea 6 kg of vermi-cast in 100ml water with 3 kg molasses, brewed for 48 hours and used to dilute the NF concoctions (see below)
Natural Farming (NF) concoctions IMO, Fish/Kuhol Amino Acid with seaweeds, Fermented Plant Juice, Fermented Fruit Juice, Oriental Herbal Nutriet, Calphos, calcium from eggshell, and Lactic Acid Bacteria Serum
Vermi-tea with NF Sprayed every week starting 7 days after transplanting

After listing them all, Doc Joey himself expresses amazement at the amount of organic inputs they put in.

They transplanted the seedlings with care when they were just 10 days old, putting one seedling per hill, and observing the recommended distance of 25 x 25 cm. The fields were alternately flooded and dried, to encourage profuse and deep root growth. Finally, Doc Joey bought two rotary weeders from a Gabaldon specialty shop for the mandatory shallow cultivation every 7-10 days, required by SRI to aerate the soil and control weeds.

No chemical inputs were used at all.

In a separate 27-meter x 20-meter control plot, Doc Joey planted the same variety, using the conventional methods of growing rice: broadcasting directly into the field and fertilizing with a mix of organic and chemical inputs.

Korean Natural Farming, Filipino-style

Under the supervision of Doc Joey and with Jun’s advice, resident farmer Benny Tolentino and his wife Teodora also learned to make compost and various “concoctions,” as they are known in organic circles.

The concoctions are fermented mixes made from commonly available materials, which can hasten composting, enhance growth, add more nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, or calcium, and generally provide the same things that chemical treatments provide, but in an organic way. This system of making concoctions is separately known as the “Korean Natural Farming System” (KNFS), because it was developed by scientist Dr. Han Kyu Cho of Korea. Although not part of SRI, KNFS complements it perfectly and is taught together with SRI by SRI Pilipinas in its seminars and trainings. Doc Joey calls the system “NF,” for “Natural Farming”.

While doing all these things, Doc Joey shared every step of the way, as the trial went along, with his online friends, all natural farming enthusiasts.

He also shared tidbits of information gathered from the local SRI network that were useful to farmers. For instance:

On attacks by the Golden Kuhol (a common criticism of the SRI method): “in our experience using SRI, kuhol was not a problem despite wide infestation in our area [because we plant] the seedling in mud instead of submerging it in water, [and they] cannot move well in mud; the spacing is so wide [that the] kuhol senses that it is not worth their effort to go for a very small plantlet and have to travel wide to get to the next; we collect kuhol including the eggs to make it into fertilizer.”

To control rats: some SRI farmers roast raw rice [and] then mix it with some cement, using plastic gloves to prevent human smell from giving the mixture away. The fragrant aroma of roasted rice attracts the rats. The powdery cement quickly turns solid in the rats’ gut, leading to their death.

Doc Joey’s online friend Eddie Canuto, also an SRI adopter, shares another technique: wearing plastic gloves as usual, get some “is-is” leaves (“takinis” in Ilonggo, often used in scouring pots or as native sandpaper; scientific name, Leucosyke capitellata). Put some sardine sauce on them and leave them where rats tend to go. When the rats lick the sauce, the “hair” of the is-is will stick like needles to their tongue, impairing their eating ability and eventually killing them.

Thus, vicariously, Doc Joey’s online friends shared the excitement, the challenges, the joys and disappointments of growing rice with their fellow natural farming practitioner.

Success on first try

The SRI result astounded everyone – 338 cavans/hectare, more than four times the national average, using no hybrid seeds or chemical inputs, and on Doc Joey’s first try at SRI and first season of organic conversion at that!

Encouraged, he will now be trying SRI in the coming planting season on a half-hectare rice field, to make sure that SRI will also work on a larger scale. If he succeeds, he says, he will try SRI again in a full hectare. “If the results are still convincing, then SRI will be my sole method of rice planting in the six-hectare farm.”

“The real significance of Doc Joey’s feat,” Dr. Mely Cervantes, researcher and head of extension services of CBSUA explains, “is that it shows how farmers can improve their yields quickly, without using expensive hybrid varieties which they can use only once or similarly expensive chemical inputs that poison not only soil organisms but also the farmers themselves as well as their families.”

When SRI Pilipinas learned about the results, the group immediately suggested to Doc Joey to ask a Department of Agriculture representative to double-check the harvest and certify their findings. Unfortunately, the entire SRI crop had been harvested. “Actually, it was furthest from my mind that the outcome will be like this,” Doc Joey tells his online friends.

Doc Joey says he will try again on a larger scale – a 0.5-hectare rice field. And this time, he will be “more particular about documentation,” he says.

SRI Pilipinas also asked Doc Joey to join their 2013 contest, but the doctor demurred.

“I don’t like pressures,” he reasons. “My blood pressure might rise uncontrolled if I join,” he laughs.

“Pressure is good, Doc,” counters one of his online friends.

“Join the contest not to win, but to test yourself,” the group’s coordinator suggests. “Like some marathons, our contest is a competition among friends, and for most participants, finishing it is victory enough,” he adds.

Government support needed

Venancio Garde Jr., the SRI trainer who advised Doc Joey and who serves as the SRI Pilipinas coordinator for North Luzon, explains that they are using the contest format to promote knowledge of SRI more widely among farmers. “What we really need, though,” he says, “is for the government to promote SRI officially among farmers, like what the governments of Bihar and Cambodia have done.” With SRI, Cambodia doubled its national rice production in eight years. Bihar, a state in northeast India, was previously one of the most depressed areas in the country. With SRI, it is moving today to overtake Punjab as India’s top rice producer.

Garde thinks that an administration which adopts SRI as a government program will bring the country rice self-sufficiency within its term.

And it will make rice farming a viable operation for farmers, Doc Joey might add.

[To get free lessons in SRI, farmers can text their name and complete address to the SRI Pilipinas Hotline: 0939-117-8999.]

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2 Comments

  1. Owen conol
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    I hope the SRI technicians will conduct a training seminar in Molave Zambo Sur asap this is the way to educate farmers to adapt this method of producing rice.The population is getting bigger but the rice harvest is still the same.

  2. Roberto Verzola
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Sir, I will be in Molave, Zamboanga del Sur on November 19, to hold a seminar on SRI. Kindly check with the Municipal Agriculturist for details. I hope you can attend the seminar. Greetings, Obet Verzola


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