SRI – How do you do it and WHY AREN’T YOU!

So previously I wrote about the history of SRI and mentioned how even though it can make vast improvements to crop yield, it is not commonly adopted here in Madagascar. Why is that? Keep reading to learn about the methodology of SRI and why many Malagasy farmers are resistant.

SRI has a few key principles for farmers to follow. They are small changes that result in a big increase, but are very counterintuitive to the average Malagasy farmer.

1. Rice seedlings are transplanted when they have two leaves (generally between 8-12 days) This is the ideal time for rice to be transplanted; it is young enough to get over the shock of transplantation and to get growing. Normally farmers transplant around 30 days (and sometimes up to 60). This is a big change for farmers to adapt to! At only two leaves the rice plants are admittedly dinky. It is hard for farmers to imagine that they will survive the transplantation process at such a young age when they are used to working with older seedlings.

Dinky little 2-leaf rice. Small, but ready for transplant!

Dinky little 2-leaf rice. Small, but ready for transplant!

2. Single seedlings are transplantedTraditionally rice is planted in a group of 2 -5 seedlings but with SRI you plant one lone seedling. Wait… how are you supposed to plant less rice but get more output?? By giving the rice plenty of room it is able to grow to its fullest potential. It works but again, it is counter intuitive. Less = more is hard to grasp sometimes.

3. Seedlings are planted on a grid system with a wide spacing (25x25cm minimum)Same concept as before. By giving the rice a lot of room it will grow well. Generally rice is planted in a random scattering fairly close together, or in a line. In my community we have about a 50/50 split between scatter planters and line planters. Planting in a grid also helps with:

Grid pattern (though Malagasy mud is never this nice)

Grid pattern (though Malagasy mud is never this nice)

4. Regular weeding throughout the growing period Weeding reduces competition and allows the rice to thrive. A metal hand-push weeder is used. This is a big investment in money as well as time which makes many farmers resistant.

Hand push weeder

Hand push weeder

5. Limited water usageWhen you imagine rice paddies you probably imagine them flooded, right? Malagasy farmers think the same way but actually, rice grows best with alternating wetting and drying of the fields. Drying and even allowing the field to crack allows much needed oxygen to the plants root system.

These are some of the basic principle of SRI. Other components include pre-soaking the seeds, improved nursery design, and use of compost rather than chemical fertilizers.

As you can see, there are some big differences between SRI and traditional Malagasy methods of rice farming. It really sounds crazy to them and they don’t think it will work. Also, it is really scary for people to gamble with their rice. This is their food! They eat it 3 times a day! What are they going to do if something goes wrong?

My project is helping to assuage those fears by starting SRI on a small scale. Each farmer will convert ¼ a hectare of their rice paddies into SRI. They will be supported fully by myself and local agricultural extension agents throughout the process but if things do fail…. Oh well! Yes. Losing ¼ a hectare of rice SUCKS, but it is not the end of the world.

Wanna help? Donate here! https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=13-684-043

SRI – What’s it about?

Hello blogosphere! Long time no talk! I have been a busy girl lately and blogging has been one of the last things on my mind (I am at the point in my service where draining a laptop battery on an episode of Game of Thrones is much more preferable than writing about my day). But here I am with some very exciting news: I have a new project! YAY! I am working with a newly formed farmer’s group in my community known as “Union Miray” (miray means to come together as one in Malagasy). We are working on a project to implement SRI in the community. The little blurb on the Peace Corps website where you can donate is teeny tiny so I am coming here to describe a bit more about the project. Today’s topic: what the heck is SRI?

SRI stands for System of Rice Intensification. In case you hadn’t heard rice is a pretty big deal here in Madagascar. We have the highest rice consumption per capita IN THE WORLD! Yes, we really, really, really love rice! The average Malagasy person eats 300 pounds of it per year! SRI was founded by Henri de Laulanie a French Jesuit Father who moved to Madagascar in 1961. In 1981 he started an agricultural school in the highlands town of Antsirabe where they did a lot of experimentation with rice with SRI being developed in 1983. In 1990 he joined with Malagasy colleagues to form Association Tefy Saina a non-governmental organization to help spread the message of SRI. In 1994 Association Tefy Saina partnered with Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development who today remains one of the big players in the SRI movement. Early tests conducted by Cornell near the town of Ranomafana showed that SRI rice fields produced on average 8 tons per hectare. That’s compared to only 2.5 tons per hectare with traditional farming practices. Yes! It works!

Henri de Laulanie hard at work

Henri de Laulanie hard at work

Since the introduction of SRI there has been a big push to introduce it to the Malagasy people and the world at large. A number of organizations, including Peace Corps, have taken the idea of SRI to heart, yet many Malagasy are still resistant to adopt it. Why? Find out on my next blog installation!

Interested? Intrigued? Want to help out? You can check out my project and make a donation here: https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=13-684-043

Cat Farming

Written April 13, 2013

Sorry for the lack of blog posts. I am quickly approaching my one year of service mark and things here in Ambohidray are no longer new and exciting. It no longer bothers me that I have to pick weevils out of my rice before I cook it, I am (slightly) more used to being stared at like a zoo animal, and I am so in love with my po (chamber pot) that I am wondering how I can incorporate into my life post-Peace Corps. As a result, I have lost my blogging motivation (and I would really rather save my laptop battery for watching movies).

Anyways, the past 2 weeks have been a whirlwind of activity. A group of 18 new agriculture volunteers (the environment and community economic development programs have been “merged” into an ag program, but it is pretty much the environment program with a new name) arrived in country in March and I spent the past couple of weeks helping to train them. Training was a bitch. I am constantly amazed at how disorganized Peace Corps Madagascar can be at times. Anyways, it was nice to meet all the newbies and to get some fresh blood. PC volunteers get very jaded and unhappy as they go through their service so it is nice to have people who are excited.

The second week of training I got to go along with the volunteers on tech trip where they get to visit different volunteer sites and learn about agricultural practices here in Madagascar. On Monday they came to my site and overall things went well. I worked my butt off to get everything planned and organized but I am glad it is something my community got to experience. In the morning the trainees split into groups and taught some lessons at the school garden. After lunch we did a cooking demo with my women’s group which was tons of fun. One group made guacamole which was a big hit. I also accompanied the trainees on their first night “out” in Madagascar (kind of a joke because Moramanga has basically no nightlife). I introduced them to meat on a stick (and promised they wouldn’t all get dysentery and die), yelled at men who were harassing us, and funniest of all, helped people navigate bathroom situations (yes, you can trust the waitress to take you somewhere safe to pee, no its not unusual that she took you to the basement to do so). The rest of tech trip I tagged along and mostly did nothing. It was nice.

I got back to site on Friday and the very next day had a meeting with the YMCA in Moramanga. We discussed health issues in the commune (or they did, I mostly sat there and played on my phone….). It was the best kind of meeting because we got there, ate snacks, talked a bit, ate lunch, and went home. We even had a “special” (private) taxi brousse which was super fun. People would try to get in and we got tell them no, it was only for special people, ha! I picked up some new round storage baskets for my house and on the way back the (slightly drunk) commune veterinarian who had also attended the meeting asked me if I was going to farm cats in the baskets. They are very nice round, woven baskets, the kind that a cat most certainly would like to curl up in and maybe have some kittens, but it certainly wouldn’t be my first thought. 

Middle school photo shoot

 

So I went to visit the middle school in my commune to attend their new years party (held in February…). The reasons were two-fold: 1. to talk to the teachers and administrators about my pad project; 2. to visit Ninah who has been begging me to visit since school started. The pad talk went good. I spoke with the directory and the secretary (both men) and they seemed passively excited about the project. But later in the day, when everyone was drunk they seemed REALLY excited. The director was even explaining it to others using a piece of table cloth as mock-underwear (some people were confused at the snaps on the crotch part. There are only 146 girls enrolled in the school right now so I am going to be able to do this project pretty cheaply. I am going to apply for VAST funding (meant for HIV/AIDS related project) and make the sex-ed component heavy on the HIV/AIDS stuff. The school PE/health teacher was really excited and wanted to help me with the education component. Yay!

Then we did a photo shoot. Pictures are a very treasured possession here. In the past it meant going into the city (Moramanga) and getting them taken. Now there are more people with digital cameras who will take photos but they make a profit at it and are still few and far between. I really hate taking pictures for people. It is generally just a pain. But, I decided to do it anyways. I took about 200 pictures and charged them only the cost to print them out (500AR or less than 25 cents a picture). I made everyone pay before hand (except some of the teachers who insisted they would pay me later, I’m never gonna see that money). Here are some pictures of the students being nerds:

Note: Grades here are much for fluid than in the states. It is more common for kids to repeat a grade at some point than not. I know we have 16-year-olds at my elementary school and I would guess the students here range in age from 11-20ish.   
P1210663 P1210681 P1210715 P1210727 P1210747

Yes, he is holding an (empty) beer bottle P1210765 P1210776

Two of the three kids from my community who go to middle school! Ninah borrowed my sunglasses.
Middle School




Stuffs a’happening

Written 2/6/13

Long time no blog. The internet café in my banking town has gone to shit so blogging has been even more difficult. The wifi there has been getting progressively slower and it is to the point where I am unable to load WordPress (or Facebook for that matter). It is hard to get in the mood to write a blog when it won’t be posted for a long, long time. Even worse, the wifi there was completely down today. Apparently there is another decent internet café about 1km off the main road so it looks I will have to investigate that.  But anyway, I am sitting here is the fancy restaurant in town charging my computer and trying not to get annoyed while a woman is taking pictures of me on her phone (at least turn the sound off lady!) so blogging it is.

School Garden:

This is going good so far! Despite having a very difficult time trying to find people to volunteer to build things for the school, the main construction aspects are finished. I kind of had to scare people by saying that if the community didn’t work hard on the project that Peace Corps wouldn’t give us anymore money (partly true, if it turned out to be a big hassle I probably wouldn’t have the motivation to apply for more funding). The well now has a new cover and the fence around it is basically complete (I just need to finish adding bamboo to the other half). It looks beautiful and everyone (especially the teachers) is really excited. We also have a beautiful roofed compost/fertilizer area. The poor guy who built it was supposed to have people help him but he got bailed on for two days and ended up doing everything by himself. What a trooper! We are working on putting in raised garden beds right now (logs) and I am supposed to have someone help me cut notches in the poles tomorrow. I tried to borrow some woodworking tools to do it myself but it turns out I am lacking such skills. I still have all my fingers and toes though! I would still like to add a little tree growing area, more raised beds, and maybe a trellis, but all those require is logs which are super easy for me to order (ie. approach any man on the street holding a big knife and offer him money). One big project ended up getting dropped. When my project was over funded I talked to the school director and suggested we add a tool shed with the extra money. He said yes but when meeting with other involved in the project, the idea was shot down. They are scared of theft (of course it would have had a lock, but that is easy enough to get around) which is all too common in Ambohidray. So we are using that money in other ways and have hopeful plans to convert an area in one of the classrooms into a storage area sometime in the future. I bought a whole bunch of supplies today and still have about 120,000 Ariary to go. I was able to purchase 50 packs of colored pencils so when we do classroom activities there will be enough for ever student to have one. Yeah! So excited! Thank you again to everyone who donated and stay tuned for more updates & pictures!

Women’s Gardening Group:

Last week was the big day where the women were able to collect their tools. It was a great! Peace Corps is supposed to be about teaching and building human-to-human interactions, NOT just giving people stuff like so many aid organizations do . Even so, seeing the look of absolute joy on these women’s faces when they had all their tools was amazing. It is one of the best days of my service so far. The issue of women not having enough money to make the payments ended super quickly when the tools were actually here. All but 2 women fully paid for and collected their tools that day and everything was done by the end of the week. I am still trying to find enough fertilizer for the group. We need another wagon load and a half and nobody in town has any (fertilizer meaning mature manure, all the poop now is still “manta” or unripe). So the lady’s living in the southern section of town may have to wait a bit. Due to bargaining and buying cheaper notebooks than originally accounted for, we still have about 40,000 Ar to spend. A large portion of this will go towards photocopies and also a communal supply of seeds so they women can try new varieties. Each women got 4 packs of seeds as a part of the project but everyone basically chose the same few things (carrots, greens, cucumbers, and zucchini). Hopefully tying something new will open their horizons. Also, I am going to hold the communal seeds hostage so that they can only use them when I am present. I keep on telling the women that I want to help them set up their gardens, but no one has taken me up on it yet.

Women's Gardening Group 1

Women's Gardening Group 2

Women's Gardening Group 3

 

We have had one meeting since the tools were distributed and, as expected, some of the women did not show up. No matter how much you try and account for it, some people are going to lose interest in the educational component once the physical items are in hand. That being said, there was still a good group of women and the class went really well. We talked about double digging and some helpful soil amendments. Most of the time was just spent chatting which is really wonderful. We snacked on some squash and sunflower seeds which they found very strange but interesting. People took home sunflower seeds, mint starts, and rosemary starts. I have some malabar spinach growing which everyone loves so I took some cutting and am trying to see if I can get them to root and then can hand them out. Everyone seems pretty excited about these new things!

Also as expected, once the tools were distributed I was inundated with women wanting to join (but where were you at the beginning when I was begging every woman I saw on the street to come to my meetings?!). I keep on kindly explaining that they are welcome to join the group and learn about new agricultural techniques, but that they cannot buy the items because there is only enough money for the 15 women who were involved in the project from the beginning. They generally don’t like this answer, but oh well.

Progress!

Written January 22, 2013

Today was such a good day! Proof:

  • The guy I ordered all of the boards and post from for  the school garden construction finished them 2 days EARLY (unheard of in Madagascar) and wasn’t even mad when I didn’t have the money to pay him (I am going to the bank tomorrow).
  • I finally killed I giant (hand sized) spider that has been hanging out in my shower so now I can go back to bathing in peace.
  • I think I officially scared away the biggest trouble maker of the kids who hang out at my house. After she visited one day I noticed that a whole container of plants at the front of my house was torn up. The next time she came over I spied on her and caught her in action and when I yelled at her she ran away looking terrified. She hasn’t been back for three days!
  • I found a company that is willing to donate the PUL fabric for my washable pad project! YAY!
  • I arranged for a community member to go to Moramanga with me tomorrow to buy supplies for the school garden project so I don’t have to stress out about it all on my own (funny story, he came over to check out the budget and to make sure I had everything we needed to buy and it turns out I forgot one thing… the bribe money for all the police stops along the road, ha).

Progress with my woman’s gardening group is going slower mostly because this is such a bad time for me to be asking them for money. We are coming up to the main rice harvesting period soon but right now everyone is out of money from selling rice last year and we are dealing with high food prices because cyclone season is not kind to crop production (or roads meaning that even packaged food prices have increased due to transport difficulty). I had a meeting for the women to pay the second payment (2,600 Ariary or slightly about $1.20) and only about half paid. Some people came to the meeting and said they couldn’t afford it and lots of people didn’t come for the same reasons. I told them all it was fine. I am going to cover the remaining portion of the community contribution up front and once they pay me back they can collect all their tools. I think once all the stuff is actually here for the women to collect (end of the month/beginning of next month) the women will be a bit more excited and willing to scrounge up the funds.

Marijuana

Written January 20, 2013

So I was hanging out with my site family today and the dad was telling me a story about how in Firenana (the commune NE of us) they grow some sort of drug and how people from the Comoros come and buy it. They want to make sure I understood the word drug so the girls were listing off examples for me. “Cigarettes, alcohol, chewing tobacco……”. So I naturally added “marijuana”. They looked at me with blank faces. Then I asked the parents, “but you guys know what marijuana is, right?”. They didn’t know either. This wouldn’t be so unusual if pot motif wasn’t common. But it is. You see random pot symbols all over the place, mostly because “rasta” style things are popular. It is especially funny when you see a grandma with a lamba around her waist featuring a giant picture of Bob Marley’s face adorned with pot leafs along the edge.

What’s especially interesting is that this family has a video called “Relax” which has a strange into that everyone loves to watch on repeat which is super pot heavy. The intro is pretty much little GIF images and just about every other one is marijuana related. They were absolutely shocked when I pointed this out to them. Sorry to ruin your favorite video guys! I hope to someday get past the intro to the Relax video. We get to the point where the first music video starts playing (from Angola, 2007) and the put it straight back to the intro.

Note: Other people in my community DO know what marijuana is. I have had young guys jokingly (?) ask if I could teach them to grow it.