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Farming Rice, Intensively

Sri Lanka, June 18, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Rice is central to Sri Lanka's economy and culture. So it's not hard to imagine how a new technique for improving rice production would be eagerly welcomed by farmers like Kanthi Weerasinghe.

Kanthi is one of 160 farmers in the village of Yahangala East experimenting with a method of growing rice called SRI, which is short for System of Rice Intensification. As a widowed mother, every little bit of help is welcomed.

For the last five years, since her husband died of a heart attack, Kanthi has been in charge of cultivating three-and-a-half acres of rice paddy. She relies on the harvest — and a small shop in front of her home that sells vegetables and snacks to neighbors and passersby — to sustain her and her two school-age daughters.

Kanthi attended four daylong trainings, sponsored by Mercy Corps, on how to cultivate SRI rice. We also provided her with enough seed to plant half an acre and tools to help her cultivate more easily and effectively.

Midway through the season, Kanthi has already noticed that her SRI paddy is doing better than the more traditional method she once employed. She expected to harvest seven bushels of paddy, which would make about 2,000 pounds of uncooked rice — twice what she might have harvested using the traditional method.

At the going price of rice (30 rupees per kilo), that's $240 just from half an acre — money Kanthi says she can put to good use. "I have to think about my children's education, and my house is not that good."

She's also excited to cook the SRI rice for her family's dinner table because it's grown organically. Kanthi is conscientious of what she feeds her kids: her home garden is diverse, with leafy greens, chili peppers, green lentils and cashews in the mix.

"And," she added, "I can use it as seed paddy for next year, and save money on what I would normally buy to sow the fields."

Lifting incomes, improving nutrition, protecting savings — by every measure, SRI is not the same old rice.