The SRI in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, February 14, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    In southern and eastern Sri Lanka, Mercy Corps is helping promote the "SRI" method of growing rice. Smallholders can use the System of Rice Intensification to achieve better yields using fewer seeds, less water and no chemicals. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A year ago, this acre of rice was a thicket of reeds growing on land considered too expensive to cultivate. But the System of Rice Intensification opened up 15 to 20 acres of previously dry land for rice cultivation in Yahangala East. Across Sri Lanka, 1.8 million families grow rice. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

At about 10 a.m. this morning I was treading carefully through a rice paddy under an already-blazing sun, trying to keep my balance on the beam of dry earth that kept me six inches safely above the mud.

If I were to return to this very spot next week, I'd probably see shirtless laborers cutting down these stalks with sickles, the first step to turning the crops into 4,000 pounds of rice. But more notably, if I had been here nine months ago, I'd have been standing in a thicket of reeds growing on land considered too expensive to cultivate.

Today the farmers here in Yahangala East are showing off a new way to grow rice. It's called SRI, which is short for System of Rice Intensification. It's a method of growing rice first introduced in Madagascar by a French Jesuit in 1983, and although it's used in some of the biggest rice-producing countries, it's been slow to catch on here.

Mercy Corps introduced SRI farming in Yahangala East and neighboring Bandagiriya last June. Fifteen farmers piloted the method on half an acre of their land. The process was unfamiliar. For years they'd been using what's known as the "broadcast" method of planting rice, which isn't much more than flinging seeds onto a water-soaked field. (One farmer told me it takes about 10 minutes to plant an acre this way.)

By contrast, planting under SRI is labor intensive. The seeds are sown and tended in a small section of the field for eight days, then transplanted in carefully spaced rows. The extra space is healthier for the plant; to grow straight and hardy it needs no chemicals, only organic fertilizer and, most critically, a lot less water than the traditional method.

"This is not a wetland where people normally cultivate paddy," explained 33-year-old Nanil "Kumara" Usantha, a community leader who led us on a tour of several farms in the community. "Usually they'd be planting vegetables. But SRI rice doesn't need much water. And because of this, people started cultivating dry land. There are 15 to 20 acres in cultivation now that used to be dry land."

Using the SRI method, each stalk contains more sprigs (called tillers) and more kernels of rice. The harvest is twice as large — and its high quality means farmers can earn a premium by selling it as seed to other farmers.

Because of the success of the 15 farmers in the pilot program, 160 more enlisted for the current season. They received four daylong trainings, enough seed to plant half an acre, a push-powered weeder, and access to a seed-planting machine and a husk-burning device for making compost.

Because of the manpower required in the planting stage, SRI is best suited for rice plots of only an acre or two. But that's all the land — and economic opportunity — that most residents here have. "We have about 285 families here, and most are involved in paddy farming," says Kumara, who leases out land to farm to supplement his work as a carpenter. "On average, they farm two acres. There's no other income-generating activity in this village."

But there is still unused land. If what we saw today is any indication, however, the remaining reeds might not last much longer.