Lessons Learned: An Educated Workforce for Planting Rice

One of the primary goals of the Charis Teaching Farm is to offer natural and sustainable farming methods to farmers and workers in the Maesot region of Western Thailand. Planting rice offered us an excellent means to do just that last week.

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Our SRI rice nursery: we only needed 10% of what we planted.  SRI is highly efficient in its use of resources.

We grow rice acccording to System of Rice Intensification (SRI). This is the third year that we have used SRI.  Our first year was a complete failure.  We managed to harevest 3 bags of rice from the 4 acres we planted. It was then that we realized how badly the land had been depleted by high chemical input farming… and that we needed some improvement to our own systems.  Last year, however, was a total success as our per-acre yeild rose to compare with the Thai national aerage and we harvested 65 bags from 1.5 acres. This unexpected turnaround success grew interest in our neighbors who witnessed the failure the year before.  This year, with the improvements we made on last season’s success, we hope to increase our yield even more this year.

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One of our farm staff preparing the fields for transplanting.

Last year, we planted 3.5 rai (a little less than 1.5 acre). We employed an average of 8 workers per day over the course of five days to plant the rice. We planted our rice (one as opposed to the traditional 4 to 7 per per hill) at a spacing of 30 cm.  Also last year, we gave planting instructions to the team on the morning of the planting.  It turned out well. However, our farm manager had to repeatedly correct improper rice plantings.  The most common corrections were more than on seedling being placed together in a hill or the roots sticking out of the ground. While both are acceptable in traditional rice planting, these practices severely weaken rice planted with SRI methods since the seedling is very young when planted (3-5 weeks younger than traditional methods).  Such corrections resulted in loss of productive time and a weakened crop.

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The SRI seminar: local fieldworkers learning about the science behind a highly efficient planting method.

This year, we made a few changes.  We decided to increase plant spacing to 35cm in order to promote fuller rice plants and ease of weeding. We expanded our planting space to 5.5 rai (slightly more than 2 acres).  Perhaps our most valuable decision was to hold a miniature SRI seminar for our workers.  At this class, we taught the basic growth cycle of the rice plant, explained the differences between traditional and SRI rice farming, and instructed in proper rice planting technique for SRI.  We had a total of twenty workers at our SRI seminar, eighteen of which came to the farm and planted.  We  guaranteed them a fair wage plus incentives for finishing early.

On the day of planting, we had about half of the rice fields prepared for planting. The team clearly understood the planting techniques and so need minimal correction. Planting went quickly.  The team finished more than half the prepared fields before the lunch break. Our larger workforce than last year resulted in downtime while the next fields were being prepared.  So the team shifted into alternate jobs of digging drainage ditches and picking weeds in the unplanted fields. (The ditches help to better control water levels and expedite field drainage, enabling us to plant rice on those fields sooner.) Overall, the results of the seminar were outstanding.  Our workforce knew the why for the what that we wanted them to do.  This made all the difference.

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The team at work: (from left to right) drawing guidelines with our homemade rake, flattening the next field, and planting rice.

What we take away from this experience is the necessity to educate field workers.  It may go without saying that farm managers need a higher level of education, but it would appear that even the mundane tasks of planting rice or picking fruit, when properly explained, have potential for increased efficiency and productivity.  Other benefits include the increased knowledge and skills afforded to the workers.  With these invaluable resources, they may be able to both spread these high-efficiency techniques and increase their own marketability.  Finally, who can measure the value of a stronger relationship with the people you work with?  As stated in previous posts, if you take care of your workers, they will take care of your farm.  Showing them respect by offering them education and affirming the complexity of the tasks you ask them to perform will result in a rich harvest of friendship and increased yield.

Addendum:  For those interested in knowing, we pay our workers the legal wage mandated by Thailand.  This is almost twice that of what a typical field laborer makes.  Because our workers finished the work we had for them in two days instead of three, gave them a half-day’s bonus as well.  We share this for the sake of transparency in an industry that is known for taking advantage for its workers.
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