Virginia Tech program plants seeds of innovation for Cambodian rice farmers
By Sara Hendery
To keep hungry rodents from ravaging his rice at night, Cambodian farmer Leng Nget formerly slept in his field. A second farmer, In Soun, spent several backbreaking hours planting seeds by hand at the start of every season.
The farmers’ burdens diminished – and rice production improved – due to their own creative ideas as well as the intervention of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management.
Nget and Soun, like other farmers in Cambodia, where rice is the most important crop, faced obstacles. These included excessive labor, pest damage, poor seed quality, and limited access to agricultural tools. Nget, for example, relied on rodenticides and electric fences to keep rodents at bay, a hazardous system that works reliably only when farmers sleep in their fields for three months.
Enter the IPM Innovation Lab and collaborators at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). The teams introduced Nget to a trap barrier system, which employs plastic barriers and wire traps. The IPM Innovation Lab and IRRI stress the use of such practical tools, along with natural crop solutions that abate the use of synthetic chemicals.
The barrier system produced positive results: Rodent damage dropped from 22 percent to 6 percent. Yields increased by up to 80 percent, with income rising by up to 169 percent. Farmers applied fewer chemicals. Most importantly, Nget was finally able to sleep at home.
Inspired by the original recommended trap, Nget designed a version more affordable for smallholder farmers. His design is compact and uses local materials.
“All I have to do now is check the traps in the morning,” he said, explaining that the extra time allows him to see his family more often and tend to other farm tasks.
One of the goals of the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded IPM program is fostering self-reliance in farmers, which the program helps achieve through trainings, field days, and meetings where farmers can stay up to date on ecological, productive agricultural solutions.
In Soun’s case, the farmer learned of the Eli Rice Seeder, a machine that shoots rice seeds into soil in equally spaced rows, displacing labor-intensive hand planting. Planting in rows makes weeding easier, and using a seeder dramatically cuts down on seed, fertilizer, and labor. Soun’s seed rate dropped as much as three-quarters.
Muni Muniappan, director of the IPM Innovation Lab, explained, “Low inputs lead farmers to purchase more expensive, but higher-quality seeds that garner higher prices at the market. Plus, weeding can be an incredible burden on farmers, so by purchasing clean seeds, farmers plant less weeds.”
Like Nget, Soun improved the process. He commissioned local manufacturers to craft attachments for the seeder, including new wheels and a sprayer to diffuse the IPM Innovation Lab-recommended Trichoderma, a biopesticide.
Soun’s Trichoderma modification cut spraying time by 90 minutes and diminished fungicide sprays to zero. The attachment is placed strategically to allay any skin exposure.
Soun is the first farmer in his village to use a mechanized tractor. Concerns about cost lessened when he attended the IRRI and IPM Innovation Lab-organized trade fair, where he purchased the seeder at a discounted rate. What’s more, his high-quality rice has earned endorsement from buyers, which Buyung Hadi, IRRI representative in Cambodia, says is critical for small-scale farmers.
“My neighbors used to say, ‘Don’t bring that tractor through my field,’ and now they are following what I’m doing,” Soun said.
Both Nget and Soun are not only innovators, but also entrepreneurs. Nget designs and develops compact traps for surrounding communities, while some of Soun’s neighbors pay him to seed their fields.
The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management is housed at the Center for International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs.